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.

WHY I WAS AFRAID TO WRITE BLIND CHARACTERS AND WHY I’M NOT AFRAID ANYMORE

On April 6, 2020, beloved Canadian children’s author, Jean Little, passed away at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy of love and best sellers, including Mine For Keeps Hand in Hand, Dancing Through the Snow and From Anna.

But having been wrapped up in earning my English degree, training with my first guide dog, moving cities and of course, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, I’d lost touch with many of my beloved childhood authors and their books—like Jean Little. For two years after graduating university, I couldn’t pick up a book; my brain was so spent from four years of literary analyses and creative writing portfolios that I couldn’t enjoy the act of reading.
But with the announcement of Little’s passing and all the fond memories that flooded back with it, I resolved to re-acquaint myself with her books.

My favourite as a kid was From Anna. My TVI (Teacher of the Visually Impaired) had embossed a braille copy for me, and I kept the volumes next to my bed within easy reach for late-night reading sprees. The dots wore down, and the pages adopted a permanent curve from leaning against the wall on an angle, but that just speaks to how much I loved this book.
And I wasn’t the only one. This tribute to Jean counts From Anna among her most cherished works.

It was a few weeks ago now that I read Forward, Shakespeare!, a story that follows a young dog called Shakespeare as he trains at The Seeing Eye to become a guide dog, and is matched with a teenaged boy named Tim who wants nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare or his blindness. I was captivated by this book, reading it front to back in one night; it’s masterfully written, engaging and is an accurate representation of the lifestyle of working with a guide dog. Jean herself received her guide dogs from this same school.

But as I laid awake, long after I’d turned the final page, I was struck by such an overwhelming feeling that it took me many nights to process what it truly was.

It was that near indescribable feeling of being known. Of being understood and validated and accepted for who you are and where you are in your story.

I was just like Tim.
As a teenager, and even in my early twenties, I felt the same things as Tim—I was angry, guarded, bitter and unwilling to accept the circumstances of my blindness as they were. I had closed myself off and wouldn’t let anyone help me. But somehow, in the pages of one children’s book, I found a friend. I met someone who understood me and my story, someone who wasn’t ashamed to feel what they felt, even though others might wish that he would just let it go and move on. Through Tim, Jean Little said, “I understand you, Rhianna, and it’s okay.”

But as wonderful as it felt to be understood and “gotten” by this one character, it is the very thing I resolved never to do in my own books.

Follow this blog for any length of time and you’ll become very familiar with my fear of being known only by my blindness. With God’s help, I’m overcoming this fear—this blog itself is a testament to that—yet, it still lingers in the corners of my mind with each post that I publish. And when plotting and outlining for future books, I kept to this one, non-negotiable rule:

No. Blind. Characters.

If I wrote a character with a visual impairment, I was driving the final nail into the identity coffin—there would be no chance of shaking the dreaded “blind writer” label after that. After all, other disabled authors are only known by their disability.

Right?

Wrong.

While Jean Little was blind, worked with guide dogs and wrote books about children with varying disabilities, she isn’t remembered because of her blindness.

She’s remembered for who she was and how her books changed lives. Though her characters were primarily children with disabilities, that isn’t what endears her books to our hearts. It’s the humanity that those characters bring. It’s “her ability to see the truth within her characters, and her willingness to follow wherever they [choose] to take her and her readers.” It’s in the heart of characters like Tim which give readers like me a way to feel known and loved.

You can imagine my surprise then, when I realized that the outline for my current novel contains a blind character, guide dog and all! I hadn’t even realized what I’d done.
I, a blind writer, would write a book with a blind character. Or shall I be more precise and say, I will write a book with a blind character.

And that’s okay. In fact, it’s great!

Besides, who better to write a blind character than an author who “gets” it? I think that’s why Tim meant so much to me, because I knew that through him, Jean Little got me, too.

And so, I’ve resolved to change my resolve.

If Jean Little could do it, I can do it. If she could fearlessly write characters with visual impairments and be confident in herself as a writer and as a blind woman, then maybe I can, too.

And if Tim, a blind character in a children’s story could be someone that I saw myself in and in so doing, see a way out of the darkness we both experienced, I think it’s time I become a rule breaker.

It’s time to embrace who I am, both as a blind woman and as a writer.

Thank you Jean Little… you are dearly missed, but your books will live on and continue to make a difference in peoples’ lives. Like they have in mine.