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The 2020 National Federation of the Blind Convention: Tune In Today!

The 80th convention of the National Federation of the Blind is now underway! This year, for the first time, I am participating in the entire convention from my living room, along with more than 7,000 other attendees from around the world.

Today, July 17, we will have a special treat. At approximately 2:30 p.m. Eastern, NFB President Mark Riccobono will be speaking live with U.S. House speaker Nancy Pelosi!

Tune in to this and other live sessions today and tomorrow to learn about new developments in blindness-related technology, education and employment initiatives, and other happenings of the organized blind in the United States!

For full details on the many ways to stream the convention live, just go to:

The NFB convention webpage

From Forced Compliance to Mutual Respect: Examining Policing and Special Education

CW: police brutality, abuse, forced compliance.

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“I was a cop for 30 years, about half of that working Custody. Excluding those under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it was my experience that if you treat people like people the majority will act reasonably, and if they don’t you can change your approach. However if you treat people like animals they will more often than not act like animals.” Anonymized Facebook comment.

“We can no longer be spectators. We MUST be a voice for children. We can do better. Compliance should never be the goal. We need to bring the humanity back into our classrooms.” Greg Santucci, Occupational Therapist

George Floyd lost his life over a $20 bill. Rayshard Brooks lost his life because he fell asleep in the car at a Wendy’s drive-through. Elijah McClain lost his life because someone thought he looked “sketchy” as he was walking home.

Three Black men who all died at the hands of police because they didn’t immediately comply with arrest.

I read these stories, and then I read about what happens to disabled children in American schools, and I see many disturbing parallels.

Each year, thousands of children are legally subjected to physical restraints, or secluded in locked spaces separate from their peers. Many of these kids are disabled. Restraints and seclusion can inflict severe emotional and physical trauma, and can lead to injury or death.

Some people justify police brutality by saying the cops had no choice, the victims were resisting arrest. And people justify restraint and seclusion in the same way. The educators had no choice, they say, because the child had become an immediate threat to themselves or others.

But it is important to note that we only see the ending of the story. We miss the series of escalations and counter-escalations that lead to a police officer wrestling a man to the ground, or the events leading up to a teacher restraining a student. But sometimes we get glimpses of the beginning or the middle of the story. And the theme that often stands out to me is how a person in authority chooses to react to a relatively harmless initial act of noncompliance.

This week, I read about two harrowing incidents involving disabled children. In the first instance, a little girl did not want to join her class in the daily “morning meeting.” When she refused to “do the weather” as expected for this classroom activity, an educator tried to physically force her, then taunted her by repeating “Do the weather. Do the weather. Do the weather” (as if at a séance) until she finally, tearfully complied. In the second instance, a little boy did not want to transition from outdoor playground time to indoor occupational therapy. So, the educator threatened to cover his eyes with a hat unless he agreed to come in from the playground, repeatedly asking, “Do you want the hat? Do you want the hat?” until he broke down and went inside. In both incidents, the educators justified their bullying behavior by appealing to principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). They insisted that they could not “reward” noncompliance. In fact, in the place where the hat incident occurred, many of the staff carried hats with them and habitually used the “hat trick” to frighten children into complying with demands.

In both cases, there was an obvious peaceful solution. The little girl could have gone outside on a walk to learn about the weather. The little boy could have had his occupational therapy session out on the playground. Both solutions would have respected the needs communicated by the children, and met the pedagogical goals of the adults, with much less hassle for all. But instead, these educators made a conscious choice to assert their power above all else. Both students complied eventually. But what could have happened if they didn’t comply? It gives me chills to think about it.

In the discussion I saw on Facebook about these incidents, some people argued that these educators were just bad apples. The principles of ABA are sound, they said. And this is similar to discussions of police brutality and racism. Some folks say there are just some racist cops who need to be removed or retrained.

I disagree. I don’t think we can address pervasive, deadly issues like these just by retraining. We need to consider the ideological flaws in both the policing and the special-education systems that allow these incidents to occur.

In my mind, there are two main ideological flaws that must be addressed. The first is the “law and order” idea that compliance must be prioritized over respect for persons. The second is a series of biases that cause people in authority to see certain groups of people as requiring authoritarian control. It is the biased belief that Blacks are dangerous and that any resistance on their part must be criminally motivated. And it is the biased belief that neurodivergent children are noncompliant on purpose and that their behavior must be shaped with methods that resemble dog training. We need to address the dehumanizing prejudices that cause situations to become escalated in the first place.

What could have happened if the cops listened when George Floyd said he couldn’t breathe? When Rayshard Brooks asked to walk over to his sister’s house and rest there until he was able to safely drive home? Or when Elijah McClain said words that ring true to many of us disabled folk: “I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry….I don’t do any fighting.”

What if the cops had made time and space to listen, like the occupational therapist who agreed to do his session outside, no problem.

I don’t have the magic solutions here. These are deep systemic problems that cannot possibly be resolved in a blog post. But I would urge all of us to consider the values and the prejudices we hold in our interactions with others, especially interactions where we hold authority. Because most adults will hold authority of some kind in at least one of our important relationships. I would challenge all of us to make an extra effort to humanize and respect the individuals who are our subordinates. Because I am of the firm belief that respect must be given before it can be received. This fact has revealed itself to me time and time again, in my professional and personal life, and in my attempts to analyze current events from a social-psychological lens. Perhaps if we can all keep this simple concept of mutual respect in mind, we can collectively foster a culture where everyone’s full humanity is celebrated.

Five Accessibility Problems Plaguing Websites [Guest Post]

The following guest post comes from Reina Grosvalet. Reina is a Web accessibility compliance specialist and the owner of Waldorf PC. This article is a little on the technical side, but I think it might offer a good overview of common issues to consider when building websites to ensure they are accessible to all visitors. You can check out Reina’s LinkedIn profile here:

Five Accessibility Problems Plaguing Websites

In our modern age, technology is everything. Because of this, most businesses are now conducting transactions online for added ease and convenience for customers and companies alike. With just a few clicks of a button, we can have groceries and food delivered to our homes, and we can purchase any goods or services that we want or need. These modern conveniences are not easy for everyone to enjoy, especially individuals with disabilities. Accessibility barriers can make even the simplest tasks laborious and frustrating. Sometimes, tasks can even be impossible to complete. If you want to make inclusion your mission and ensure that you reach the largest customer audience possible, it will be advantageous for you to work hard to avoid these top five web accessibility problems.

  1. Lack of Labeling

One most common problem as it concerns accessibility is lack of labeling. What this means is that links, form fields and buttons do not have programmatic text that provides a proper description of these elements. This presents a significant problem because those using screen readers will not know what to input into form fields, and they will not know the function that unlabeled buttons and links will serve. Individuals using Voice dictation software to compensate for a motor impairment will also not be able to interact with webpages where there  are unlabeled form fields, buttons and links because the voice dictation software will not be able to make sense of these elements. In order to avoid this particular accessibility problem, it is essential that programmatic levels are associated with all form fields, buttons and links. Additionally, visual labels need to be positioned to the right of each form field so users with low vision will know which of these elements they are interacting with as well as where to input specific information

2. Images without Descriptions

Another accessibility problem that is frequently encountered are images that do not have descriptive text associated with them which will enable blind and low vision users to understand what these images are. Without descriptive text, blind and low vision users can miss out on the meaning of content , which may cause significant difficulty with making an informed decision. Since pictures enhance the written content on a webpage and help to tell part of the story, text descriptions need to be added to these pictures so that blind and low vision users will have full access to the same content. Descriptions can be added by providing a brief but concise explanation of images inside of the alt tag.

3. Keyboard Accessibility

Another common accessibility problem that is often encountered is lack of keyboard accessibility. What this means is that elements are programmed so that they can only be interacted with by using a mouse and not a keyboard. When keyboard accessibility is lacking, screen reader users and users with motor impairments cannot interact with these elements. What this means for these user groups is that they are automatically excluded from procuring your goods or services. To make sure this accessibility problem is not present on your website, it is critical to ensure that all elements are keyboard accessible. Whatever users can accomplish with a mouse, they must also be able to accomplish by using the keyboard.

4. Animation that cannot be turned off

While animation can sometimes enhance content on webpages by making it more appealing to viewers, it will also cause problems when there is no way to turn it off. Animation can interfere with how scream reader users navigate webpages because it could cause content to automatically scroll, randomly throwing these users in different places. Animated content that cannot be stopped will also cause problems for users who have seizures. Content that blinks at certain speeds has been known to cause seizures to occur. If you want to use animation on your webpages, make sure there is a control in place so that animation can be turned off easily. Position that control at the top of the page so users won’t have to search extensively for it.

5. Improper Semantic Structure

Finally, improper semantic structure is also a problem commonly found on websites. Rather than headings being tagged as actual headings, bold print is used instead. This is problematic because screen readers cannot decipher which print is bold and which is not. Lists are also either nonexistent or improperly structured. Sometimes, heading tags are used to make text stand out for emphasis. When one or all of these problems are present, this interferes with screen reader users ability to navigate pages. To ensure that screen reader users can navigate webpages without trouble, use actual heading tags for headings. Also, make sure to structure headings in the proper hierarchical order. The title of your page should be tagged using in h1 tag. Your section titles must be given h2 tags. Subsection titles must be given h3 tags, and so on. If you need to provide emphasis to various portions of content, do not use heading tags. Use CSS for styling instead. When a list is present, the list must be tagged properly. If the list has nested elements, they must also be nested properly. Furthermore, if there are paragraphs present on the page, they must be properly tagged as paragraphs.

Conclusion

Avoiding these five most common accessibility problems is a great start to ensuring that your website is inclusive to all audiences. To ensure that your website is fully accessible, it is vital that you learn all you can about accessibility. You must also hire disabled individuals to test your webpages to ensure they can actually be used in interacted with by individuals with disabilities.

In Search of Hope and Unity

CN: politics, discussion of violence, racism, ableism.

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“Many of us still know that love trumps hate. We need to stick together, to keep our voices loud in this democracy. I need to use my research skills in our country to bring evidence and reason back on stage where they belong. Trump’s idea of revolution isn’t the only kind of change we can have in America. It’s not too late.”

My Facebook post on the morning of November 9, 2016

Like many Americans, I have been deeply troubled by recent events. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others whose names I don’t yet know. The brutal murders of Alejandro Ripley, a 9-year-old autistic boy whose mother drowned him and then tried to blame the killing on a black man, and Willow Dunn, a 4-year-old girl with Down syndrome who was left out to starve.

I am struggling for hope, struggling for answers, struggling to figure out how I, a disabled white woman, can fight for the justice that both my black and my disabled brothers and sisters deserve.

I was a totally blind white girl raised in a suburb that is almost 90% white and less than 2% black. My first education on racial differences came when I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. in elementary school. When I asked my parents the inevitable question, was I black or white, they were touched by my ignorance. For many years I thought that my blindness protected me from being racist. I realize now that none of us are immune to bias and stereotyping. Sure, I can’t see skin color, but I absorbed the same history, the same cultural teachings as my sighted peers. I am still susceptible to judge others by the characteristics I am able to observe or am told about. I acknowledge my privilege and the responsibility that comes with it.

I spent six years studying stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination under leading researchers on racial bias in policing and other applied settings. I have a good idea of the universality of prejudice and its multiple sources, but I still struggle to figure out what we can do about it.

Yet I can’t live in despair for very long. As I searched for hope, I thought about the students in my youth mentoring program, students of all races and ethnicities, strengths and abilities, coming together in community. When I spoke to the students at our virtual meeting last weekend, I urged them not to settle for the label of “future leaders” so often given to young people. Instead, I encouraged them that they can all become leaders today, in the present. To find something, a cause or an idea, an area of need, and put it into action.

Last night, I listened to the “Pomp and Circumstance” graduation melody. I reflected on my three graduations, from high school, undergrad, and doctoral training. Each time I heard that song and walked across a stage, I felt the infinite freedom of the future as one chapter ended and a new one began. I felt that sense of open time and space extending ahead, and the power to shape it however I wished.

We aren’t ready to simply graduate from centuries of institutionalized racism and oppression. But each day is a new day. Collectively, we have the power to shape a new path. And I realize it’s not up to me to have the answers. It will take all of us together, pooling our diverse expertise and creativity, to come up with solutions and put them into practice. Just as I implore nondisabled people to center the lived experiences of disabled people, I recognize the need for me to step back and listen thoughtfully to others’ lived experiences with racial bias. I think part of the answer lies in celebrating each other’s differences, rather than simply ignoring them. I will put my vote toward local and national leaders who are willing to implement evidence-driven solutions. And I think we need to encourage our younger generations to share their fresh perspectives, energy, and hope.

The Impact of Disability Simulations [Reprint]

Many readers have come to this blog to learn about the impacts of disability simulations. Here is the transcript of a short talk I gave in July 2017 for parents of blind children. I describe our original blindness simulation study and some implications for practice, with a little humor, and in accessible language. Enjoy!

Originally published here

I’m going to talk today about the research that I did for my dissertation. It’s a dissertation, so I could probably talk for hours if you guys let me!

By way of background, I have been totally blind since birth. I have Leber’s congenital amaurosis (LCA). I always felt growing up that blindness was just an ordinary part of me. It was about as normal as being female. It was never something I gave a lot of thought to. It never really occurred to me to feel bad about my blindness or to see it as a limitation, except when other people felt that way.

Obviously, most people don’t see blindness as a normal characteristic. I decided to get my doctorate in social psychology because I wanted to understand better why so many people are afraid of blindness, have negative ideas about the abilities of blind people, and discriminate against blind people. I wanted to figure out why this happens so we can see what we can do about it.

A Framework of Theories

When I started graduate school I studied theories about human judgment and decision-making. I found some research findings that bear on where people’s attitudes about blindness come from. One of these is known as the impact bias. It’s the tendency to overestimate how strongly and for how long we will react to life events. For example, there have been studies in which people pretend that they have won the lottery. They’re asked to imagine that five years ago they won the lottery and to think about what their quality of life would be. Then the researchers asked actual lottery winners to describe their quality of life after five years, and they found that people overestimated how happy they would be. People don’t realize that eventually life gets back to normal. The high of winning the lottery doesn’t last forever.

People make the same mistake in the opposite direction about disabilities. When people imagine what it would be like to lose the ability to walk, they think it would be worse than it actually is. People tend to dwell on the beginning phases of a disability, when it’s really scary and they don’t have coping skills. They don’t realize that when you have a disability, eventually you adapt. That’s called the impact bias.

The other relevant theory is that when we think about other people’s experiences, we tend to use our own experience as a reference point. When sighted people think about blindness and try to imagine how blind people feel or perform everyday activities, to what extent do they try to put themselves in the shoes of blind people? Do they imagine being blind, imagine how they would feel, even close their eyes and imagine doing something in the dark in order to make a judgment about what blindness is like? Because of the impact bias, I predicted that sighted people would overestimate how bad blindness is because they tend to think about the beginning stages and how scary it is when you first close your eyes and try to do something without blindness skills.

Designing a Study

These findings really got me interested in studying blindness simulations. Simulations are activities in which people pretend to have disabilities, such as by wearing a blindfold and pretending to be blind. I discovered that simulations are popular among educators and others who are curious about blindness. I found that a lot of educators were confident that simulations are a great idea, that they promote empathy and understanding. I also noticed that a lot of blind people and others with disabilities were opposed to simulations. As a member of the Federation I was very interested in the tension between blind people and the professionals who work with us.

I designed a series of experiments and worked with my husband, Jason, who is sighted. We were in the same doctoral program, and we were dating at the time. We collaborated on an experiment. We had college students come into the psychology lab. By a random coin flip some were selected to wear a blindfold and others were not. We had a bunch of comparison groups. We had some who did nothing, we had some who did simulation tasks without any equipment on, and we had some who watched videos of other people doing simulations. The main comparison was between people who wore blindfolds and people who did not. We had our subjects do a series of tasks, including navigating a classroom and later on navigating a hallway with a zigzag in the middle. When they navigated the hallway they used canes, but we did not give them any cane instruction. We just said, “Use this cane to avoid running into obstacles.”

We also had people sort coins into piles, based on their denominations. That task was inspired by an incident when I dropped a bunch of coins and realized that a newly blind person might have a really hard time finding them. We had people pour a glass of water, and in one experiment we had them write their names on a chalkboard.

The subjects did all of these things, some with blindfolds on and some without. Afterwards all of the subjects filled out questionnaires. Because we were concerned about bias in the students’ responses, I was not allowed anywhere near the sessions. My presence might have an effect on how people responded. Jason, my husband, was in charge of managing the experiments. Either he ran them himself or he trained research assistants to run them.

Jason told me a lot of stories about how terrified, confused, and distressed the students were while they wore the blindfolds. One person actually ripped off the blindfold and said, “Thank God I’m not blind!” From where I sit, that’s really not a desirable outcome for an educational exercise! It reinforces people’s idea that they’re glad they’re not blind. They’re glad they’re not like me.

Questions and Answers

On the questionnaires the students answered questions about what they thought blindness was like in general. For instance, they had to write “Agree” or “Disagree” for the statement, “If I were blind, I would do anything to get my sight back.” We had the subjects rate emotional reactions, such as how often they thought blind people felt angry, sad, lonely, or scared. Also we had them rate blind people as a group regarding eight different activities. Some were professional activities such as being an elementary school teacher. We also had them rate blind people’s abilities to live in their own house or apartment. Blind people and sighted people were compared in their skills related to these activities. A ‘1’ indicated that blind people are much worse at performing the activity, a ‘4’ meant that they are equal to sighted people, and a ‘7’ meant that they are much better. We threw in a few decoy items, such as asking how good blind people are at recognizing voices and navigating in the dark. That way people could feel good about giving blind people some high scores, and they could be more honest about the other questions.

We found that the students who had been blindfolded felt that blindness was worse, that it was a more debilitating condition. They were more likely to agree with statements such as, “If I were blind, I would do anything to get my sight back.” They thought that blind people experience more negative emotions than sighted people do on a daily basis, particularly fear, loneliness, distress, confusion, and frustration. Incidentally, those were the feelings they themselves experienced when they had the blindfolds on.

Most importantly, when we looked at their ratings on various activities, subjects who had been blindfolded felt that blind people could not perform as well as sighted people, compared with the subjects who had not been blindfolded. For example, a higher percentage of the blindfolded students believed that blind people cannot live independently in their own houses or apartments, or at least not as well as a sighted person can.

Finally, when we looked more carefully at the mechanism behind these judgments, we asked students to imagine that they just became blind. We asked them to rate at six-month intervals how limiting blindness would be in their lives. They used a scale of 1 to 10, where 0 was not at all limiting, and 10 was as limiting as it could possibly get. They actually drew graphs to show how limiting blindness would be from immediately after to three years after. We found that basically everybody agreed that immediately after becoming blind it would be a 9 or a 10, very limiting. But the students who had not been blindfolded expected that over time blindness would get easier. The students who had been blindfolded also expected that blindness would get easier, but at a slower rate. When we looked at the predictions of how limited they would be three years after becoming blind, that number was significantly higher for the blindfolded students than it was for the unblindfolded students. The blindfolded students thought that their abilities and their quality of life would recover less over time compared with the control students who were not blindfolded.

These results told us that blindness simulations done the way we did them play into the impact bias. They get people hyper-focused on the initial minutes after becoming blind and lose track of the adaptations that happen over time. Consequently, when we asked people to judge how employable blind people are, how well they can teach elementary school, the blindfolded students thought that blind people would be more disabled.

Answers and Questions

Any good research project raises more questions than it answers. I think this project raises a lot of questions about what kind of blindfold simulation, if any, is beneficial. I think these results tell us that if you slap blindfolds on people and ask them to fend for themselves, and don’t give them any training or instruction or exposure to blind role models, these people are likely to have an experience that is negative and scary. That type of experience will reinforce what they already believe about blindness. People already have fears and misconceptions about blindness, and if you give them an experience with blindness that is what they expected it to be, their attitudes are going to be reinforced.

Simulations such as those done on #HOWEYESEEIT and some of the simulations that are done in schools can do harm. They reinforce people’s existing biases and stereotypes. A blindfold simulation is a bit like taking people’s attitudes and melting them down under a heat lamp.

The research also suggests that if you give people a positive experience of blindness, maybe it will reduce prejudice and discrimination. That’s a hypothesis that is yet to be tested. The cane walk that you can do tomorrow, where you can choose to put on sleepshades and walk around with a cane, might give you a positive experience. It might give you a more positive view of the abilities of blind people when they use canes.

The last thing I’ll say about simulations is that I think they might be a good way to teach about environmental barriers. In order for that to work, though, the simulation must be set up in such a way that the person experiences both accessibility and inaccessibility side by side. Otherwise it’s hard to draw the conclusion that challenges are related to accessibility.

I’ve heard parents talk about having the classmates of a blind child be blindfolded to get an experience with blindness. If you decide to do this, if you simply have the children put on blindfolds and hang on for a while, it’s likely to scare them. The traditional blindness simulation is likely to reinforce a lot of negative attitudes. But if you have the child put on a blindfold and experience a game that is not accessible and then experience an alternative game such as goalball, that experience can teach a lot of good stuff about the importance of accessibility.

If you want to get in touch with me, my email address is arielle@disabilitywisdom.com.