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?

Blind in the City (and Disabled in the Skies): Exploring Air Travel and Disability

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m a semi-frequent flyer, and have been since my college days. Strangers I meet in airports often seem shocked to see me navigating the airport independently with my white cane. In this post, I want to try to take some of the mystery out of that process. At the same time, though, air travel isn’t always smooth sailing for disabled people. In the United States, the Air Carrier Access Act protects our right to fly independently, and to receive needed accommodations during the trip. Still, though, misunderstandings and failures of implementation result in civil rights violations, equipment damages, and other problems for disabled air passengers. I will outline some of these ongoing problems and needed solutions at the end of this post.

Q: How do you navigate the airport without a travel companion?
A: Like any other travel task, air travel is more manageable when broken down into its component steps. For me, a typical flight experience involves checking in, locating and going through a security screening, locating my departure gate, boarding and deboarding the plane, (occasionally) collecting baggage, and finding ground transportation. For each of these steps, I utilize a variety of nonvisual landmarks. For example, security checkpoints make distinctive sounds; gates are usually numbered in consecutive order; and when boarding the plane, I can simply follow the person ahead of me in line. For other things, such as locating a specific baggage carousel or exit door, I ask passers-by to describe visual information such as that printed on signs. By asking for help only with one part of the process at a time, I can greatly reduce my dependence on others.

As I will explain later in this post, I prefer to keep a low profile in the airport so as to avoid being patronized or drawing unwanted attention to my disability. So, I typically check in for my flights using the airline websites and navigate directly to the security checkpoint. I rarely check bags, but when I do, I can recognize my suitcase by touch on the conveyor belt

Q: What kinds of accommodations do airlines provide?
A: Airline and airport employees offer a variety of accommodations to passengers with disabilities. When navigating the airport, passengers can request a walking escort to provide directional guidance or assist with luggage. Passengers needing mobility assistance may use a borrowed manual wheelchair with an employee serving as a pusher. Wheelchair users must typically check their chairs as luggage and use a borrowed aisle wheelchair to board and deboard the plane. Some passengers, such as those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, may request to have a family member or friend who is not flying with them accompany them through security to their gate.

Passengers with service dogs are permitted to bring their dogs with them on flights without having formal proof that the dog is a service animal, as long as they can explain what task the service animal performs. In addition, passengers with emotional support animals (to assist with mental health disabilities) can bring their emotional support animals if they are properly documented. Passengers using service animals, and other passengers with particular accommodation needs, may request to “preboard” the plane before the rest of the passengers board. This may be necessary to allow enough time to settle a service animal, secure equipment, avoid standing in a long line, or gain a preferred seat (such as a seat near the front for someone with a mobility disability).

Q: Why don’t you just use the employee escorts at the airport? Wouldn’t that be so much easier?
A: I have no philosophical objection to using accommodations that might help me have a better travel experience. There are occasional times when I do use airport escorts. However, I have learned that much of the time, the quality of service is lacking. For example, if employees are spread thin, I may end up waiting up to 30 minutes for an escort. In those cases, it is simply faster for me to navigate the airport on my own. I have also had escorts who guided me to the wrong place.

Another common problem is the lack of control we often have over what specific accommodations we get. Many of us who are blind, but who don’t have mobility disabilities, have found ourselves in situations where we requested a walking escort and instead were pressured to travel in a manual wheelchair with a pusher. In these cases, we are often expected to choose between an inappropriate accommodation (a wheelchair) or none at all. To complicate matters, wheelchairs are in limited supply. While we are being pressured to accept wheelchairs we do not need, other passengers with mobility disabilities may be waiting far too long for a wheelchair they do need.

I must emphasize that truly effective accommodation is different for each individual, and sometimes a person’s accommodation preferences differ from day to day. It is important for airlines to offer accommodations so that passengers with disabilities can fly. But, equally important is a system that allows disabled passengers to choose the accommodations that work for them. Unfortunately, in practice, airline and airport staff often act on assumptions about accommodation needs, instead of actively listening to their customers. For example, passengers with visible disabilities, like me, often find ourselves fighting off accommodations we don’t need. In contrast, passengers with invisible disabilities may find themselves fighting for the most basic accommodations.

I keep a low profile when I fly because I want to be in charge of my travel process and choose the assistance that works for me without having unnecessary or patronizing assistance foisted upon me. I recognize that this is a privilege I have. Many other passengers rely on some form of accommodation in order to fly. They, too, must have the freedom to choose the most effective accommodations.

Q: What other issues affect disabled air passengers today?
A: In some countries, passengers with disabilities aren’t allowed to fly without a nondisabled companion. In the United States, disabled people are permitted to fly independently, except in some rare circumstances involving multiple disabilities that prevent a person from assisting in their own emergency evacuation. Despite legislative progress in the United States, however, misunderstandings and failures of implementation can lead to serious problems. Here are a few recent examples:

  • D’arcee Neal, a disabled activist with cerebral palsy, needed an aisle wheelchair to exit a United Airlines flight. He waited for more than 30 minutes without receiving a wheelchair. In desperate need of the restroom (the airplane lavatory is not wheelchair-accessible), Mr. Neal crawled off the plane.
  • Recently, several wheelchair users have had their chairs accidentally broken by baggage handlers unfamiliar with the equipment.
  • Guide dog users, and other service animal users, have found themselves re-seated or even denied boarding based on a claim that there wasn’t appropriate space for their dogs.
  • Blind people who use white canes have had canes separated from them and stowed in a closet or placed in the overhead bin against their preferences. In fact, the law provides for a blind person to stow their cane on the ground between the window seat and window, where it is safely out of the way.
  • Clifton Miller, a blind grandfather, was denied boarding on a Frontier Airlines flight last year. The gate agent questioned whether Mr. Miller could properly care for his 18-month-old granddaughter on the flight. In fact, Mr. Miller had been a single father and had just spent several days alone with his young granddaughter.
  • On my 30th birthday, my husband and I boarded an American Airlines flight on our way to visit my family and friends for the weekend. Due to my blindness, I was ordered to sit in the window seat because, I was told, if I took an aisle or middle seat, I would be blocking the exit of other passengers in an emergency. (Ironically, due to my blindness, the window seat offers more value to my husband than it does to me). Eventually, the flight attendant apologized and admitted that he had confused an “exit seat” (non-window seat) with an “exit row seat” from which disabled passengers are categorically banned. (This ban is, itself, highly controversial in some disability circles). Unfortunately this apology only came after my (nondisabled) husband followed up, mainly because I was too shocked and shaken to do so at the time.
  • More generally, disabled passengers are often told that, in the event of an emergency, we should wait to be assisted by a flight crew member. The assumption that we will always need to wait for rescue is often the driving force behind instances of discrimination. It seems not to occur to all airline staff that in an emergency, disabled people will be using whatever resources are at our disposal to get ourselves to safety as quickly as possible.

In sum, air travel has become much more accessible in recent decades, at least in the United States. But we still have far to go. Much of the progress we need will depend on initiatives to educate airport and airline staff about the varied experience of disability and the most appropriate allocation of resources. By learning how we live our daily lives on the ground, perhaps air travel staff will be better prepared to provide us with an accessible, respectful travel experience.

Is This OK with You? [Reblog]

This week’s repost is a poetic post from BlindBeader’s “Life Unscripted” blog. BlindBeader details the various reactions others have to our disabilities, repeating the refrain, “Is this OK with you?” From being disregarded as a job applicant, to being talked over at a restaurant, to being told how to think about one’s own disability, we are often expected to accept treatment that most other people would never be OK with. This post gives us the energy to say, “it’s not OK with us,” and that is the first step to taking action.
Is This OK With You?

Blind in the City: Why We Don’t Touch Faces, and What We Do Instead

In the 1985 movie Mask, Diana, a blind teenage girl, falls in love with Rocky, a boy who has a craniofacial condition. At one point, Diana asks Rocky what he looks like. He jokes that he looks like the Greek god Adonis, then says, “I don’t really look like Adonis; I’ve got this real strange disease, and it makes my face look real unreal.” Diana proceeds to touch his face, and eventually says, “You look pretty good to me.”
check out this clip

Images of blind film characters touching faces to learn about a person’s appearance have become so common that some people believe blind people do this in real life, too. Others may wonder how blind people engage in social activities that, for sighted people, rely on seeing faces: identifying people, evaluating their appearance, or connecting emotionally in relationships. The truth is that I have yet to meet a blind person who habitually touches faces; this act is not only socially sanctioned, but it usually provides little useful information. Instead we use other methods to identify people, evaluate their appearance, and connect emotionally with them.

Q: Can you recognize who I am by touching my face?
A: Probably not. Human brains are wired to process faces visually. Sighted humans tend to process and remember each unique face as a whole entity, rather than as a collection of features. It is difficult to get that holistic sense of a face through touch, nor is it possible to pick up on many of the subtle details that distinguish one person’s face from another’s. Furthermore, if this is not already obvious, touching a face is a much more intimate act than just looking at one, and strikes me as a little unhygienic.

Q: So then, how do you know who’s speaking to you?
A: No, I can’t recognize you across the room by the perfume you’re wearing. But, blind people can recognize people’s voices with reasonable accuracy. Actually, sighted people can do this too, but unless they’re talking on the phone, they don’t usually have a reason to hone the skill. That said, I might not recognize your voice after one interaction; it may take a few conversations before I’ll know your voice well enough to pull it out of a crowd, and if I’m not expecting to run in to you, I may not recognize you immediately.

Q: How do you picture people in your mind? How do you know what your family and friends look like?
A: People who have once had sight can often “picture” people visually in their minds. I have never had sight, so I have no way of creating visual images. However, I do have sensory memories I associate with people. With my spouse and other close family and friends, I can “picture” them by imagining hugging them, and remembering their overall body shape. For others with whom I don’t have regular hands-on contact, I can “picture” them by hearing their voice or recalling a recent conversation. Although I, like most humans, feel a connection with loved ones through physical contact, I don’t feel deprived by not knowing all the details of their visual appearance.

Q: How do you know if someone is attractive?
A: Much of physical attractiveness is subjective, and blind people, like sighted people, will vary in their preferences. There are also some standards for physical beauty that are generally agreed-upon in a particular culture. Blind people listen to discussions of beauty, and we can be influenced, for better and for worse, by the opinions of our friends and loved ones. We may find some individuals more attractive than others based on nonvisual aspects like their voices, scents, or the feel of a hug or a handshake. Check out this video to learn more about how a few blind individuals describe attraction.

Although we certainly can be interested in another person’s physical appearance, we might not learn these details about another person until emotional or intellectual chemistry have already developed in a relationship. When I was single, I would often go on one or more dates with a man before knowing much about how he looked. I generally discovered that if I found the man to be physically attractive later, it could increase the chemistry, but like Diana, I wouldn’t necessarily be put off if he wasn’t particularly attractive, if we already had a rapport. With professional colleagues or more casual friends, I might never find out much about their appearance. So although physicality does matter to blind people, it may not have the same primacy as it does for many sighted people.

Q: Without seeing facial expressions, how do you know how another person is feeling?
A: I’ve heard that up to half of in-person communication is visual. There is also this notion that blind children have to be systematically taught the most basic aspects of social interaction because they miss so much visual information. While I don’t doubt that facial expressions and other visuals play an important role for sighted people, I don’t feel limited in my communication abilities. When I was a child, it was sometimes assumed that if I was rude to another person, it was because I couldn’t read their emotions on their face. Yet from a very early age I was attuned to vocal cues. Some of my earliest memories involve my parents’ tones of approval or disapproval, and both parents could say my name in a tone that made me freeze (and probably still could). Like most children, there were times when I chose to ignore another person’s annoyed or upset tone, because I was wrapped up in my own feelings, not because I was unaware of theirs. I can generally pick up on most emotions of others by listening to them. In fact, vocal expressions may be harder to fake than facial ones
Of course, it works better when I know the person well, and if the person chooses to be quiet (like if they are pouting), I might not get the hint as quickly as a sighted person. I also find it challenging to read the collective reactions of a quiet audience, such as while I am giving a presentation. Generally, though, I have found that blindness has little impact on the communications that matter most, such as in my marriage and my relationships with friends and family.

Q: How can I communicate well with a blind person?
A: If you don’t know the blind person well, go ahead and identify yourself by name. Also, if you are interacting in a professional capacity (such as working at a store with a blind customer) and you are wearing a professional uniform or name badge, be sure to offer that information. For example, “My name’s Jill and I’m a WalMart employee.” Don’t expect the blind person to automatically remember who you are, even if you remember them (if they’re a repeat customer, for example).

Other than that, interact with us just as you would with anyone else. Oh, and please don’t ask me to feel your face, even if you buy me a drink first.