WE often think about legislative advocacy as being for our betterment in the blindness community. That is true, fine and good. We do want to express our needs for better accommodations in the workplace, school, and elsewhere. But, advocacy even with government leaders goes further than that.
When discussing accessibility for education or medical portals on the web, we have in mind what society might look like were such measures to be in place. With the push of a button on a treadmill, a screen reader like the ones on our cell phone could speak the options for changing speed and incline, start, stop, and even a program’s variation. If medical devices like glucose monitors and COVID tests were more blind friendly, we wouldn’t need to ask a neighbor or friend to drop in just to help us manage the care we could give ourselves on the go. With the amelioration of education portals, students on a college campus or in distance education could read their books and class handouts while keeping pace with anyone else learning alongside them.
Of course, much progress has taken place in all these areas of life. Many of us who are web junkies or computer nerds can find our way through the maze of complex PDF tags or links to find ways to get things done. But not everyone is so tech savvy. Hence, many companies, schools, and medical device producers can use some guidance for improving their services.
Today, my colleagues from the American Council of the Blind of Indiana and I had the privilege of meeting with Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) on his weekly Hoosier Huddle. We talked about several pieces of legislation I’ve highlighted here before that deal with better access to medical devices and web accessibility. Of course, the good Senator and his staff listened, asked a few questions, and noted our main talking points. Along with that, they got to witness us who are part of the blindness community in action.
That last point often escapes us when doing advocacy for ourselves or others. Yes, we’re seeking better accommodations for ourselves and to raise awareness of our capabilities. More than that, we seek to change perceptions so that we may have the equal opportunity for success beyond just the rules, regs, and written codes.
After all, what are the images many people have of us who are disabled? Many think first of their grandparents who love someone coming by for a chat while helping them read the mail, go shopping, or clip their nails. They’re the folks who call when needing help cleaning house or getting a ride to the doctor.
That’s because, though one fourth of all Americans have some form of disability, many people whose conditions are more profound stay off the social grid. Hence, few people see the active guide dog user heading to his office to work the nine to five. Not many people get to exercise next to someone who’s blind one treadmill to the left. Many people lack the experience of going to class with us who take notes on a laptop equipped with a screen reader. With such limited contact, the long-standing perception of someone who’s blind (or otherwise disabled) is that they always need helped, cared for, or admired for their bravery in stepping out into mainstream society.
Such stereotypes have led some to erect unspoken barriers around jobs that don’t fit the billing for someone who can’t see. When a professor says to his student he’d feel uncomfortable in a congregation led by a blind pastor or a class taught by a blind teacher, he sells himself short of embracing someone’s accommodations as just another part of life in the real world. Still others have stepped up the belief that because charity and benefits for people who are blind exist, they are the most proper income someone who can’t see should receive instead of that which comes from honest work.
Such postures as these show pity toward rather than acceptance of people who are blind or visually impaired. Certainly, we do uphold programs like Social Security, food stamps, or Missouri’s State blind pension from which many in our community draw a substantial income. Such benefits serve as a cornerstone upon which a person who is blind can build his or her livelihood. Some who have other health conditions may remain on this fixed income while many of us use it to supplement what we earn.
Let’s go again to envisioning some outcomes of better web accessibility, audio components to exercise equipment’s touch screens, blind friendly at-home medical equipment, and even better audio description. Instead of asking for help navigating a treadmill, a man might talk current events with the runner to his right or bury himself in the audio described movie on his iPhone. The student of psychology reads handouts downloaded from his professor’s portal before collaborating via Google Docs on a project with his classmates. Instead of scheduling a paratransit ride to the doctor’s office just to get a cancer symptom test read, a middle-aged woman traces the appropriate indicators on a given surface for herself.
Of course, such changes will take place over a matter of months and years. But are they too good to be true? No. For as our boldness and confidence in being blind members of everyday society grows, so will the awareness of those around us and vice versa. Advocacy, accessibility, and awareness form fertile common ground where we can do blindness daily.