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Access & accommodation: some things to keep in mind



The subject of affirmative action in university admissions policies occupied the U.S. Supreme Court last spring. The Court upheld the policy in June. But while the issue of affirmative action may now quiet down for awhile, it will not, it seems, go away.

Thirteen years after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, access and accommodation are still an iffy thing. Publishers of college texts are still not routinely providing books in formats accessible to blind students. Students still have to fight to get an interpreter.

In this article, Lisa Carmelle looks at why we have affirmative action -- and asks if the same thinking shouldn't be applied to access.

Applying the 'affirmative action lesson' to access

By Lisa Carmelle

I do not believe that sighted persons are evil. But most of them fail to understand that they have everything in society designed for their convenience -- and because of this, many things are far more difficult, if not impossible, for us blind people.

Sighted people seem to believe that when we ask for access they are going to have to give up something to provide it. They do not need to be evil to be comfortable with the relationship as it exists in terms of the power differential between the sighted and blind. They see everything they have as the norm -- and to them it appears we are asking for something extra when we are only asking for something to redress the imbalance.

To the sighted it appears we are asking for something extra when we are only asking for something to redress the imbalance.

It was the same with affirmative action. There is little doubt that white people have been comfortable with creating organizations, businesses and even communities which exclude blacks. The individual white person may not have ever given any thought to intentionally excluding blacks; some would be horrified to know their lack of awareness of the process has often contributed to sustaining the attitudes of racism without their ever having an understanding about their role in it. They never refused a black person a job. They never refused to allow them to attend schools with equal access. In effect, they simply lived their life as they understood it and did not understand how this very lack of knowledge was used to keep blacks at a disadvantage.

When affirmative action was proposed decades ago it stressed the fact that until the status quo was modified to remove structural and attitudinal barriers, there had to be programs to recognize some talented black people who could be given a hand up in terms of breaking the patterns so resistant to change. Many of the white people understood why this was needed. But others simply refused to see why this was necessary. They argued against affirmative action because they saw it as taking something from whites, rather than trying to redress the historical wrongs which were being sustained by leaving things the way they were. They did not understand -- or refused to understand -- that wanting to deny advantages to others meant they were continuing to discriminate. Discrimination was the norm, and whether it was intentional or not on the part of the majority of white persons, the end result was the same: whites continued to have the advantages.

The only way to really change the status quo is to force it, because people will not surrender their advantages willingly in large numbers. They will argue about not seeing they have advantages, because they do not feel privileged -- and why should they? It is normal for them to assume the pattern is fair to all.

The minute a blind person succeeds in some meaningful way it is then turned into an individual triumph -- and the overall view of blindness is not improved. The attitude toward the one blind person is changed, but not the overall attitude toward blindness.

We live in a society where individualism is a strong value. People think if they just try hard enough, or want something badly enough, they will be rewarded. We argue that if blacks just did things the same way we whites do, they would make it far better than they are presently doing. The problem with this thinking is that, no matter how much they do things the way white people do them, they are not white people -- so they will never measure up.

The same is true for the blind.

It is generally most comfortable for the sighted to sit on the sidelines and argue that they are not prejudiced against the blind. They are not hostile to the blind. However, they are also not of the opinion that we are equal -- so every effort to change this assumption meets with strong resistance. What I have noticed through decades of following this battle is that the minute a blind person succeeds in some meaningful way it is then turned into an individual triumph -- and the overall view of blindness is not improved. The attitude toward the one blind person is changed, but not the overall attitude toward blindness.

You hear this in remarks such as "I forget you are blind!" or, "You are just like a sighted person to me!" The implication is really that in some way you have overcome the norm for the blind and are to be understood as being more like the sighted.

These attitudes rarely change permanently. And many blind persons defend this attitude on the part of the sighted; for whatever reason, they believe the responsibility should be ours to make ourselves acceptable to the sighted.

This is wrong. Blacks could never overcome prejudice and discrimination this way. They had to have laws to force the hand of the indifferent or oblivious.

Many blind persons do not even understand that our failure to recognize discrimination and failure to resist it lead the sighted to believe we are content with the way things are.

I do not portray sighted persons as evil. But I do believe they have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. This only requires that they do nothing at all. They need not have a bad thought in the least about blindness. They simply keep things as they are by not thinking of our issues at all. That is the way societal values are transmitted from generation to generation.

Access and accommodation: some things to keep in mind.

Stores don't want anyone telling them how to design their entrances [for access]; how many steps they can have (or can't have); how heavy their doors can be. Yet they accept their city's building and fire codes, dictating to them how many people they can have in their restaurants, based on square footage, so that the place will not be a fire hazard. They accept that the city can inspect their electrical wiring to ensure that it "meets code" before they open for business. Yet they chafe if an individual wants an accommodation. More.

From Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and The Case Against Disability Rights, by Mary Johnson (Advocado Press, 2003) www.makethemgoaway.com

As with black people, we will not see real progress until sighted persons have to face the fact they are responsible for keeping things the way they are and that they must actively oppose the status quo. As for the blind, we must recognize this truth as well, and stop acting in a way which makes the sighted comfortable with doing nothing at all.

Look at the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the requirements for access which have been hamstrung since the law's passage. Do you see many sighted persons in product design responding to access requirements? Just look at the appliances which have been made since ADA took effect. How accessible have they been?

Some will argue that designers are ignorant of the law. However, we do have a law -- and yet since its passage, more products than ever have been created which are inaccessible to the blind. Does it happen just because they do not know? I think not! It happens because they are simply indifferent to our needs and rights.

Until corporations are punished for continuously putting products on the market which are not accessible, they will continue to do so.

I really do not care any longer about the motivation of the sighted as regards to blindness or our civil rights. I want to see progress made for our group no matter how uncomfortable it may make sighted persons. It is the only way to make real progress. Any change from what people have always done will make them uncomfortable, but if we think we can obtain our civil rights and access without making the status quo uncomfortable, we are sadly mistaken. That is just how human beings work.

Are sighted persons evil? Some no doubt are; but it is not those who matter. It is the large number who are not evil, but have no desire to change things, as they like them the way they are, that we need to enlist, whether through court battles or through personal evangelism about our cause.

This will make even the blind uncomfortable. But until we are willing to make ourselves uncomfortable, as well as the sighted, we will see no meaningful change. People will just find new ways of keeping things the way they are.

Lisa Carmelle works with veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. This article is taken from her posting to an online discussion group.

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