Hi, readers! Here’s another quickie to wrap up August. Don’t worry; I’m already brainstorming ideas for September.
Recently, I gave myself a Pajama Day. Those are rare days meant for staying in my jammies, relaxing, reading, and basically being lazy. They aren’t days for thinking about my current job search, how I’m going to achieve the next level of independence, or even what I’m going to write next. But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men (women).
So anyway, I’m channel-surfing, and I come across an infomercial aimed at senior citizens and their loved ones. It explained as seniors age, their homes may not be the safe places they once were. Accessibility was stressed, and tips for better accessibility were given. You know the classics–installing railings on the stairs and grab bars in the bathrooms, increasing wattage in current lighting, and watching out for things a senior might trip over since falls are a bigger concern as we age.
But, you got it–those infomercial-makers didn’t mention younger people with disabilities. In our current world, why should they? While well-meaning, the vast majority of TAB people see disability as affecting only the elderly, or young children. When they hear the word “disability,” they might not think of an active teenager, a college freshman, or a thirty- or forty-something navigating the workforce.
There are several reasons for this discrepancy, most of which we’ve gone over and most of which can be tied to sheer ignorance. No, not the bigoted kind (usually). This type of ignorance is usually what happens when people honest to goodness don’t know. After all, as we discussed last post, disability is something you don’t think much of until it affects you. I’ve even been guilty; because I need less accessibility help than some people, it can catch me off guard when a place isn’t as accessible as it could or should be.
Fortunately, there’s always a way to learn about what you don’t know. There are ways to correct assumptions, such as the one that says, “People with disabilities are primarily old people.” A quick primer on how to do that:
-Ask. If a PWD looks like they need help but don’t ask, speak up. Don’t be rude; for example, never grab a blind person’s arm and just lead them somewhere. But you can say something like, “You look like you’re having trouble/are stuck. Can I help?” And if you are a PWD, ask for help. I know it’s hard sometimes. I struggle with it a lot. But–preaching to the choir–if you don’t say anything, you may contribute to ignorance.
Also, ask the PWDs in your life what they need that they’re not getting. Ask them about the accessible places they like to go. If you want to go somewhere inaccessible, say something like, “How would you like us to handle this?” For instance, let’s say you and your mixed-ability group are going to a museum or historical home. Parts are accessible, and parts are not. For those that are not, don’t just leave your friends with disabilities sitting on a bench. Offer to take pictures or, if the site does not allow that, pick up souvenirs related to that area. Is there a guided tour with headphones? Maybe your friends can listen while you look.
-Research. How much do you truly know about the disabilities your friends, coworkers, family members, or potential dates might have? Do some homework. Again, this starts with asking them, but credible websites can help. Note: Do not go to a site like WebMD, and don’t go straight through Google. Medical sites tend to present worst-case scenarios, and what you find on Google may do so as well. Instead, look up myths and facts about X disability. Search for disability-positive blogs, especially those written by PWDs themselves. Search out memoirs of people like Nic Vuicjick, who lives a full and positive life with no arms or legs.
While you’re researching, look into universal design. How big a priority is it where you live? Are people asking for it? Put on some “disability glasses.” In other words, go out with a friend who has a disability, and ask him or her to show you some common accessibility issues. If a friend or family member isn’t available, you can do this on your own. You’ll notice a lot of things, like stairs without railings, heavy doors, buildings without elevators/escalators, low lighting, blind corners, etc. Take notes. Then present them on social media, in a letter to the mayor or a local news editor, or in any sort of campaign that will raise awareness of universal design.
Side note: I’ve heard of situations where medical professionals study this kind of thing with TAB people. The TAB person uses braces or a wheelchair, or no-vision glasses for awhile, and reports how it feels. I’m not against this, but it may not be the best course of action. Many clinics and hospitals might see this as a liability waiting to happen. Worse, you could be accused of faking a disability to get attention or sympathy. I strongly caution: do not do this without serious thought, permission from a hospital/clinic/university department, and close supervision.
-Make a Change. Volunteer to help build ramps, install curb cuts or elevators, or otherwise add to universal design in your community. Do it with your coworkers, your house of worship, or a group of friends (you may need some permits). Invite PWDs to participate as well. They’ll be the ones to tell you if you’re getting it right or meeting everyone’s needs. Remember, sticking a ramp up in one spot often does not cut the mustard.
Components of Universal Design:
Besides “the classics” mentioned earlier, here are a few more things to think about. Please note that these aren’t all physical. Universal design means exactly that–universal. If our peers with learning, intellectual, or emotional disabilities aren’t being served, we aren’t done.
-Bright masking tape on the edges of stairs. This is a big help for people with low vision or perceptual disabilities.
-Sturdy handrails/grab bars in places other than bathrooms. Even a small set of stairs can be steep or overly narrow.
-Accessible building materials. PWDs often have trouble on stone staircases, gravel pathways, or stairs made from slats of wood, metal, etc. If at all possible, avoid this type of setup. If it’s already there, or absolutely needed (i.e., stone maintains historical integrity) see other design options as listed above.
-Shallow tubs/showers/walk-in options. Again, this doesn’t have to mean compromising interior beauty. But if a shallow tub is safer than a high claw-foot, consider using one. Or, make sure that claw-foot has sturdy grips, or even a ramp leading in or out (yes, this can be done).
-Versatile learning materials. I’m mostly speaking to schools, universities, and libraries, but this is true at home as well. Does your child have trouble gripping small game pieces? Look into special-ordering bigger ones. Is your kindergartner struggling to tie his shoes? Maybe he needs specially designed laces that stay tight with a quick pull. Your teenager with dyslexia may benefit from books on tape, oral reports, and highly visual learning options. College-age students with Down Syndrome can in fact take university classes if they are presented in language they can understand. (Yes, auditing is an option, as is authentic career training–not “required volunteer hours” stocking shelves. But it is my personal belief that everyone can benefit from real academics on some level).
-Hey, who turned out the lights? I had this problem during graduate school when my university competed with our rival to save energy. One way we did that? Using low lighting in hallways. Not a huge deal for me, but I already don’t see well. Add in the fact that I have zip peripheral vision, and I could’ve tripped over something or crashed into someone without ever seeing them coming. Fortunately, my parents and I complained to the disability service office, who let the dorm administration know they committed a no-no. Even if the PWD in your life sees fine, keep the lights on. At night, turn on a hallway night light. Make sure the PWD in your life keeps a flashlight, fully charged phone, or battery-operated lantern handy if power outages are a concern.
-Regular check-ins. This is mostly for university dorm supervisors, landlords, etc. If you know a PWD lives in your building, check in regularly to make sure they’re getting around okay and feel safe. Do you have monthly fire drills? Give that person notice, and be on standby to help him or her out of the building if necessary. (This happened to me once; I was not given notice of a middle-of-night fire drill and had to walk down three flights of stairs to get out. I was okay, but spoke to the dorm supervisor the next day because let’s face it, that’s not safe). If you don’t have emergency protocol for residents with disabilities, get some going. Their safety, your reputation, and your ability to run your business, is on the line.
-Inclusive classrooms and leisure activities. I’m not gonna spend a lot of time on this one, but I can’t stress this enough. Letting a PWD sit in the back of a general ed classroom, or “inviting” them to be an equipment manager, mascot, or extra when you know they can do more, is not inclusion. Inclusion means everyone works, plays, learns, and talks together.
-Animal-friendly places. This last one is tricky, because a lot of people claim their pets are service animals, but they’re really gaming the system. However, service animals are legitimate accessibility concerns, and they do exist to help people with blindness, deafness, PTSD, what have you. First off, if you have a disability that requires a service animal: get him or her registered. Your service animal should always wear identification, whether that’s tags, a vest, or something else. For the TAB population: if you run a business such as a store, restaurant, or hotel, make it clear these animals are welcome. Brush up on etiquette; for example, don’t pet a service animal–they’re working. Get to know the animal and his or her handler–two friendships for the price of one.
The world is a hard enough place without telling certain populations, “Sorry, we don’t have what you need.” Universal design is often simpler than we think, so do your part to get it recognized and used.