The Carlington Summit

Lately, I have been thinking about the difference between accommodating people with disabilities and normalizing disability. I will attempt to explain it as I see it.

To get to work in the morning, I use the OCTranspo bus system. Most bus drivers do not announce bus stops even though their regulations require them to do so. A bus rider who can see looks through the window to determine when the desired bus stop has been reached.

Since I cannot look out the window I must ask the bus driver to announce my bus stop destination. If the driver does not forget about my request, he/she accommodates my disability by announcing my bus stop when the bus gets there. Frequently the driver will patronizingly say “This is your stop.” If the driver would follow the prescribed regulations and announce all stops whether or not a blind person is on the bus, my disability would be normalized.

I could site many more such examples to illustrate my point. I believe that the vast majority of disabled people would prefer to have their disabilities normalized rather than accommodated.

Accommodation smacks of charity and paternalism and often robs us of dignity, self-respect and independence.

Intersection curb cuts are not an accommodation for people with wheel chairs. They are a normalization of a public facility to include people with wheel chairs. The same is true of audible pedestrian traffic signals, building entrance ramps, television and film signage for deaf people, talking elevators, Braille elevator button indicators, wheel chair accessible washrooms, tactile and large print signage and so on. These are not accommodations for people with disabilities. They are normalization of facilities to include the greatest possible number of people.

We must stop thinking of disability as exceptional. We make door ways sufficiently high to permit tall people who are otherwise able bodied to pass without having to stoop. So why do we think of disability as exceptional? It is because when it comes to disability we have a them and us mentality. This is reflected in the language we use. We refer to “the disabled”, “the blind”, “the deaf”, “the handicapped” and such. This language objectifies people in these groups and separates them from us.

So why do we have a them and us mentality when it comes to people with a disability? I believe it is based on fear at the conscious and unconscious level. Traditionally we have dealt with this fear with the “out of sight out of mind” approach. People with disabilities stayed at home or were institutionalized. So we did not normalize them into our public facilities and systems.

And what is it that we fear? People with disabilities remind us that there but for the grace of God go I. And we dread that we may yet go there before our time is done. So we are often awkward and stiff in our approach to people with disabilities. Our conscience tells us to help them but our instinct is to run.

We see them as helpless but we don't want to offend them by letting them know we think this. So we say things like “May I be of assistance” and “I don't know if I am doing this right.” We become stiff and rigid while escorting a blind person. Some people even tremble. So with these attitudes, it is not surprising that planners do not normalize their facilities, products, systems and services for them.

It is argued that normalizing facilities for people with disabilities is expensive and creates undue hardship. This is so because normalization of disability has been ignored for so long.

Retro-fitting is expensive. But if facilities had been developed with maximum normalization, I believe the cost may well be lower than the cost of accommodation due to this social failure. And why should people with disabilities bear both financial and spiritual burdens for this social failure?

Now, lets look at automation in the work place as it relates to accommodation and normalization.

The main stream of the computer industry reflects society in general. With few exceptions it has largely failed to normalize for any disability despite the fact that it is relatively new. Where normalization has occurred it has for the most part been retro-fitted into existing systems.

Computers are designed for people who have perfect vision, hearing, manual dexterity and cognition.

Because computers have not been normalized for people with disabilities, expensive accommodations are required. Blind people need screen reading software, speech synthesizers, Braille displays, Braille printers and Braille translation software. Others need speech recognition software, on-screen keyboard software, special mice and cognition adaptation software.

Many companies have found their niche by developing these expensive accommodations. In most cases, people with disabilities must find subsides so they can pay the high prices charged. But it does not stop there. When the DOS operating system came about it was by serendipitous coincidence only that blind people were able to access and use their computers pretty well with their hardware and software accommodations.

But the Windows operating system, which is now current, is so heavily visually biased that even with expensive accommodations, a blind person cannot properly use it and its applications unless developers write their software in conformance with specific accessibility standards.

Accommodation can go no further. Developers must normalize their software at least to the point where the access accommodations can do the rest.

The United States government has recognized this impasse and has passed bill 508 which requires that all hardware and software purchased by the government conform to explicit accessibility standards. If a prospective vendor fails to comply with these standards that vendor will not sell to the United States government. They understand that prospective vendors must face consequences for non-compliance.

Like the OC Transpo bus driver who will not announce bus stops even though his rule book instructs him to do so because there are no consequences, the prospective vendor wishing to sell to the government will not do the extra work required to comply with the standards unless there are consequences.

Because we do not have equivalent legislation in Canada, any technology accessibility policy we set will be weak and less effective. But there is hope. Will 508 will compel main stream vendors to develop according to accessibility standards. This improved technology will then be available for purchase here.

A postscript: When you see a blind pedestrian standing at an intersection waiting to cross and there is no audible traffic signal do not approach the person and say “Do you need help?” I find this infuriating and I suspect others do too. You should either say “The light just turned green” when the light changes or say “may I cross the street with you.” This leaves everyone's dignity intact. Never encourage a blind person to cross the street when there is little time left on the green. This is dangerous and irresponsible. If I had heeded all of the street crossing advice I have been given by sighted people, I am sure I would have been killed long ago.