THE A-E-I-O-U’S OF ACCESSIBILITY — Y IS FOR YES!

It’s here at last, the final instalment in the series, The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility! It’s bittersweet reaching this point, but more than a sadness at seeing this series come to an end, I’m excited to see where we take it going forward in our lives. I, as much as anyone else, have so much to learn, so much to explore, and I for one, am so excited!

A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y… isn’t that the rhyme we’ve been taught when learning our alphabet? Y’s place on the list of vowels is questionable, but on this list, there’s no argument.

Why.

Because…

Y is for Yes!

I’m not a natural adventurer. I’ve grown into this aspect of my personality and primarily, it’s come through practice and repetition. When faced with “hey Rhianna, do you want to go [camping, spelunking, skydiving, etc, you can fill in the blank], my instinctual response is to say no in favour of staying securely within my comfort zone at home with a cup of coffee, my guide dog and the familiarity of my surroundings.

But I’m learning to say yes. Not always to adventures of the outdoor variety because to be frank, I don’t believe I’ll ever enjoy them. One needs only to ask my ex-boyfriend to find out how grumpy I am on camping trips. But in non-outdoor environments, ones that are designed to grow me as a person and expand the limited perspective I’ve become accustomed to from living inside Rhianna’s brain for 26 years, I’m learning to say yes.

So, when the conversation turns to accessibility, I’m learning to always say yes.

Recently, I was asked if I thought the perception around disability and disabled people in society was improving. Yes, I said, when it came to physical accessibility and the ways in which we can accommodate different bodies; more buildings have wheelchair ramps, there’s more education and resources available on adaptive equipment and the creation of those devices are becoming more widely known and recognized in the non-disabled community.

But I also said no, I didn’t believe it was improving in the places where it counts the most–in the hearts of the people we love and do life with.

When I’m being “helped” across the street against my will, I do not feel trusted as an individual, capable of making safe decisions. When I’m denied access to establishments because I work with a guide dog, I feel discriminated against because of a tool that gives me independence in a way I’ve never had before and that many people take for granted. When a disabled person is praised and viewed as inspiring for being able to use a microwave, we are belittled. When our disabilities make able-bodied people thankful that they aren’t like us, we are pushed to the margins of society.

Until our disabilities are seen as an asset, until we are treated as people, until we are valued as equal members of society and not pushed to the sidelines, we have not grasped the true meaning of acceptance, love and equality.

there is so much work still to be done. And the best way to do this is to say yes.

But how, Rhianna? What do we say yes to? Oh, I’m so glad you asked!

  • Say yes to making the lives of disabled people as fulfilling and lifegiving as possible.
  • Say yes when disabled people need you to cheer them on in the fight against ableism and discrimination.
  • Say yes, I trust you, when disabled people tell you they don’t need help.
  • Say yes, I’ll help you, when a disabled person does reach out for help.
  • Say yes to seeing people with disabilities as people and not broken objects in need of fixing.
  • Say yes to being our allies and not our enemies.
  • Say yes, I see you for you and not what is or is not on the outside.

We are people. And people deserving of the same human dignity, value and love that every human deserves.

But we also have disabilities, and those parts of us are just as valuable, just as worthy and just as in need of love and equality as any other.

Come with me and let’s work to create a world of accessibility, equality, trust and care for every person in it. Because when we make the world a better place for one person, it becomes a better place for everyone.

Well? What do you say?

THE A-E-I-O-U’S OF ACCESSIBILITY — U IS FOR UNITE

Welcome back to The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility, with our fifth post, U Is For Unite.

Unity is a word that I thought existed purely within the confines of a church. Growing up in a Christian household, I heard verses like Colossians 3:14: “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony,” I Corinthians 1:10: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment,” and Philippians 2:2 which says “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” spoken in sermons and Bible studies, and I presumed that it was only a “Christianese” term, or religious jargon.

As a Christian, these verses hold a very special place in my life and in my faith journey. But I’m learning that what I thought of as “church words” have meaning outside of Sunday mornings, too.

Unity is one of those words. And it fits perfectly into the conversation of accessibility and disability equality.

Unite For One Goal

Pop quiz! (Don’t worry, I’m not actually grading you).

What is the goal that this series is trying to achieve?

If you said accessibility, you get a half point. No, you’re not wrong—it’s in the title, after all! But there’s a vital component that’s missing which can fill in the blank and help us gain a fuller picture of how to reach for and achieve accessibility.

This series was born out of and exists to explore ways we as a society can be more accessible, both in a physical context and in our attitudes and beliefs about disability and the people living with disabilities. It’s designed to lay a foundation upon which we can build a more accessible world in which disabled people are valued, prioritized and held as equal.

It hopes to encourage all people, able-bodied and disabled alike, to work together, bring together each person’s unique contributions in pursuit of making our world more accessible for all the people who live in it. Because when the abilities, skills, talents and passions of people come together, working toward a single, unified goal, I believe so much more can be accomplished.

Remember, if you can [I’ve tried to block it out, to be honest] when you were asked to work on a project as part of a team. These encounters were at best frustrating, and at worst, infuriating, in part perhaps because of who I was partnered with but more so because of how divisive the group usually became; one member would work harder than others, one would be late getting their portion in, and the final project would be the opposite of a cohesive team effort. At least I hope your experiences haven’t been like many of mine. But regardless, we’ve all been there.

And whether it turned out positively or negatively, it makes a point that can’t be ignored or undervalued when trying to create an accessible and inclusive world, and it’s the one, undeniable condition that holds us back from reaching it:

We need to work together to make it happen.

Unite As One People

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. / If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. / And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. / If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? / But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. / If all were a single member, where would the body be? / As it is, there are many parts, / yet one body. / The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” / On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, / and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, / which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, / that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. / If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” — I Corinthians 12:14-26

The Apostle Paul wrote these words two thousand years ago, yet, it amazes me how every verse in the Bible can apply to life today in 2022.

Some may find it a bit ironic, but I find it entirely fitting to use a body as the image of unity to talk about people with disabilities.

The body is the perfect image for how people need to come together to achieve accessibility, equality and inclusion. Able-bodied, disabled, people of all different backgrounds and experiences, need to come together and bring their unique gifts and abilities.

I wrote a poem as a teenager which is too cringy to post here, but it was inspired by the Bible passage above. Called “I’m a Hand, What Are You?” I likened myself to a hand because of my skill with the written word, and I asked my readers [who I believe have only ever been my parents], what part you see yourself as and what you bring to the body.

And I’m going to ask the same question now: What do you bring to the fight for accessibility and equality?

Disabled people are still fighting for accessibility and equality in 2022, which means there is clearly something missing. It isn’t that we are incapable or dependent on others, not because of our disabilities, but simply because we are human.

Humans were created to need each other. We were never meant to be alone. That’s why we crave community, friendships, relationships and connection so deeply. It’s a human need that is in each and every one of us, and with so many things that divide us, this is one thing that humans everywhere can understand and share.

More than asking for physical accommodations, we’re asking for relationship. We need allies, people who see our value and are willing to step out of their comfort zones and fight alongside us.

Of course, our goal is to increase accessibility in our communities for people with all kinds of disabilities, but we are also striving to change the attitudes around disability. Don’t you see? The one leads into the other: when people believe disabled people are worth it, making the world accessible for them becomes a value and not an inconvenience or an accommodation.

But this doesn’t mean that there won’t be challenges. It also is not a guarantee of reaching the goal: after all, we are only humans, and humans are immensely flawed creatures, and even working together does not guarantee success. (The Tower of Babel, anyone?] Because really, what do you get when you put a bunch of imperfect humans together?

Life.

Not exactly the best punch line, but true nonetheless.

But challenges and all, I believe the fight is worth it and I believe we can accomplish great things if we work together. I don’t write to further divide able-bodied people from people with disabilities; we are all people, and my deepest hope and passion is to work to close that divide.

But I am only one person and one voice in the fight. Will you help? Will you be an ally and fight for equality with us?

And in the words of a teenaged Rhianna:

“We all have different parts to play
It’s what God wants us to do.
But still one question I have now:
I’m a hand, what are you?”

[CRINGE!]

Well, my friends, there’s one more post in our series. Stay tuned to find out what Y is all about!

INACCESSIBILITY — AN UNFILTERED RANT

I am here for a quick moment, not with a pre-planned, edited post, all nice and filtered to give me a better chance at being listened to. I am not here to offer any deep thoughts or new ideas or suggestions to be a better ally.

I am here to ask one question, and one question alone.

IS IT TOO MUCH TO ASK TO MAKE YOUR WEBSITE ACCESSIBLE IN 2022?

I HAVE planned to do a full, detailed post on one particular organization’s 1: lack of accessibility, and 2: inability to use disabled characters as anything other than inspiration symbols or pity figures, but this is not that post. It DOES however, deal with this organization, and their updated app/website experience.

It’s set to launch on July 18, 2022, but as an exclusive member, I’ve been granted early access. And while I’ve watched all other members loving and raving about the new update, I’ve been up late, almost in tears with my husband over the simple fact that I can’t access it. Their website probably looks great… visually. But it is utter h*ll for blind users, navigating it with a screenreader. Its features are probably so helpful and more detailed to give a better insight into the content… but I wouldn’t know.

I can’t access it.

And after the many months they’ve spent promoting the upcoming, updated experience, I’ve been wondering, “will it be accessible?”

I think I have my answer. I’m remaining slightly hopeful that the official launch will bring about some remnant of accessibility, but since I’ve had access [no pun intended] to the early preview, I highly doubt it.

It infuriates me. It makes me sad. It makes me want to scream, and cry, and wonder how, in 2022, they can produce content that uses disabled people for their inspiration and pity tropes, and not even consider accessibility so that their real-life, flesh-and-blood disabled fans can access that very content.

Are we not worth it?

Okay, I think that was two questions. And I will end with a third, one that I don’t have an answer to at the moment, but maybe someone will share their perspective with me. Here goes:

At what point does someone stop supporting a beloved cause to stand up for their belief and passion in equality and accessibility?

THE A-E-I-O-U’S OF ACCESSIBILITY — O IS FOR OPEN

Welcome, friends, to the fourth post in our series, The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility. Today, I want to share some thoughts with you about what I believe is the key to making the accessible, equal and safe world I dream about into a reality. Let’s chat about change.

Change is not easy. Sometimes, it can be downright terrifying. Even positive changes, like going to college, moving to a new city, getting a job, or starting a family, can be scary as well as exciting.

I held onto my childhood pajamas until they were so threadbare and see-through that my parents had to throw them away without my consent. I was so attached to the blanket I’d had since I was three that I wouldn’t go to college overseas without it [and still won’t sleep without it]. I cried when my mother cut her hair in a different style because I was scared to lose the mother I’d been able to see before I became blind.

But I had to make those changes. And do you know what I found out? Those changes weren’t as scary as I thought. They helped me grow into a better person … and my mom was the same, beautiful, loving mom she’d been before.

It’s the same way with growing and changing your perspective. It’s not about losing who you are, but making room for new things to come in and shape you into a better person.

It can be scary. Very scary sometimes.

But it’s worth it.

But no one can change if they aren’t open to change.

Open The Box

I’ll wager that every person reading this post has, at some point in their life, been told to “think outside the box.”

It’s pretty straightforward, right? It means to think creatively, freely, without limitations, to find solutions to problems that are outside the realm of tradition.

But is it really so straightforward?

Before you answer, I have three questions for you to consider when telling, or being told to think outside the box:

  • What box are you in?
  • What else is in the box with you?
  • And what will it take for you to get out?

As hard as it is to reconcile, our pro-equality, pro-rights society has continued to this day to put people with disabilities in a box. This box has been affixed with different labels at different times; “dependent,” “helpless,” “incapable” “burden,” and “inferior” are a few that come to mind that have been taped to my personal box.

When I’m passed over for a job by someone who is less qualified than I am, but isn’t disabled, my box says, inferior.

When I have to ask friends for rides to events outside of public transit areas, I wear the label burden and worry that they’ll resent me for being needy.

When I am forced into accepting help with a task that I am fully capable of doing on my own, my box says, helpless.

It seems that no matter what I do, my box has a label on it that tells the world I’m disabled and here’s what to do with me.

But I believe there’s another group of people who are in a box, too.

Able-bodied people.

Yes. Able-bodied people.

People who are not disabled.

Their box may not wear the same labels as those with disabilities. And it isn’t up to me to write their labels for them.

But I do have my suspicions. And what I suspect is that people put others in a box because they themselves are in one.

Hands up if you’ve heard the expression, “Hurt people hurt people.” It means that when someone is hurt, they may act in a way that hurts others, even people they love. Maybe we could adapt it. How about:

Boxed people box other people.

Remember the three questions I posed earlier? I want to take a moment and go through them, not to give you the answers, but to help you find the answers for yourself.

What Box Are You In?

Everyone’s box is unique, constructed from a combination of familial influence, experience, choices and a host of other factors. The answer to the question of what box you’re in will depend on your upbringing, your personal experiences, and how those experiences have shaped your worldview, and how you choose to live out your life day to day.

What Is In The Box With You?

Is it a need to feel superior? Is it a need for self-preservation?

Is it fear? Are you afraid that your world view and your place in it will be threatened by allying yourself with people who are different from you?

Maybe it’s pride.

Now hear me out before you click over to another blog.
Everyone has pride, and pride in who you are and what you do is a great thing. But it can be our downfall if we’re not careful; sometimes, pride can tell us that we’re above others who have less, do less, or appear less due to individual circumstances. And sometimes that can make us distant, hesitant to associate, or fearful of the results if we do.

What Will It Take For You To Get Out?

This will be up to you and your box.

All I can do is encourage you to explore a means of escape. Therapists and trained professionals are always a recommendation of mine. The therapist I’ve been seeing for five years has held my hands as I’ve struggled out of countless boxes. It may be an option for you, too.

Or maybe you need a friend.

But no matter what path you take out of the box, I believe the key is being open and willing to go.

Let people help you. Let people teach you. Let others take your hand and guide you. Let those who care about you come alongside you and encourage you every step of the way.

I believe that this is the way forward. To create that accessible world that I, and every other disabled person dream of living in, we have to not only think outside the box, but ditch the box altogether.

Open The Dialogue

But Rhianna, how do we do all this? It’s hard enough to get out of the box, let alone get rid of the entire box.

Yes, it is hard. And in no way do I expect you to do this alone, immediately or without mistakes. That isn’t possible, nor is it right of me to put those demands on anyone. So let me offer one, crucial way for you to get started.

Open the dialogue.

Start the conversation.

And see it through.

Talk to people with disabilities and listen to their stories and experiences. Ask them how they feel. If they tell you about the challenges they face, ask what would be helpful, or not helpful? What would they appreciate able-bodied people doing (or not doing) in interactions with them or in situations like employment, relationships, education, etc?

Talk to them. Talk to us.

Disabled people are the only people who know what it’s like to be disabled. Go to the source and get it straight from those who live it day in and day out.

By this time in the series, I may sound like a broken record to you. Ask, explore, include, and now open, they all lead back to the same, founding principle: people with disabilities are people and deserve the equality, rights, and dignity of every human being.

But I’m not just going to let the record play out.

I’m putting it on repeat.

Change is the only way forward. And being open to that change is the crux.

It’s often said that you can’t help people who don’t want to be helped. It’s true: As much as family and friends encouraged me to seek out mental health counseling and medication, I had to come to that decision on my own and in my own time; for years, I didn’t want to be helped and so I couldn’t be.

I was in a box.

And as soon as I realized it, and felt the effects of the claustrophobic space I’d created for myself, I did something about it. I got myself to counseling and began taking antidepressants.

It took a long time, and hundreds of sessions of therapy (yes, really) before I could see the progress I was making. But I had to be willing to take the steps to make that change.

I had conversations, sometimes hard and hurtful conversations, with friends, family and my therapist. I still have these conversations. But because I knew these people loved me and cared for my well being, I pressed on.

And those dialogues changed my life.

And the dialogues we have about disability will change our lives, too.

But it has to start with being open and willing to have those conversations and the change that will result from them. It will hurt. It will be uncomfortable, and may even cause some pain.

But I’d like to think that you’ll believe it’s worth it.


How can you help to open the box, step outside of it, and close it behind you?

Be sure to check back soon for the next installment! See you there.

THE A-E-I-O-U’S OF ACCESSIBILITY — I IS FOR INCLUDE

Welcome to the third installment of The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility. Today, I wanted to take a few minutes to chat with you about disability and inclusion.

Inclusion is one of those words that, when used too often, starts to lose its true meaning. It’s a little like love—it amazes me how I can say I love my fiancé with the same word I use to describe my feeling towards mint chocolate ice cream. After a while, if we let it, we lose the meaning and understanding of what love is.

And in looking at the world around me and the society I live in that prioritizes things like inclusion, tolerance and equality, I have to wonder if inclusion is starting to lose its impact, too.

But let’s take a step back. What, exactly, is inclusion? And how does inclusion relate to this series’ mission of helping able-bodied people to become allies with people with disabilities?

Include Accessibility in the Foundation

According to Merriam-Webster, include is defined as: “to take in or comprise as a part of a whole or group.”

Did you catch that?

“To take in or comprise as a part of a whole or group.”

Inclusion is not an afterthought. It’s part of the foundation.

While I was in university, I took several literature classes in which my instructors frequented the use of PowerPoint presentations in their lectures. While this didn’t pose a problem as a whole, the images were a challenge (for obvious reasons). In one particular class, to ensure that I didn’t miss out on any of the material, my instructor took it upon themselves to describe each image in their presentation in excruciatingly, vivid detail.

I sat at the front, scrunching down in my chair and wishing for Alice’s ‘drink me’ potion to make me shrink. You could feel it in the room; everyone knew that our instructor was describing the images just for me. And it was awkward.

I applaud my professor for making an effort to be inclusive. What I critique is their method.

I hope that we can all agree that chocolate chip cookies taste more delicious when the chocolate chips are baked into the dough and not merely dropped on top as decoration. When they are an essential ingredient in the making of the dessert, they cannot be added later and yield the same, yummy result.

Accessibility inclusion needs to be given the same treatment. It doesn’t function the way it ought to if it exists as an afterthought. For it to be effective at creating an inclusive experience for people of all abilities, it needs to be at the forefront.

So rather than add awkward, last-minute descriptions for the images in a PowerPoint, write an image description directly in the presentation so that it’s part of the presentation from the start. In doing this, you’ll let us know that you were valuing accessibility inclusion all along, and not simply scrambling to make it work when a disabled student shows up in your class.

Include Disabled People in the Discussion

But there’s a condition when it comes to being inclusive of the disabled community that can’t be overlooked.

Remember how accessibility is like the chocolate chips?

Disabled people are the cookies.

But, let’s look at this from another angle.

How do you think it would go if a cat tried to teach a bird how to fly. “No, not like that. Do it this way.”

What? Am I crazy? Maybe.

But maybe I’m eluding to a thread that is woven into the fabric of our society that frankly, needs to be cut out entirely.

I’m sorry to be blunt, [but what else is new, right?] Non-disabled people are very fond of telling disabled people how to handle their disabilities, without having any felt experience or knowledge of what it’s like to live with a disability.

And it needs to stop.

It happens in practical situations, when assistive technology organizations run by non-disabled people claim to know what equipment will best fit our individual needs, though we definitively tell them otherwise.

It happens in everyday conversations, when a disabled person is told not to be entitled when requesting accommodations to make something accessible.

It happens on a societal level, when changes are brought in that directly impact the lives of people with disabilities, but those people aren’t consulted or asked if the changes would even be of help.

A cat cannot teach a bird to fly since the cat itself cannot fly.

And a non-disabled person, well-meaning though they may be, cannot tell a disabled person how to best handle challenges that come with their disability because they themselves are not disabled.

Now, this isn’t to say that non-disabled people cannot offer suggestions, raise concerns or questions, or contribute in the greater discussion around disability and inclusion. It doesn’t mean that disabled people are never asked for their opinions, views or feedback on accessibility features or projects. It doesn’t mean that every non-disabled person is doing it wrong.

But what it does mean is that the voices of those in the disability community need to be the ones we go to first. We need to hear them out because issues of accessibility and equality directly impact their lives more than any other. We need them to explain what is helpful and what isn’t, and believe them when they do.

In the apartment building without an elevator, it isn’t the able-bodied person that will be most impacted if the elevator isn’t put in—it’s the person who uses a wheelchair, or the person with chronic fatigue syndrome, or the people with any number of conditions for whom elevators are essential to ensuring accessibility, equality and inclusion.

This is why the world needs to include the people who live with disabilities in the discussion from the get-go. We need to listen to their perspectives, validate their experiences and work to formulate a society that values inclusion as an essential aspect of our lives.

Because inclusion is a value, not about the practical considerations of buildings or university lectures, but a statement about the value of the people it impacts.


Chocolate chip cookies and cats… a post of widely varying analogies, but I hope you grasped my meaning.

Being inclusive isn’t a matter of simply not being left out. It’s a part of the foundation of the world we live in, or, to be more precise, the world I want to live in.

How have you seen people, businesses, and the world around you, be inclusive of people with disabilities? What have they done well? How could they improve? Let me know in the comments.

Be sure to stick around for the next post in the series!

THE A-E-I-O-U’S OF ACCESSIBILITY — E IS FOR EXPLORE

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but seeing with new eyes.” — Marcel Proust

Welcome to the second installment of The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility, a series where I’m exploring a few of the fundamental ways able-bodied people can become allies with their disabled friends, families and communities and create a world that is equal and accessible for all.

In the first post, I put forward the thought that asking is the only means of getting answers. But, this process is three-fold:

If we never ask, we’ll never know the answer.

If we never know, we’ll never learn.

And if we never learn, we’ll never change.

Explore Other Perspectives

I’m as at fault as anyone else—I am a comfort seeker. Staying tucked inside my comfort zone, which usually consists of coffee, a onesie and radio drama, is easy and non-threatening. It’s safe.

But it’s also contributing to the problem.

It keeps me in my own world view, and it keeps me from exploring other perspectives, learning from them and being an ally with my friends in the disability community.

I am one person with one disability. I’m blind. But I don’t even know what it’s like to be blind—I know only what it’s like to be Rhianna, who is blind. Yes, I can offer insight into ways the sighted world can accommodate and how particular views are damaging and how to remedy them, but it’s filtered through my unique set of experiences and beliefs.

But what about the experiences of the other 1.5 million Canadians with vision loss? How about the 26% of Americans who identify as living with a disability?

What do they have to say about these issues? Isn’t it time we find out?

Behind every person with a disability is a story. And for many, it can be quite a painful one. Disabilities happen for a multitude of reasons—genetic conditions, medical crises, tragic accidents, attempted suicide and more—and not every person is comfortable sharing the details. (So side note: please do not stare at us on the city bus and say, “Were you born like that?” We, or at least I, will not answer you).

Every experience shapes how we move through the world and where we choose to put our energy. Because of what I have personally experienced, I choose to advocate for ways able-bodied people can begin to see disabled people as equal, and treat them as such.

But other disabled people have their own drives, their own ambitions and their own passions. And sometimes, it isn’t in the realm of disability advocacy at all. And to anyone reading this who isn’t making disability rights their full-time passion project, I don’t want you to feel bad—not every disabled person is called to this, and I want you to use your talents and abilities in whatever capacity you wish.

But many persons with disabilities do feel called to make a change because we know how it feels to be disadvantaged, discriminated against, and undervalued. I am, but it took years for me to come to terms with that. Now I can’t keep quiet!

Each individual person, because of their individual experiences, beliefs and values, have a unique perspective on living with a disability, and that perspective needs to be heard, validated and viewed as an important contribution in shaping the world’s perception of disability.

And making progress toward equality between able-bodied and disabled people starts with the founding belief that people are people, no matter their physical, mental or emotional abilities. And the only way to learn about these is to ask and to listen.

It goes hand-in-hand: We ask, we listen, we learn.

Explore Available Resources

But there’s more to making a change than a paradigm shift. There are practical solutions that can be learned, implemented and go a long way to creating that equal, accessible world.

More than I complain about how the braille on the elevator buttons in my fiancé’s apartment aren’t even accurate, I lament about the lack of knowledge, and willingness to learn, of many able-bodied people regarding those with disabilities. I’m scolded and told that I can’t blame people for not knowing what they don’t know. And while I believe this to a certain extent, I also maintain that every person has a level of humanitarian responsibility to be educated about the world around them and the people in it.

When I’m told that people don’t know how I can be independent or complete tasks like attending school or cooking, my immediate reply (which thankfully doesn’t often make it out of my mouth) is, “It’s the 21st-century. Of course we can do that.”

But I also acknowledge the need for education. Just as disabled people aren’t always called to devote their lives to disability rights issues, not every able-bodied person has the resources to educate themselves. I don’t expect anyone to know the names of the assistive technology organizations or the equipment available, but I do expect and hope that people would give us the benefit of the doubt; in an age where we rely on a device the size of a deck of cards for directions, medical information, world news, financial services and virtually everything else, you have to believe there’s a way for someone with a disability to do it, just like anyone else.

So, in the spirit of educating and sharing resources, here are just some of the programs, courses and resources that I have taken advantage of in my personal life (and there are plenty more for blindness and people with all different disabilities):

  • CNIB [Canadian National Institute for the Blind] — A leading source of information and programs to assist Canadians with visual impairments
  • CELA Library [Centre for Equitable Library Access] – Providing books in accessible format for Canadians with print disabilities
  • PRCVI [Provincial Resource Centre for the Visually Impaired] – Providing services that ensure equal access for students with visual impairments
  • Canadian Assistive Technology – Retailer of adaptive equipment for blind and low vision consumers
  • WorkBC – Persons with Disabilities – Providing supports for disabled British Columbians to secure employment

Just look around, and you’ll find plenty of resources to empower people with disabilities. After all, it is the 21st-century, and if there are YouTube videos on cats flushing a toilet, there are certainly programs, courses, therapies, organizations, technology and so much more to assist disabled people with every challenge that comes.

Will you help? Will you believe that we’re capable until told otherwise? Will you take a minute to explore the world around you, listen to a different perspective, explore what resources are available for people with disabilities, and how you can get involved and become that ally we need you to be?

Let me know your experiences in the comments. What resources have you used? How has listening to someone’s perspective changed how you perceive disability?

Make sure to follow the blog and stay tuned for the next post in the series!

THE A-E-I-O-U’S OF ACCESSIBILITY — A IS FOR ASK

Welcome to a new mini-series on the blog, The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility.

I’ve started this series because I want to delve into a few of the fundamental ways the able-bodied community can begin to help build an equal and accessible world for people of all abilities. So often, it can feel as though the disabled community is fighting this battle alone,, without the support of our able-bodied allies.

But sometimes, I think it’s because they just don’t know where to start.

That’s what I want to do in this series, give you five ways to start and to become that ally.

But why did I choose to use vowels?

Because in an alphabet of 26 letters, there are only five vowels—five vowels that are essential to the mechanics of communication. They are woven into the very fabric of language, and I cannot think of a single, English word without one.

Likewise, I believe that this series discusses things that are essential to the building of that equal and accessible world that I want to live in, and that we can only make happen together.

So let’s jump right in, with the first installment in our series: A Is For Ask.

Ask Because You Care

Be honest with me for a minute: When the cashier says, “how are you doing today?” do you return the question, and mean it?

I know I don’t. At least not as often as I’d like to. I’m usually in too much of a rush, feeling tired, or just “not in the mood to human today.” And I always leave feeling a little guilty.

Could I not have taken five seconds out of my day to ask another person how they’re doing? How much energy would I really have expended caring about their answer?

Definitely not enough to complain about.

But already, I’m sure some of you may be thinking, “But Rhianna, it’s just being polite. They don’t want to hear your life story.”

And you’d be right on both counts. Often times, it is simply out of respect that the “how are you” is asked, and most people don’t want to hear every detail of a stranger’s day.

But what do we do about the one person that needs to be heard? Who needs to be asked? Who needs to feel like someone cares about them? And since we don’t know who that person is, isn’t it our responsibility to give each person we encounter that opportunity?

Now, by saying this, I’m not implying that we need to ask every passerby on the street how they’re doing and dive into a detailed analysis of their personal life. Nor am I insinuating that we must speak to every person to care about them. Caring goes far beyond just verbal; opening doors for someone with their hands full, standing on the bus to let the elderly lady sit down, or simply giving a smile as you pass by can go a long way to show someone you care in one simple act of kindness.

Or simply being… yourself.

I remember, during my last year of university, I became utterly exhausted of the insincerity of the “how are you” exchange. I could almost taste the practiced, automatic question and answers, and I wanted to change it. Since I couldn’t force anyone else to be genuine in their answers, I committed to being more honest in mine.

I was always the first student to arrive for my History of the English Language class, and Jeremy was always next. When he entered and said, “Morning Rhianna, how are you today?” I took a breath.

“I’m…” I paused. “I just am today.” I sighed. It was a tough morning and I was overloaded by everything I had to get done. “How are you doing?”

Jeremy’s reply surprised me. “I just am, too.” His voice sounded tired, a stark difference from his cheerful good morning.

“I know,” I said quietly. “We’ll make it.”

That’s the only conversation I had with Jeremy throughout my four-year degree and dozens of shared English literature classes together. But to this day, I can’t help but wonder if, because I dared to be genuine in my answer—even though it wasn’t the most optimistic answer—it gave him permission to drop the “fine” facade and be genuine himself.

I wonder if he could tell that I cared.

After all, Jeremy was a person with a story that, whether I knew its content or not, was worthwhile and valuable. If I could show that I cared about him in one simple exchange, then for me, it was worth it.

If we don’t take the time to ask, we’ll never know the answer. And they’ll never know we cared.

Ask Because You Believe

If we never ask the question, we’ll never get the answer.

But what do we do when we get that answer, especially if the answer isn’t something we want to hear?

It saddens me to say that what I’m about to describe is not an uncommon occurrence in my life and in the lives of many other disabled individuals. Living with a disability comes with numerous challenges that are just par for the course—limited access to gainful employment, denied access to public establishments because of a service dog, adaptive equipment that’s too expensive for the majority to purchase, attitudes that treat us as inferior, and much more. But there’s one that hurts more than any of the others, because it cuts straight to the core of who I am.

And that is when my lived experience of disability is not believed.

When confronted with the sometimes negative reality of my life with a disability, I’ve heard a range of responses:

“We have good intentions.”
“You can’t blame us for not knowing.”
“You should just be grateful for what you have.”
“Why is it such a big deal?”

Why is it such a big deal?

This is why:

Because a response like this doesn’t dismiss the practical struggles of the disability, but it dismisses the real, raw struggles of the disabled person.

Why ask a question if you’re unwilling to accept the answer? Why take the time to invest in our stories if your response invalidates what we’ve shared? Why ask about the challenges we face with systemic inequality and discrimination if you’re going to defend the actions of the ones who discriminate against us?

This, my friends, is why it’s a big deal. And it’s also why I’ll keep making it a big deal. Because I’m not talking only about accommodations or adaptations or a theory to be debated.

I’m talking about the lives of people you love—your neighbours, your friends, your families.

It’s our lives.

It’s my life.

And you can’t guarantee that it will never be yours, either.

If we don’t take the time to ask, we’ll never know the answer. And they’ll never know we cared.

And if you never take the time to listen, we’ll never know you heard us.

And we’ll never make progress toward equality and accessibility. That will only happen once we stop segregating the able-bodied from the disabled and start asking, “What can we do to make this a better world for all of us?”

HOW AN ACCESSIBLE WORLD FEELS AND WHY I’LL NEVER STOP ADVOCATING FOR ONE

In this post, I discussed why accessibility is an absolute necessity for people living with disabilities.

Today, as National Accessibility Week draws to a close, I want to highlight the personal impact accessibility has had on my life. In reading this, I hope you will take away a sense of what a lack of accessibility feels like, and resolve to join hands with your disabled friends and family to help change it.

In January of 2019, I attended class at Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Michigan, to receive my first guide dog, Cricket. Classes at LDB are three and a half weeks of intensive, on-campus training. And as I was a first-time handler, never having even owned or cared for a pet dog let alone the completely new territory of one being my guide, I knew these weeks would be crucial.

Our days were spent rising at 6:30 for park time (the term LDB uses for relieving the dogs), feeding and watering our guides, and ending with the last park at 8:00. In between, were sessions both indoors and outdoors, practicing a variety of techniques on different routes in Rochester Hills and on school property. I learned how to direct Cricket safely across a busy intersection, how to navigate stores and malls, what commands Cricket was taught and how to correct him when he disobeyed. I had been sent guidework training material ahead of time which helped me prepare me for the experience, but nothing compared to the thrill and the stress of walking, hand on harness, with my guide dog independently.

It was a fast-paced time, and I got to know my three teammates Very. Well. More than once, they offered me tight hugs because I burst into frustrated tears in the middle of the mall, wondering if I would ever get the hang of guidework.

Training was exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating and empowering. I needed all the energy I could muster to make it through the experience and retain the information I learned. And I remember how it struck me upon arrival and continually throughout my stay at the school, how I was able to concentrate solely on my relationship with Cricket because of one thing.

Accessibility.

It should follow logically that, in being a school that trains both guide dogs and the handlers who receive them to be independent, Leader Dogs would be fully accessible to those with visual impairments. Yet, I still found myself awed by just how much independence they offered me.
And I realized just how much weight I’d been carrying on my own.

The example I most love to describe to my friends and family at home is the coffee machine. It sat on a table near the entrance to the RA’s office at the intersection of the Rochester and Avon hallways. And it was a popular spot. The coffee, I mean!

Beside each button was a brailled label with the name of the corresponding drink. I’m not a coffee person per se, but I made regular use of the cappuccino button! The rows of buttons and drink options seemed endless, and I wondered how long it would take me to memorize the order. But I didn’t have to.
Nor did I have to memorize where the cups, lids, sugar packets, creamers or tea bags were. Each basket that held these items were also labelled in braille and stayed in their place to the left of the coffee machine, easy to find whenever the craving struck.

I’m a coffee person, but my body doesn’t appreciate it as much. But while I was there, I visited the coffee station frequently, not only because I loved indulging in a drink that I didn’t buy often at home, but simply because I could.
I could grab a coffee whenever I wanted. Other than in my own kitchen, I’ve never experienced that anywhere. If I’m out, a sighted person is often assisting me with selecting a drink from a menu that isn’t accessible, or making it for me since I don’t know where they keep their mugs and coffee pot. Relying on others has become a norm for certain things in my life, something that I’ve resigned myself to accept.
But until I tasted this freedom, I hadn’t realized just how inaccessible, and unwilling to change, the world around me truly was. But here, I was valued, I was treated equal and meeting my needs wasn’t a nice thing to do–it was the right thing to do.

Accessibility was all over Leader Dogs for the Blind and it vibrated throughout the building and the program just how highly they prioritized it.
At the intersection between the Rochester and Avon hallways, tactile markers were set out on the floor so that I could distinguish by the texture when I was approaching the triangle. Along the hallways were handrails, and at varying intervals, my fingers would find a knob protruding from the underside of the rail. That knob was an indicator to lift my hand straight up to just above the rail where I’d find a sign with the name of the room directly across the hall from where I stood, in braille. And next to each door, there again was a sign with the room name to ensure that it was clear where you were.

In our rooms, a brailled schedule was fastened to the backside of the door, with the daily times for parking, feeding, watering and mealtimes listed for clients to check what was coming up next. Each room, and many of the common areas, were equipped with an Amazon Alexa, which made checking weather conditions, setting alarms for wake up, parking and feeding times as easy as ever. The dining room was set with several tables, with about eight or ten chairs around each for the teams and their instructors to enjoy meals together. to the back of each chair was adhered a braille number so that we could easily identify our assigned seat. I was #7.

It was completely accessible. And the freedom of it almost brought me to tears.

For a few weeks, I didn’t have to compensate for my lack of vision. I didn’t have to make justifications for the lack of accessibility all around me; “It’s too complicated, too expensive, too time-consuming, to make X-Y-Z accessible. It’s okay.” [For the record, it is not okay!] I didn’t have to ask for help nearly as often as I did at home or out in my community where things were constantly changing and making it difficult to be independent.

I was given a break. I could just be me, and I could rest. I didn’t have to work so hard just to exist. The world was finally catering to my needs rather than the other way around.

Three and a half weeks later, when I returned to Canada from training with my new, handsome, Cricket guiding me, I mourned the loss of that independence. I felt as though a part of me had been stripped and left at Leader Dogs for the Blind. I was back to the “real world,” the one in which I had to compensate for my blindness and never expect the world to meet me halfway. I was exhausted before I got off the plane.

Friends, this is why accessibility is so important. It isn’t a luxury. It isn’t disabled people being entitled or selfish or asking too much.

It’s realizing that disabled people are equal and valuable, and although our needs are unique, meeting them isn’t optional. It’s necessary to better the world and make it more inclusive for all of its people.