Planning for Accessibility

In my mind accessibility is something that should be second nature, especially for meetings and organizations that are tying to appeal to the largest possible audience. Alas, architectural barriers prevent this “second nature” approach from being fully realized. A great example would be from the Moral Monday events that were held at the GA Capitol on January 13th.  Make no mistake, Moral Monday is a great organization advocating for items and changes that impact several communities, including the disability community, yet the morning strategy session was held in an area of the GA Capitol that was completely inaccessible to people with mobility related disabilities. 

When I say that this room was inaccessible, I mean it. If it weren’t so insulting it would be comical. The room was BETWEEN the 3rd and 4th floors. There was absolutely no way to access the room if you could go up or down a set of stairs. How is this acceptable in this day and age? The room should be boarded up and forgotten if they can’t make it accessible to everyone. My anger at the situation was split with a majority going toward the Capitol (which still lacks Braille singnage on a majority of offices and across the street where several state senators have offices there is ZERO Braille in the hallways), but a portion really did have to go to the organizers of the event. This event was really a teachable moment for them, I just with the lesson didn’t have to come at the expense of our staff and consumers missing out on portions of the days events. We look forward to working with the organizers of future events to ensure full inclusiveness and accessibility. 

In online conversations afterwards (with other attendees, not the Moral Monday staff/personnel) many defended the organizers saying: “well, they don’t have any power over the room they were given.” I don’t believe this, there is always a choice. If disABILITY LINK had reserved a room and found out it was in a ridiculously inaccessible place we would not have the event there, we would request another room, a swap with someone else or find some solution, but we would be inclusive.  Making the excuse of: “they couldn’t help it” is not an acceptable argument, it’s lazy.  

I believe this might have been the first event from Moral Monday in Georgia and I look forward to working with our staff and Moral Monday to ensure that it will be the last to have major access issues. Being present and active is the only way to enact change. We will work together for systemic change that will benefit the community, united in advocacy.  

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Let Us In!

Last week I attended the National ADAPT Action in Washington, DC. It was an amazing experience. We fought for the rights of people with disabilities, to get people out of nursing homes and to have a choice in where they live. We marched on John Boehner’s office, we rushed barricades at the White House, we showed up at Tom Perez’s home to make a statement. All of these actions were powerful and empowering. One thing that sticks out the most, and was the source of more tension with the police (even more than rushing the White House) was our standoff at the Capitol.

On the last official day of actions the plan was to go to the steps of the Capitol and deliver an open letter to Congress. We were going to make some speeches and then climb the steps by either walking or crawling up and deliver an open letter from ADAPT to Congress. We marched to  Capitol Hill and I noticed that there were police officers at all of the entrances we passed by. Bicycles, uniforms and motorcycles were all in place, but it didn’t occur that they were there because of us since we were going to the main accessible entrance. It became clear pretty quickly that they were indeed there for us when barricades were set up at the main entrance with several police officers behind them. We were being denied access to our (yes, our) Nation’s Capitol. A building filled with our elected representatives and paid for with our tax dollars. Even more insulting than having our path blocked was the fact that, if you didn’t look like you had a disability you could get through the other entrances. I saw several suited men go in as well as some tourists, yet we were being denied. We proceeded to the other accessible entrance and they actually laid down signs and formed a police line to keep us out of that one at well.

I simply could not believe that we were being denied access to a public building and that the discrimination was so blatant, even behind the police line people were coming and going, as long as you didn’t have a disability and weren’t associated with ADAPT. We held our ground, we looked the police in the eye and refused to back down. Around 100 of us stood firm even after being threatened with arrest. After a bus load of backup (that is not an exaggeration, there was literally a bus load of backup brought on to the scene) and three warnings were issued arrests were beginning, still we stood strong. Then something strange happened, the police backed off. No arrests were made, we found ourselves still denied access to our goal, but our message was sent clearly.

A picture of a large bus with a police seal on the front, the bus is roughly the size of a Greyhoud bus

The large police bus that was filled with backup

 

We were angry, but empowered. We were insulted, yet emboldened. We were denied, but set free by our beliefs and convictions. In the end we probably got more press attention by being denied that we would have by doing our action as planned. The absurd police presence helped gather the attention of some of those cameras that were covering the government shutdown (which was then 2 days old).

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Digging beneath the Surface

I’ll start this post out with a confession: I’m an Apple addict.  I love that company and the products they churn out. That being said, I’m also a technology junkie. I love to play with new gadgets and gizmos (regardless of who makes them) and see how they work and what they can do. I started my computer experience on a Windows based machine and had all the fancy assistive software to make it usable (and nearly died when I saw how much it would have cost had I had to pay for it). Then I got an iPod, which led to getting an iBook (the Apple laptop of that time) and it was all downhill from there.

On Saturday I made a trip to Perimeter mall to get some hands on experience with a product I was thinking of buying and saw there was as Microsoft Surface demo station near the food court. I have read about their response to the iPad (which I love) and decided to give it a test drive. Since I work for disABILITY LINK and have a disability myself I chose to approach the device from an assistive technology angle. I go up, pick up one of the devices and can’t really read it, so I start poking around to see if I can find the accessibility options. I couldn’t. A salesman comes up and asks if he can help me so I simply say: “can you tell me about the accessibility features on the Surface?” he looks at me for a second and then replies with: “well, you have to be specific because accessibility is different for everyone.”

I didn’t know whether to be impressed or annoyed with his response. It’s true, it can be different for everyone, but clearly I’m looking for some kind of visual alternative/assistance. So I ask for contrast settings, magnification and screen reader access.  Instead of addressing the items that I asked about he goes into a sales pitch where he drops buzz phrases like “full Windows experience” and “full Microsoft Office Suite.” I had to stop him mid spiel and inform him that these features are great, but only if I can see them. When I asked again about making things bigger his solution was to attach it to an external monitor (because that’s what people want to do with a tablet device, right? Attach it to an external monitor?). At this point he saw my exasperation and called for the second man working the station. The second man said (and these were his words): “oh, I don’t think it does that,” when asked about magnification.

At that point I thanked them for their time (even though it was a waste of mine) and walked away, frustrated and annoyed. I wasn’t looking to buy a Surface, but after that experience I really don’t want one.  I’m sure that there are accessibility features tucked away somewhere in that device, but they really need to train the demo “specialists” about all the features of the device they’re supposed to be selling or at least getting people interested in.

 

 

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MARTA Should not be Privatized

This was an e-mail I received today from Paul Mclennan, a disABILITY LINK board member and transit advocate.  He makes some excellent points here and I wanted to share it with you all.

MARTA SHOULD NOT BE PRIVATIZED

 For many years now, there has been discussion at the state legislature about privatizing MARTA. In recent weeks, it has intensified. In fact, the chair of the MARTA legislative oversight committee MARTOC, Mike Jacobs, has said that “privatizing some MARTA functions is essential.” Privatization is being presented as a necessary move because of MARTA’s ongoing financial crisis. MARTA predicts a $33.29 million deficit in this year. Just as we saw with Grady Memorial Hospital or the proliferation of charter schools, seizing public services by private interests is the preferred choice of many politicians when dealing with financial problems of institutions.

 What does privatization mean? Essentially, it is the transfer of public assets and services owned and performed by government agencies to businesses and individuals from the private sector. Privatization results in the replacement of public participation and institutional responsibility with a profit motive. Private sector decision making is private– the community has no rights to discuss and make policy. Instead of people governing, markets govern. Instead of service-providing, making money becomes the driving force. The people who suffer the most from this policy are those who have been traditionally marginalized from the seats of power – the poor, the working class, people of color (especially women), and those with disabilities.

Who is responsible for the fact MARTA is continually in crisis? The answer is found in MARTA history. MARTA was a public system set up to fail because of its funding structure. MARTA’s operating budget depends on what it collects at the fare box and the one-cent sales tax that Fulton, DeKalb, and the city of Atlanta agreed to levy in 1971 in order to create the system. For racist reasons, Gwinnett and Clayton rejected the sales tax and refused to join. This meant a “metropolitan” system was reduced to serving just two counties. The other huge factor in this set-up has been the fact that MARTA is the largest transit system in the country to receive no operating help from the state.

Privatization has a proven track record of failure. For example, the privatization of the Atlanta water and sewer system in 1999 led to the city cancelling its contract with United Water after four years of terrible service. MARTA brought back in-house its paratransit service in 1997 because of all the problems with the private contractor, Dave Transportation. In 2004, the British multi-national, First Transit, began operating the CTRAN buses in Clayton County. Three years later, MARTA took over the service. The bottom line is that the profit motive has no place in public transit. There are some necessary services that a society provides that are not designed to make a profit – fire, police, libraries, schools, and mass transit.

Other funding mechanisms, including state-funding must be found to restore MARTA to its rightful place at the core of any regional system that will be developed in the future. In order to correct the racist history that has had such influence on the lack of development and maintenance of MARTA, it will take a social movement led by those most affected – transit dependent riders and transit workers – to demand that MARTA remain in the hands of the people not the profiteers.

The Atlanta Public Sector Alliance urges all residents of Metro Atlanta to stop this take-over of public assets for the enrichment of a private few. Let’s organize for a regional transit system that is just and equitable, democratic and well-funded, with universal design to facilitate the mobility of all. Only a public MARTA can achieve these goals.

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Why We Protest

Last month there was a nationwide protest against the Goodwill for paying people with disabilities less than the minimum wage.  This was an effort orchestrated by the National Federation of the Blind (of which I am a board member for the Metro Atlanta chapter) to raise awareness of this despicable practice and advocate for change.  In the Atlanta area members of the NFB, Atlanta and Georgia ADAPT, People First and disABILITY LINK joined in and helped spread the word and cover all the retail locations we could.  Since that day I have encountered variations on a couple of questions: “you’re not being paid less than minimum wage, so why were you out there in the first place?” The fact that people could ask that is the reason that I’m out there. To think that anyone would find it acceptable to have a “special wage” for people with disabilities makes me sick. I, along with my colleagues, were out there for those that couldn’t make it, to fight for a better working future for people with disabilities and to let people know that this practice exists (many of the people we spoke to were unaware of this).

Another commonly heard item was, “this location doesn’t pay less than minimum wage, so why are you here?” (this was something several groups heard from store managers and employees, primarily). Even though the Metro Atlanta/North Georgia locations don’t currently pay subminimum wages now, there is nothing to stop them from implementing them down the road. Put simply, we want to change the system not just individual locations; the company embraces this practice and people should be aware of that so they can be informed consumers. This problem is also bigger than just the Goodwill, there are hundreds of places that have this authorization. The Goodwill just happens to have a person in charge making $500,000 a year and who also just happens to be blind and the Goodwill just happens to have had some of the worst of the wages found. Once again, this problem goes beyond the Goodwill straight to DC where this discriminatory practice against people with disabilities began. We need section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act repealed, we need to be respected for the work that we do and we need for there to be opportunities for us to have meaningful and gainful employment.  It is 2012 an absolutely nobody should be forced to work for less than the minimum wage. It is unacceptable.

When questioned on why I care and why I was out there I simply like to ask: “would you work for 20 cents an hour? Would you want a family member or loved one to work for 20 cents an hour?”

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Setting the Right Tone

I have a background in linguistics and have a habit of paying attention to what people say and how they say it.  Tone is something that pops out at me immediately.  Just the other day I was waiting on the train when a man said something simple both to me and to the group behind me. The subtext of his tone nearly knocked me onto the train tracks.  The phrase was “the train is coming.”

To me “the train is coming” translated to “you better step back, because I don’t trust you not to throw yourself in front of the train even though you are standing behind the truncated domes and haven’t shown any signs of incompetence or lack of balance.”

To the group behind me “the train is coming” translated as “the train is coming.”

There is such a mistrust with me and other blind people on the train platform. I mean, honestly, we don’t practice our gymnastics routine on the MARTA platform, people pee there. (and you thought it was only limited to the elevators). I’ve started walking on the truncated domes (AKA little bumps at the edge of the platform) when I’m told to “move over sir!”

Patronizing tones are a frenemy for me. I enjoy collecting outrageous examples, but hate when they’re aimed at me.

I was on a first date when a man asked what I did for work and when I told him I worked in an office he asked (seriously) “Really? How?” I forget what I said next, but it could easily be interpreted as “check, please!”

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The “, but” Negation

Recently I’ve become really annoyed with a small addition people make to their sentences when talking to me. For example: I’m waiting to cross the street and a man comes up to me and says: “I know you can do this on your own, but I’m going to help you.” Another example would be: I’m waiting on the train and a woman says “I know you can find the door, but I’m going to guide you,” and then she grabs me almost dislocating my shoulder as she drags me in the door.  If you know that I can do something then why bother to force assistance on me at all?  I know that they can cross the street or get on the train or tie their shoes (yes, people have tried to tie my shoes for me while standing on the sidewalk), yet I don’t bother to help them because I trust that, since they made it this far, they can probably get to their destination successfully.

The answer to my question of “why bother ‘helping’ at all?” is simple: they don’t believe a word they’ve said.  by adding on “, but” you negate anything you’ve said before: “I know you can cross the street on your own, but I’m going to help you” translates to: “You can’t cross the street alone.” If you honestly believed that a person could indeed do something unaided you wouldn’t have mentioned it in the first place.  the “, but” is just used to mask the patronizing tone of the “request.”

I’m not saying that offering assistance is always bad, but the fact remains that it should be offered to  and not forced upon on the person.  Replace “I know you can, but …” with “can I help you?” or “do you need any assistance?” Or, better yet, wait for the person to ask you for any assistance.  Independent Living is about making decisions and being in control, I know when I need help and I know how to request it if necessary, I would prefer for people to assume competence rather than “help” me when I don’t need it.

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