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 very 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?”