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.

ON ACCESSIBILITY — IT’S JUST THE RIGHT THING TO DO

Accessibility is near and dear to the hearts of many a person with a disability.

Why?

Because for me, it’s how the world tells me, “Hey Rhianna, we value you. You are important. We value your contributions to society as a person, and we want you to know that you matter.”

But unfortunately, this isn’t always the message that I receive.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this:

After moving to a new city in early 2021, I was in search of a family doctor. I happened upon one practice in my neighbourhood and they had an application for prospective patients to complete. When I called the clinic to enquire if they had an electronic version that they could send to me, the receptionist rudely informed me that the application is only available in hard copy print and in no way could they provide an alternative format. My only option was to have a sighted friend fill it out for me. Having no other choice, I did just that.
My landlady picked up the form, and before leaving the office, asked that same receptionist about their policy of no electronic documents.
“We cannot provide electronic forms due to the possibility that someone may copy it for their own purposes,” came the clipped reply.
“Like they can’t do that with a photocopier,” my landlady said as she walked out with the printed application.
Needless to say, I never returned the form to that practice, resolving to find one that prioritized their patients’ needs above their convenience.

Yes—I said convenience. Because the truth is that it is often more a matter of convenience rather than an inability to accommodate.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a perfect example. When it became unsafe to attend medical appointments in person, and appointments went to virtual platforms, I breathed a tentative sigh of relief. On one hand, previously inconvenient obligations were now made easier and more accessible as I didn’t have to arrange rides to and from the clinics, spend money for the time and transportation, and I was able to handle my affairs independently. But on the other hand, a question was niggling at me, and the friends in whom I confided in, were also wrestling with this question.

Why did the change that disabled people had been lobbying for only come about when it became an inconvenience for the able-bodied? How come, when the world was thrown into unprecedented chaos, could we so quickly adapt to alternative means of living, yet, it was too inconvenient or “not available at this time” when a disable person asked for it before?

Was the voice of the non-disabled truly that much more valued than that of the disabled?

Let me tell you another story, thankfully one with a happier ending. I do not want this post to be all doom-and-gloom because there are people and businesses out there that do prioritize accessibility and the people who live with disabilities. It’s just sadly, the rarity.

It was November 2020, and I was sitting on the guest bed at a friend’s house, dialing the number for the walk-in clinic to ask for a prescription for antidepressant medication. When the receptionist answered, I launched into my explanation, undoubtedly a defensive tone to my voice: “I’m calling because I’m fully blind and use a screenreader on my laptop, but I wasn’t able to do the booking online as you requested. But I really need this medication for my depression and I was wondering if I could book a doctor’s appointment through you, please?” I waited, a bundle of nerves in the bottom of my belly.
“Of course. I’m sorry that the website was not accessible for you. Let me connect you with one of our nurses who will help you complete the mental health questionnaire for the doctor.”
I was astounded. Did they just accommodate my blindness without so much as a blink? I wasn’t reprimanded for going against their written request to book online only. I never once felt like a waste of time, or an inconvenience. I was heard, accepted, and treated like a valued individual.

How different are those two experiences? Where one wasn’t willing to think outside the box and offer their best service to a potential patient, the other was willing to recognize where their system was lacking and remedy that the best they could in the interest of getting me the help I needed. Where I felt excluded and devalued by the first practice, the second overwhelmed me; they cared about me, and I don’t know if any able-bodied person can truly understand how amazing this feeling is.

The problem is that it shouldn’t feel amazing. It should feel normal.

That’s what it comes down to. Accessibility is more than a laundry list of physical adaptations to be made in order to appease the disabled person. It’s making the world accessible for every person that lives in it, ensuring we know that you see us as valuable and equal.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a few suggestions for those physical accommodations I mentioned, as, making a space, digital or physical, a welcoming and inclusive one for all, is a vital part in the wellbeing of
Let’s consider a few scenarios and how you can work to improve:

• Your website isn’t accessible for screenreader users? Hire an accessibility tester to offer feedback on ways you can improve.

• Are your virtual presentations audio-only? Provide closed captions for those that may be hard-of-hearing.

• Do you post lots of photos on your social media? Write an alt text [alternate text] description of the photo so that your visually impaired followers know what the photo is.

• Do your clients need to complete forms or paperwork for your services? Offer them the option to fill it out online or in an electronic document so that their personal information (like medical records, and identification) can be disclosed privately without a third-party.

There are countless ways to be more inclusive and accessible to someone with a disability, and so often, it’s simple and easy to incorporate into your business plan or process.
But the simplest, and best, thing to do for accessibility?

Ask.

If you want to know if your business is accessible, reach out to the disability community for input. Trust me: we won’t berate you for not already being accessible; we’re just grateful that you value us enough as people and as consumers to make your business accessible for us.

This article, “7 Reasons Accessibility is Good for Business” sums it up well in their 7th point: “The previous 6 reasons all amount to one main one: building sites and apps that are accessible is just the right thing to do! Just like you would hold open the door for your elderly neighbor who has trouble walking, you’d want to extend that same courtesy to everyone who wishes to enter your digital environment.
And this doesn’t even have to be for ethical/moral reasons – even if business outcomes are your number one priority, you’d naturally want as many users and/or customers as possible. Preventing people from purchasing your products or using your services would be the near equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.”

I am a person who, day in and day out, lives on the cusp of accessibility; every time I visit a website, download an app, or walk through the door of a brick-and-mortar store, I don’t know if I’ll be facing a welcoming and accommodating space, or one where I have to fight for what the able-bodied take for granted. When I visit a doctor’s office, will I be able to independently fill out my medical information or be subjected to share it with a third-party because they only have a printed form? Will the cashier at Walmart address me as my own person, or direct all conversation to the able-bodied friend that I’m shopping with because they don’t realize that I’m 25 and don’t need someone to speak for me?

Accessibility isn’t an inconvenience. It’s a necessity. Don’t do it just because I’m asking you to. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. Do it to show that you love and value your disabled friends and neighbours.

Do it to make this world a better one for all of us.