Next month I’ll be giving a presentation at catalyst Con on the Nuts and Bolts of Accessibility. I’m super-excited about sharing this knowledge with people in sexuality fields. It’s an exciting balancing act; walking the tightrope of educating while not instructing. In putting this presentation together, I’ve worried a lot about how to not make it sound like there’s just one way to serve the needs of all disabled people, or even all people with one kind of disability because there’s never just one way, beyond the one way of being respectful, caring, and treating all people like people.
Yet, one way is often how it’s framed, whether an event site is labelled “accessible” without specifying for whom, whether a sex toy is touted as being good for the “differently abled” (that term is like nails on a chalkboard for me, but I’ll explain that in another post), or some other all-encompassing statement.
Over the next few weeks I’ll explore here how we can talk about disability and accessibility both inclusively and expansively.
The nuts and bolts of accessibility aren’t just one thing, and they’re not literal. I won’t be handing out monogrammed Allen wrenches at the presentation to go with leaflets proclaiming “10 steps to make your service accessible.”
But nor is accessibility wholly theoretical.
Much of (though certainly not all of) being inclusive of most minority populations falls under the umbrella of developing compassion, recognizing and working with prejudice (our own and others), challenging stigma (our own and others’), and specifically not dictating what people should do with their lives (sexual or otherwise).
Making our spaces and services available, however, very often requires us to change what we do, not just how we think or act. It’s that “what to do” part of it I want to help people with.
I’m excited about talking to people at Catalyst, in particular, I think sexuality professionals are already perfectly positioned to incorporate accessibility thinking and action into our work. We’re already supporting people around deeply stigmatized parts of their lives. We already work with people as individuals and reject one-size-fits-all approaches.
The balance here is maintaining that individualized approach—not all people will need or want the same kinds of accommodations or assistance–while bringing our spaces and services in line with accessibility guidelines.
Accessibility is more of a practice than a philosophy.
We can be as inclusive of disabled people as we want, but if our Web sites look like so much nonsense to a screen reader, or our business is at the top of an entire flight of stairs (or even just one step), or the group activities we’ve planned for our empowerment retreat require listening, reading, or moving around, there will always be a group of people, or more than one, that will be excluded by the services we have to offer.
While what we have to offer cannot always be accessible to everyone—a painting class isn’t going to be much use to a blind person (though it can’t be assumed that all visually impaired people can’t engage in visual arts), and a talk deconstructing feminist philosophical writings might not be comprehensible or enjoyable to people with certain intellectual disabilities—most of us have services that can be tweaked to be available to pretty much anyone who might need or want them.
Establishing an accessibility framework or universal design of our programs or services means that any tweaks for individual customers or clients are just that, tweaks we’d make for any individual because of their marvelous individuality.
One thing I plan never to do, or at least not without a lot of thought and self-questioning first, is run disability simulations. A common disability awareness tactic is to have people don blindfolds, or move around in wheelchairs, supposedly to give them a sense of what it’s like to be blind or mobility impaired, or any other disability they try to simulate.
This is one of the most overused, and, in my opinion, useless and even harmful, “awareness” strategies.
We cannot learn what it is like to be another person, to have their feelings, experiences, histories by taking on one aspect of their existence for a short period of time. These so-called awareness activities simply give the experience of what it’s like to be oneself, without the senses or abilities one usually relies on. Any fear, nervousness, or trepidation a person feels cannot be attributed to the disability in general or to people who have that disability, but to their experience of temporary loss. Put more clearly, your experience of suddenly not being able to see your surroundings is very different from my experience interacting with my surroundings as a blind person, something I’ve done for twenty-eight years now.
What immersion exercises like these can do, I think, is make people more aware of environmental barriers.
To take another context, whenever I read about
We don’t need to do special exercises to develop this awareness. Understanding what being in a wheelchair in your place of business is like could be as simple as wheeling yourself around on a wheeled office chair, not to see what that is like on a feelings level, not to claim any sort of kinship with the experiences of people who need to use a wheelchair all or some of the time, but to see if you can still reach things, move through doorways, get to all parts of the room or building—in short, can you do everything you could do if you were walking?
I think impairment-immersion exercises are about as useful for raising awareness of the human condition as, say, homelessness tourism is for understanding homelessness. Spending a night in a shelter or hanging out with homeless people pretending to be just one of the guys can’t give one the sense of the days, weeks, months, or even years of being homeless (not to mention the days, weeks, months, or even years of circumstances that led up to that homelessness). All it can do (and this is a pretty significant all) is give politicians, and other decision-making folksa sense of how the services work, and of how society in general works for (or as is usually the case, against) homeless people.
When people do supposed disability immersion exercises, the response is often nervousness, titters and laughter, and a general sense of either silliness or disorientation. There are more respectful ways to break tension, and more useful ways to start dialogues and promote change. Much better, I think, to have intelligent conversations and use creativity from the vantage points we already have to understand our spaces and activities differently.
Stay tuned for more thoughts, and a few tips for starting to think about practical accessibility concerns.