The “With Autism” Series [Repost]

My friend joked that they needed a bumper sticker that said “Autism is my co-pilot” since they were clearly driving with autism (as opposed to driving while Autistic.)

This weekend, I’m at the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia convention with 22 blind students! While I’m off doing that, I’ll leave you with this humorous piece about the limitations of person-first language. Be sure to get your gear if you’re a “person with autism” or know someone who is!
The “With Autism” Series

Blind in the City: The Elusive “Over There” and Other Ambiguous Communications

“Can you move down a little bit?”
“Scoot up please?”
“It’s over there.”
“That way…”
“Excuse me …. Excuse me ….!”

These and similar phrases are uttered on a regular basis in our culture. And for most people, they seem to pose few communication problems. But for me, all of the above phrases, without context clues, can leave me baffled.

When someone asks me to “move down” or “scoot up” I know they are not literally asking me to move toward the ground or toward the sky, respectively. But the terms “up” and “down” can be used to signify forward, backward, right or left. I’m assuming that sighted people gain clarity from some kind of visual cue; I can’t be sure about that, but somehow the ambiguity is resolved for them.

Similarly, many a blind person has bemoaned the frustration of being told that something is “over there.” For fun, I looked up the phrase “over there” in the dictionary, and found that it is defined as “a short distance away” with no clues about directionality. Is it a short distance to my left? Right? Front? Back? Diagonal? Again, I am told, this ambiguity is resolved for sighted people through gestures or pointing.

Finally, the phrase “excuse me” has a multitude of meanings. It can mean, “I want to get your attention,” “I want to pass you” (without a hint as to which direction I’m passing in) or “”Excuse me, I just passed gas in your presence.” How do we know what you mean?

While nonvisual communication can be challenging for folks who are used to punctuating their words with visual cues, it need not create an impasse between blind and sighted communication partners. Here are a few hints for communicating more clearly with a blind person:

  1. Use the terms right and left, but only if you are able.

  2. “Right” and “left” are unambiguous spatial terms. A person’s right side will always be on their right. Directions involving right and left thus don’t rely on any visual reference point. Consider giving information such as:
    “It’s the last door on your right.”
    “Could you scoot to your left, please?”
    “Excuse me, may I pass on your right?”

    There is an important caveat, however. In my life I’ve learned that it is fairly common for individuals to confuse left from right. This seems common enough to be its own form of neurodiversity. Thus, I sometimes get directions that are physically impossible for me to follow, like being told to turn left when there is a wall on my left. I’ve also had the confusion of someone telling me to turn left while cuing me to the right in other ways (like pointing their voice to my right or trying to physically point me to my right). This seriously scrambles my brain! In these instances, it is better not to get any directions at all than to get directions that are flipped. Furthermore, since some segment of the population has left-right confusion, it is likely that some blind individuals also experience left-right confusion and have trouble receiving information in this way.

    So, if you have a firm grasp of left from right, feel free to communicate directions in this manner. If left-right confuses you or your communication partner, consider the next suggestion:

  3. Use auditory, tactile or physical reference points.

  4. Sighted people communicate using visual reference points, like pointing to an object. When communicating with a blind person, you can use reference points accessible to our other senses. If the blind person is hearing, you can use your voice as a reference point to signal directionality. For example:
    “Could you move toward my voice?”
    “This way…” (turn and walk in the desired direction).
    You can also generate a sound cue by gently tapping on an object (if it’s appropriate for the setting). If cuing someone with your voice, let the person follow behind you, instead of trying to guide them from behind.

    Another good reference point is to communicate using landmarks on the person’s body, especially when describing physical moves (to teach dance or yoga, for instance):
    “move toward your feet.”
    “Put your left hand on your right thigh.”
    “Move to the front of your mat and face away from me.”

  5. Use touch, but only with permission.

  6. Sometimes touch is really the most effective way to convey complex spatial information, especially in cases where hearing is less effective (a deaf-blind person, a loud setting, or a very quiet one, etc.) If the relationship is not a familiar one, always ask permission before maneuvering a person’s hands to convey information. Keep in mind that we use our hands and our canes to get essential safety information as we move through space. While touch can be helpful, if it is not timed right, it can also interfere with our orientation process. For example, I use my hands to locate the back and seat of a chair before sitting down. Sometimes someone will, with all good intentions, hold one or both of my hands while I am trying to sit down in a chair, which feels very unsafe. A better strategy is to either verbally cue where the chair is, let me locate the chair myself using my cane, or simply place my hand on the back of the chair and then leave me to sit down. Never use a blind person’s cane as a pointer because we need our canes to be on the ground picking up essential information about what is on the ground. Instead, and only with permission, you can point the person’s other hand in the desired direction. Another touch-based strategy is “hand under hand” in which you simply model an action while the blind person places their hands on top of yours to learn what you are doing.

Related Reading:
“Over There”

Babysitting a nonspeaking four year old [Repost]

I recently stumbled on an excellent blog,
In this Blog, Ruti Regan re-interprets the concept of “social skills” as a set of skills we can use to interact with one another in an ethical, respectful manner.

In the post below, Ruti responds to a reader question about how to interact appropriately with a nonspeaking child. The suggestions offered can guide us toward respectful interaction with people of all ages who communicate differently than how we expect-whether through unusual speech, a different spoken language, sign, pictures, or a self-taught method. One of the most important points Ruti makes is that all people have thoughts and feelings worth listening to. When we expect that the person has important things to communicate-and not just needs, but also wants and preferences-communication and mutual respect become much more attainable.
Babysitting a nonspeaking four year old

a Girl Wreathed in Shadow [Repost]

“What does she want to order?”
“Can you sign him in?”
“Can you take her upstairs?”

On today’s blog post, Holly writes about how it feels to be talked over as a disabled person. All too often, if we choose to enter a place of business with a nondisabled person, staff will interact only with the nondisabled companion, sometimes quite explicitly ignoring our voices with questions like “What will she have to eat?” Of course, besides being an ineffective mode of communication (my friend can’t read my mind), such maneuvers are dehumanizing and disempowering for the disabled person.
Holly also brings up a related issue: the assumption that nondisabled companions can automatically serve as scribes, interpreters or in other access roles. For example, the clerk who insists that my sighted spouse help me fill a printed form instead of taking my dictation (as they would do if I came in alone). Of course, at times our family members or friends are happy to help facilitate access, but it shouldn’t be assumed that they have an obligation to do this.
A Girl Wreathed in Shadow

From the Disability Wisdom Community: Tips and Tricks for Inclusive Event Planning

This week, I’m sharing some crowdsourced insights from the Disability Wisdom Discussion Group
A group member, who is a university professor, is planning a semester as a “faculty in residence” where she will live on campus and help to oversee student programming. She asked the disabled group members to describe strategies for making events and programs accessible. Here is the feedback she received, which will benefit anyone planning an event:

  • One thing that comes to mind is putting a phrase such as “if you have any accessibility needs, please ddon’t hesitate to contact so and so.” on the event advertisements. Others may not agree with me, but I take it as a good sign because I feel that the event host is at least being mindful that there are folks who may have accessibility concerns. Of course it depends on the event, but if I see such a phrase I usually contact and ask if they can make handouts available in an accessible format, ask if they have audio description available, etc.
  • Make sure there are some quiet events that people who get sensory overload can attend. Movie nights where the movies aren’t too loud, for example.
  • Sensory input boxes/fidget boxes/little toy things are wonderful. Have them at the entrance of the classroom. Yeah the students are technically adults. But having quiet spikey ball things to mess with in class saves a ton of people, not just autistic people, a lot of headaches.
  • Steep ramps: If you notice a ramp is ridiculously steep, say something to someone who can do something about it. Likewise, if you see some rooms are only available if you can climb stairs, say something. This isn’t just for classrooms. If Joe is having a get together on floor two of his dorm building, but no one bothered installing elevators, Jane is automatically excluded if she’s on crutches or is in a wheelchair.
  • Tree branches. Guide dogs are supposed to notice face-level tree branches. Not all do. Canes definitely don’t. Being whacked in the face by a tree sucks. Tell maintenance to get on face-level tree branches that are covering pathways.
  • Quiet zones. Going with my first two points. Having quiet areas on campus other than libraries are really important. Having a room with beanbags, a sensory box, and a giant SSHHH over the door. Bring your own noise-cancelling headphones. It can be a study room, whatever, but only quiet voices.
  • And letting students and other faculty know that you’re there as a point person about accessibility needs is good. There should be a disabled student services department, but they only cover certain students with certain specific needs. Generalized things are often overlooked. “Oh we have two dozen kids that all need golf carts to get from point A to point B. Best keep those golf carts.” Never realizing that maybe they should make an easier route between those two points.
  • Accessibility to information, places, and programs is very important, but it should be balanced with high expectations for all people with disabilities. We all need to find ways to contribute and to challenge ourselves if we hope to acquire any influence in any setting, accessible or otherwise.
  • I like the suggestions thus far. I would also like to add that when students are in control of programming they often don’t consider even the little things in their activities that might exclude people with various disabilities. Writing things on a piece of paper and having people guess who said what is fun, but how would a blind person or someone who physically can’t write put down their answers independently; How would someone with dyslexia be able to read it, or a blind person again. Movies often don’t have both captions and audio description. some physical games might be hard for a blind person, someone with a mobility issue, or someone who gets overwhelmed by a lot of motion and noise to deal with. And sure people can partner up with others for some of this stuff, but then it’s awkward being the only group while everyone else is playing individually. Spaces and accommodations need to be in place for students to even come, and I like the idea of students taking the lead in planning, but their plans also have to consider accessibility, too.
  • Also, on an unrelated note, it might be a good idea to also put a note about allergies on flyers. SOMETHING like, if you need any accommodations due to a disability or food allergies, please contact insert person here. THAT way you avoid the awkward issue of having pizza and Joe can’t have dairy, and Sally has a severe gluten allergy.
  • In person event can be a lot for those who struggle with social anxiety or social skills. You may want to include events that involve interacting online, like a gaming night or some kind of online scavenger hunt. This may help with accessibility issues for other disabilities as well.
  • So My biggest point of advice I learned from an amazing disability studies professor is that there’s absolutely no such thing as fully accessible to all because disabled people have varying access needs i.e a blind person vs a deaf person vs someone with sensory difficulties. All of this to say that you can always think of hickups with events, but as long as some key things are hit on, you are generally okay. Also, a variation of loud vs quiet etc events could be a way to include people of varying access needs in different events. So I fully echo the absolutes of always hosting in a wheelchair accessible location because that doesn’t inhibit anyones access needs and can only be inclusive, and always adding on top of event pages that if people have access needs/accommodations not to hesitate to email/call. Another big thing to me is that advertising not just be done on bulletin boards, and that advertising happen electronically.
  • Pick a room that’s wheelchair accessible. Picking a room that has tiers instead of seats is not wheelchair accessible. If wheelchairs and other mobility devices are forced to the back of the room make sure they can hear. Do you allow note taking on a laptop? Some people may need to do this. Is an interpreter available if needed? Braille writers click. Can you tolerate it? Is your handouts screen reader accessible?