How about a good, old-fashioned rant today.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about accommodations, and how we accommodate people with disabilities, (or don’t). The ADA has given us a term for this, “reasonable accommodations.” Everybody says these words like we all know what they are, but it’s really just an easy buzz wordy way to make black and white something that, by its very nature, is always going to be gray.
I’d like to talk, specifically, about the reactions of people who hear about the “reasonable accommodations” someone with a disability might receive. When, on the rare, rare occasion that I’m given some printed text in an alternate format, whether it’s Braille or a Word document or an audio file, I’m thankful for the consideration that has been given to me and my situation. I will usually thank the person responsible, and mean it sincerely.
However, if someone else finds out about the alternate format, they often will break into a gush about how fantastic that is, and how nice they were to provide an accommodation, etc etc. And, don’t get me wrong, it is incredibly thoughtful, and I appreciate that, but it is only particularly noteworthy because of how rarely it happens.
I could count on a few fingers the times I have not had to ask and advocate for my own accommodations. Most people have know idea what accommodations are, and how to define “reasonable.” I tend to say that, for a blind person, a reasonable accommodation is whatever is comparable to what a sighted person receives in a given situation. This is most important, for me, where text is concerned. If someone sighted has access to identifying text, I should too. It is not “nice” for someone to do so. It is the law. It’s not “nice” when it’s done for sighted people, either, and it would be silly for someone to say so.
Since most of the reasonable accommodation giving centers around employment, and whether or not a requested accommodation is, indeed, reasonable, I’ll mention, too, that I’m sick of the way we talk about people with disabilities finding and sustaining work. Often when I have a job, I feel enormous pressure to be constantly positive about it, because someone was so “nice” and “took the risk” of hiring me. And often, an employer will expect so little from a blind employee, and be all too quick to say, “Well, it just wasn’t working out. They just couldn’t perform the essential functions of the job.” (In case you were wondering, “essential functions” is another ADA phrase which employers love and I loathe.
Blind people, overwhelmingly, are not unable to perform the “essential functions” because they don’t have the skills to do the work. They are unable to perform the functions because they are not given adequate, reasonable accommodations. Can you imagine if a sighted person didn’t have something as simple as an agenda for a team meeting in a format that they could read? What if a whole population of sighted people were continually not given agendas? When someone comes to me and apologizes for not getting printed materials to me in a manner in which I can read them, my expected response is supposed to be: “Oh it’s ok. I know you’re busy. … Yes don’t worry, you have a lot to do.” Certainly, everyone has a lot to do. But what if blind people had permission to say something like, “I understand you’re busy, but not having the same materials as everyone else compromises my job performance and my job security in turn. How can I work with you to ensure I get the materials in advance next time? And how can we work together to get me the materials for today as soon as possible?”
I’m sure many of you, looking at the above, diplomatic statements, are thinking: “Say it! You go girl!” And certainly, I wish we as blind people could all feel empowered and confident enough to say these things. But even if we’re not told by individuals, we’re told by society that we should simply be grateful to have a job. If we’re not making adequate money, or don’t have full materials, we should just be grateful someone took the risk when our skills are inferior to others. We need a shift far greater than “reasonable accommodations”, which only sounds good to a certain point. It needs to be practiced, to be demanded, and to be honored without repercussions. Of course, there will be blind people (just like sighted people), who will turn out not to have sufficient skills to do a particular job. They may have to seek other employment. But blind people should be given everything comparable to what a sighted person receives, so that there will be no question about why it didn’t work out.