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We have never needed the professionals, really. People with disability are the people who always find these answers. It has been no different for people with brain-related disability.

Accessible Communication Means Freedom of Speech

By Don O'Callaghan

People labeled mentally retarded were -- and still are -- denied freedom of speech. They were institutionalized and prevented from following the normal routes to success. They could not write, so it seemed they belonged outside of normal society -- because most things that measure success in our society require that people read and write. Illiteracy is not a cool thing.

I constantly insist that these people be introduced to voice- and video-based methods of communications. These methods now exist and they are free. No one is even bothering to help tell these people about this technology, though.

I assumed I could demand this. It seemed so basic to me. I was dead wrong. My demands only pissed the professionals off. Demand ? Did I know who these professionals wwere? Did I realize how wonderful they were? Did I realize how many conferences they speak at, and how many plaques they get every year?

It took me two years to figure out that they really didn't understand any of this. Hey, I understand why they look at things the way they do. I like them and I don't blame them. I know institutional systems make nutty things look reasonable. That is something I learned 25 years ago. I don't blame anyone. But the way I write it must seem like I am blaming.

What I do to change this is I give computer equipment to people who can demonstrate how Accessible Communication can equal Freedom of Speech. Obvious to me, to blind people, to deaf people -- but not at all obvious to the people who decide how taxpayer money is spent in mental retardation services.

The really funny thing is, we have never needed the professionals, really. People with disability are the people who always find these answers. It has been no different for people with brain-related disability. We have found this technology and we have been sharing our understanding of it for the past 15 or so years.

Blind and deaf people have been doing this forever. They found radio and drove the development of that technology for years. This is a natural thing -- disabled people don't even think about. But it is a hell of a lot more important than much of the abstract ideological stuff we are spending time, talent and money talking about.

Equipment exists today that can help people live normal ordinary lives, and do it safely and happily. Communication equipment in particular can lead people out of isolation. It's hard to imagine what life must have been like for a deaf person before the TTY. Blind people couldn't really study much of anything before Braille -- not without a person to read printed text.

Now all this is available to the people we've put into institutions. They are still alive today. They have a story to tell and we have a way to collect it. But mostly it doesn't happen.

I am not suggesting any more than helping these people talk with each other about the weather. That is what they do. I have been doing this with them for 15 years. They talk about the weather, sports, food and what they like to do. This is what real Freedom of Speech is. It is ordinary talk about ordinary stuff. It is what connects all of us because it is so ordinary.

It's not what people talk about in speeches -- but, then again, most people don't give speeches. They have friends whom they do stuff with and have ordinary conversation with.

Equal rights happens when we share this information with each other. It just happens. It happens when you go to the store to get a jar of mustard. It's about NOT being noticed.

We need to attend to accessible communication for people who have been horribly treated in MR institutions and other institutional settings. There are incredible, positive things we can do to teach all people about what access really is.

Accessible communication is the most important thing we can do to build our movement. The people whom even disabled people discriminate against should -- and are already -- leading the way. Think about that!

Think about it: The people who understand most about all this are the people who have been most excluded. Who are they? What's the accepted pejorative high school kids still use every day without anyone correcting them? Come on -- "are you a retard or sumpin'?"

But it's obvious if you just think it through. That is where the quiet, unpretentious, ordinary leadership we need now has always been. It's coming from people who need to include everyone, because if they don't they are excluding themselves. There is a real lesson here.

It isn't ironic. It's simply true.

Posted August 16, 2004.

Visit Don O'Callaghan's Advocacy Communication Project at http://www.gis.net/~donability/

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