Nov 052014
 

What do you do when your abuser is also your care provider, someone who bathes you, or dresses you, or whose assistance you need if you want to leave the house or communicate with other people? What do you do if people constantly tell you not only how good a person your abuser is, but how courageous and wonderful they are for helping you? What do you do when your abuser doesn’t treat you like a human being, but neither does much of the rest of the world?

Last month was Domestic Violence Awareness Month. IN all the awareness-building, all the activism and solidarity online, I saw almost nothing about people with disabilities who are victims and survivors of relationship violence.

This absence is startling when you consider that people with disabilities are statistically more likely to experience relationship violence than nondisabled people. (And considering that what we know about the prevalence of relationship violence for people of all abilities is only the tip of the iceberg, that’s scary.)

It’s not so surprising though, that disabled people are mostly absent from awareness campaigns, when we consider that disabled people are often invisible in society, and that invisibility is often what makes intimate partner violence (or violence of any kind) possible.

When an abuser can physically control if their victim leaves the house, and whether they get to talk to anyone, or can contradict their partner’s words and be believed because their partner has trouble communicating or sometimes loses touch with reality because of their mental illness, the incidence of violence against people with disabilities becomes even more invisible.

I recently read a small, qualitative study that looked at the impacts of intimate partner violence on the lives of women with disabilities. (As with research of nondisabled people’s experiences, a lot of the material on relationship violence and disability centres on the experiences of women. Men, and people who don’t fall into the gender binary, also experience relationship violence.)

The women in this study identified abuse as the most significant health risk they faced.

We can’t ignore that!

Many policy changes in the United States are calling for healthcare providers to screen for abuse. The implications of this need to be considered carefully when it comes to disabled people. Their abuser may be with them during an appointment to facilitate care or communication, and it may be assumed that this person has to be there. It’s impossible for any victim to truthfully answer the kinds of questions suggested here, if an abuser is in the room.

These are yes/no questions, though, and most people can find a way to indicate yes or no. It’s appropriate for a healthcare provider to spend time alone with all patients. Healthcare providers need to take an active role in meeting patients’ communication needs themselves, such as by making sure whatever technology the patient uses is there with them, learning how to use that technology, or providing a sign language interpreter. (Tip: If a partner says it would just be simpler for them to speak for the patient than for the patient to communicate directly with the healthcare provider, red flags should pop up like they’re on helium. They may put it in terms of making things easier for the doctor. I’d hate to think any doctor (or other healthcare provider) would privilege their own ease over communicating with the patient, but I’ve heard of too many times when a medical office has refused to do the work of getting interpreters for patients who need them to believe that this couldn’t happen.)

Many of the health factors research has shown are prevalent in people who experience abuse may be chalked up to disability without a full evaluation being done, so healthcare providers need to check their biases and beliefs about disability and illness and give their patients comprehensive care. Sometimes, when healthcare providers are less familiar with a patient’s medical condition, they may mistakenly attribute small changes to that condition, or presume that these small changes will be less bothersome to someone with a disability. There’s also the assumption a lot of people make about disabled people’s relationships not being romantic or sexual in nature, coupled with assumptions about what abuse looks like, that could colour healthcare providers’ evaluations of whether their disabled patients could be at risk of relationship abuse.

Being abused can both cause disabilities—physical as well as psychological—and exacerbate existing impairments. Experiencing abuse can impact how people manage their impairments or medical conditions—withholding access to healthcare is a form of abuse. The physical and emotional toll of abuse can lead to stress-related illnesses, compounding abuse victims’ disabilities with additional disabilities and illnesses. (as someone with multiple disabilities, I can personally vouch for the ways that multiple impairments make it harder to mitigate being disabled in this world.)

Another key factor that came up in this study was low sexual self-esteem. When we’re constantly bombarded with airbrushed photos of models, and magazine articles telling us the 101 best ways to please our guy in bed (not everyone has—or wants– a guy, and sexual pleasure can’t be distilled into surefire tips the way, say, scrambling an egg can be.) Meeting these cultural expectations is impossible. For people with disabilities, who often cannot do sexual things the ways other people can, and the ways our culture says “real” sex can be done—and who’ve gotten repeated messages that their sexualities either don’t matter or don’t exist—having any sort of sense of sexual self-worth can be a challenge. The women in this study talked about not being physically able to meet the sexual expectations of their partners, or the expectations society has of how women should be an act sexually.

The participants in this study whose sexual self-worth was lowest were those with disabilities acquired in adulthood, changing their sense of self (sexually and otherwise) and, because of these cultural messages, making it hard to build a new, just as strong, sense of self.

Several of these women expressed that they dated men they would not have considered prior to their injuries, dated men who had criminal histories, or with whom they didn’t click, or whom they didn’t find attractive. This does not mean that they dated men who were more likely to be abusive; it says, I think, that they had perhaps turned off, or at least dimmed, their own warning signals.

Some people with disabilities may tolerate abuse in relationships out of fear that no one else will want them. Sending this message is common among abusive partners, and this form of abuse is even more insidious for people with disabilities because many have also gotten that message from friends and family. As I mentioned above, many people think that folks who get romantically involved with disabled people are a step away from sainthood, and they sometimes will undervalue the sexual, intimate, or equal partnership parts of the relationship.

Part of the structure of society’s attitudes towards the sexuality of people with disabilities is that, even if we do have sexual thoughts, we don’t and shouldn’t have the time to act on them because we’re just so darn busy being disabled. If low sexual self-esteem is a risk factor for abuse, then someone had damn well better make time for recognizing disabled people’s sexualities.

Some of the risk factors correlated with experiencing relationship violence are especially common among people with disabilities. Unemployment rates are high among people with disabilities (the study linked at the top of this post also made this connection). And, while the specific statistics vary, it’s generally understood that people with disabilities are abused, in both childhood and adulthood, at higher rates than people without disabilities.

We have a culture that makes all sorts of excuses for abusers, and all sorts of excuses for why it’s not more inclusive of people with disabilities. If we had true community accountability we wouldn’t tolerate abusive behaviour. We wouldn’t have, when a parent attempts to murder a disabled child, an outpouring of sympathy for that parent, instead of the child she harmed.We would have a culture that says: “We know life was hard for that parent, but it’s never okay to try to kill your child.” That culture would also say: “We need to do better by disabled children and those who care for them.” (Yes, I’ve been talking here about intimate partner violence, specifically, but family violence is similar in that it happens in the home, and within the family unit—both of which are considered—like romantic relationships– beyond reproach and closed to outsiders.)

We’d also have a system in place for people of all abilities, because right now, people with disabilities don’t have equal access to the system we have for intimate partner violence victims/survivors.

It’s not all doom and gloom, and WTH is wrong with this world, though. My little anti-violence activist heart skipped a beat when I discovered these twoorganizations work specifically with people with disabilities who’ve experienced relationship abuse or other forms of interpersonal violence.

On that hopeful note, I’ll close for now (though I have at least another page worth of notes about things I’d like people to know about this topic).

Oct 022014
 

The Internet is giant! It’s a library that will never get full (at least, I hope it won’t) and has decades of material. Most of us can barely get through the news and opinions posted each day, let alone find the gems of the past—and there are gems.

Every Thursday I will post a link to something I’ve found that relates to at least one of the themes I write about here—sexuality, disability, abuse, relationships, and so on.

Since my last few posts have been along the lines of “WTF do people think they’re doing?” I thought I’d give you a funny-but-smart post from someone who does kno what he’s doing.

This week’s post is from Dave Hingsburger, published way back in 2006. (I think that makes it about 500 years old in Internet-time.) Dave started his blog that year, and has been writing, almost daily, since then.

I wrote here about how much I value Dave’s work, so it’s fitting that I start this series with one of his posts, and that it’s one where he talks about how he has been able to directly help people with disabilities explore and express their sexual selves.

———

Today I’m going shopping for a dildo and a butt plug – on work time, on a work mission. There are times I love working in the area of sexuality. This is one of them.

Continue reading.

Mar 112014
 

You know those guides for telling you what to do when you meet a person with x, y, or z disability? Well, maybe you don’t, but please just take my word on this one. They’re full of crap. If you follow them, I almost guarantee (I have learned I can’t guarantee anything) you’ll wind up alienating the person instead of interacting with them. These guides actually really insult the intelligence of the people reading them, telling them they’re not possibly smart enough to figure out how to negotiate a possibly unfamiliar situation (I.E. talking to or helping a disabled person). It also forces them into the role of automaton as they struggle to remember what they’ve learned.

Actually, it occurs to me that guides for helping disabled people are just a further way our society reinforces the notion that we’re better off memorizing rules than developing our skills of reasoning, communication, and compassionate intuition.

Still don’t know what I’m talking about? Consider yourself lucky. Or take a look at these responses to such guidelines.
How to Talk to Normal People: A Guide for the Rest of Us

What To Do When You Meet An Able-Bodied Person

If you laugh while reading through these, as I did, that’s more than okay; they’re pretty ridiculous and I think the best way to deal with ridiculousness is to laugh. Sadly, this isn’t too far off the mark from what those of us with disabilities experience. I have personally served as Christmas angel or other ethereally inspirational being to many strangers, people who decided they knew all about me, and that I was of superior moral character, all based on my having a visible disability.

Thing is: We who have disabilities aren’t one-dimensional; our disability might be the most noticeable thing about us to others, but it is, for most of us most of the time, not what we notice most about ourselves. While it, depending on the nature of the disability, might impact how we run our day-to-day lives, it’s just one of many things we consider or think about. For example, someone who uses a wheelchair might have to plan the safest, most accessible route to the local knitting shop, or arrange for accessible transportation, or find an accessible knitting shop in the first place, but their focus is going to be on getting to that knitting shop to teach or take a class, or to buy goods with which to make holiday gifts or stock up for their custom-designed shawl-knitting business. The special arrangements they need to make to get to the shop don’t define who they are. Using a wheelchair and needing to find an accessible way to get to the shop is just one aspect of that person’s identity as a fibre artist, small business owner, yarn geek, or whatever their relationship to knitting happens to be. Once they get there, an employee or another customer engages our imaginary yarn geek in a question-and-answer session about their disability, that’s likely going to be a huge disconnect for them, since they’re not there as a disabled person, but as a yarn geek.

There’s no one thing that a particular kind of disability (or disability in general) can tell us about the person or people who are disabled in that way, about what they need and want access-wise, or really anything concrete about them at all. I heard a story once, from a blind guy who was sitting in on an accessibility training at his local library. The person giving the training suggested that if someone with a disability is in line at the desk to ask a question or get assistance, and there are others in line behind them, that the library worker should ask the person with the disability to wait until they’ve served the other patrons, regardless of their position in line. This blind guy spoke up, reciting his weekly schedule, and asked if the folks their thought that he had time to give up his place in line.

The accessibility trainer was operating under a few assumptions. 1. The person with a disability is primarily a person with a disability, not necessarily a busy parent, entrepreneur, community volunteer, etc. Following from that, they assumed it’s not unreasonable to ask a “person with a disability” to do something you wouldn’t ask another “person” to do. 2. That a person with a disability is necessarily going to need more help and take longer to serve than a person with no visible disability. This may or may not be true, but generally will depend on what they need, not on the fact that they have a disability. If their question requires extensive research, or a prolonged foray among the stacks, then certainly, they might be asked to wait, or to make an appointment to come back, but so would any not-visibly-disabled person.

In writing this post, and preparing the presentation I’ll be giving this weekend at Catalyst Con, I’ve gone back and forth with myself a lot on whether to give specific guidance or suggestions on appropriate protocol when interacting with disabled people. There really cannot be one protocol, for disability in general and for disabilities specifically.

The No. 1 rule really is, of course, just to treat us like human beings. If you wouldn’t walk up to a not-visibly-disabled person and ask how they got dressed in the morning, or how they can possibly take care of their child, don’t do it to someone with a visible disability. If you wouldn’t touch a not-visibly-disabled person without asking them, then don’t do that to a visibly disabled person. All of this is pretty obvious, yes?

Good.

While I would like to be able to leave it at that, I don’t think it’s ultimately helpful to do so.

I think that disability is something pretty foreign and frightening to a lot of people on a gut level. Some of this is because people find the prospect of losing any sort of functionality in their day-to-day life to be terrifying. There’s a cultural element too, as there aren’t a lot of good models in media for relating to people with disabilities, both around our sameness and around our difference. Come to that, there aren’t generally a lot of representations of people with disability in media sources, and what representations there are tend to hold us up as either inspiring (I wasn’t joking about that Christmas angel bit) or helpless. Even for those who recognize the one-dimensionality of these representations, I think they can still affect people on an emotional level, making disability seem foreign and difficult to understand.

The harder people try to understand disability, the more separated they become from the recollection that we’re just human beings like everyone else.

So, I present to you a small list of suggestions. While these read like dos and don’ts, they’re intended more as thought starters, and as “things you may not have thought of because they’re not part of what you encounter in everyday life. Honestly, I thought this list would be a lot longer than it ended up being, but boiling down the basics ended up being pretty simple.

Mobility Devices (canes, crutches, wheelchairs, service dogs, and so on): Do not touch someone’s mobility device without their express say-so. Our mobility devices are there to help us navigate, not for you to navigate for us. Grabbing someone’s service dog, or cane, or wheelchair, or walker, is akin to grabbing a car’s steering wheel out of the driver’s hands, and, depending on the mobility aid, could be akin to grabbing the steering wheel from a driver and kicking an ambulating person’s feet out from under them. Unless someone explicitly indicates that they want you to push their chair, or hold their cane for them, or otherwise interact with their mobility device to be helpful to them, it’s hands-off!

Yes, this also goes for guide or other service dogs. I don’t care how winsome those eyes are, it’s always best to ask before you pet and respect whatever answer you get. Touching someone’s assistance animal without permission is like touching them or their small child without permission.

“Can I pet your dog?” also needs to not be the first question you ask someone upon meeting them.

Communication: Small talk is the same whether we have a disability or not. Small talk (whether through speaking or other forms of communication) is about shared topics. Maybe you feel like you don’t know what similairities you have with a person with x, y, or z disability that makes their life and how they experience it different from yours. Really, though, the things you’d talk about with any stranger–the weather, latest movies, anything related to the space you’re in (if at school, questions or comments about classes are always appropriate)—is suitable. Disabled people are not that different from you, and while our disability might be of interest to you, trust me when I say that to us it’s more boring than talking about the weather!

If you’re talking with the person who has the disability, always look at them. If you’re communicating with them through a sign language interpreter, still look at them. Think of the interpreter is useful furniture. Their job is just to interpret what you’re saying, and, if the deaf or hard-of-hearing person doesn’t speak your language, to also “voice” their responses. That’s basically it. Here’s a great Wiki on communicating with a Deaf person through an interpreter.

You want to look at the person or people you’re talking to even if they can’t look at or make eye contact with you; for example, if the person is blind, or is physically unable to move their body in such a way as to look at you. Speaking as someone who can’t see, it really does make a difference when someone looks at me while talking with me, not out over my head, or at anyone I might have with me.

Our family and friends generally don’t speak for us, unless we ask them too. Even if a family member, friend, or personal support attendant (someone employed to help a disabled person do things they need help doing) voices for a person with a disability, or appears to be taking charge of the disabled person they’re with, it’s still courteous and humanizing to address the person. For example, if you want to know what someone wants for lunch, ask them. Regardless of who responds, it’s still so much nicer to hear “what do you want for lunch?” than “What does she want for lunch?” It’s also sound not to make assumptions about what someone might or might not understand just because they’re not verbal or otherwise not communicating with you.

If you keep that No. 1 rule I mentioned above in mind (always treat people with disabilities like human beings) at all times, you’ll be just fine!

I hope I’ve provided some food for thought here. If you have specific questions about interacting with people with specific disabilities, or have encountered situations you’d like some feedback on, please leave your question in the comments or email me privately so I can address specific concerns in this space.

Feb 262014
 

Web Access for everyone

Well, technically not for everyone. How we design our Web spaces isn’t going to make them any more accessible to someone who doesn’t have or can’t afford a computer or mobile device, or who doesn’t have or can’t afford Net access.

For those who do have net access, either through their own machines or through community settings such as public libraries, how we design our web spaces can very much influence how welcome people feel in the space we’ve created for them online.

Web space is real space, and as such deserves the same kind of attention and care we give to our in-person spaces when we invite other people into them.

Web space is different only in that it’s easy to invite nearly everyone in.

For those of us who provide information or are promoting our services around sexuality and relationships, making our Web visitors feel welcome is especially important. Many people come looking for what we offer from a place of fear or uncertainty; making their cyber-visit comfortable and easy not only ensures that they get the information they were looking for but that they’ll feel welcome to come back.

When talking about Web accessibility, we generally mean not whether someone can access the web as a whole, but whether different sites and services are usable by people with disabilities. In general, I’d say that accessibility translates to user-friendliness.

Accessibility is akin to making a physical space comfortable. When someone comes into a physical space where they feel comfortable and safe, where water and bathrooms are available, the people around them are pleasant, and what they need, whether for work or pleasure, is readily available, you can usually perceive the stress and worry lifting away from them. When the space is cluttered, people are unfriendly or disorganized, when it’s not readily apparent how to access what we came to that space for, the tension builds up.

Web space is the same.

Speaking as someone who uses access technology to interact with online spaces, I can frankly tell you that it can feel like a slap in the face to go looking for information or entertainment only to find that a site is confusing, tedious to navigate, or is designed in such a way that assistive tech freezes up as the page is loading.

Speaking of assistive tech, a lot of people think of Web accessibility as being primarily about and for people who use assistive technology, such as for people screen readers that read the material on a screen aloud or those who use speech input software that allows people who cannot use a keyboard or mouse to control their computer through speaking aloud.

Web access extends far beyond this, from meeting the needs of People with different cognitive or learning disabilities to ensuring that multi-media is made accessible to people with different sensory impairments (E.G. transcripts for audio material, well-worded descriptions for visual material).

Learning and cognitive dis/abilities are as wide-ranging and individual as the human population. Just as we’re not going to meet the needs or wants of the entire human population with what we provide in our Web spaces, we won’t always be able to be 100% accessible to everyone. There are lots of changes, both in basic Web design and in actual content, which will improve the general usability of our spaces.

You’ll find when reading Web design guidelines specific to cognitive impairment, two great resources for which are here and here that many of the suggestions given feel more like common sense than special accommodation. Plus, web tools have fantastic potential for making written and multi-media information more interactive and user-friendly than it would be offline.

Knowing the variety and types of access considerations can help you design your Web material to be as inclusive as possible. Doing this helps you reach more people, makes your work inclusive in action as well as word, and modelss what I’ll cheekily call good behavior for the rest of web space.

Having this information can also help you advocate on behalf of people who cannot access mainstream sites. Some forms of inaccessibility won’t be immediately apparent to you, but many will be once you know what to look for. Changes to ameliorate these forms of accessibility will generally also make the site more accessible for you. Large-scale changes (such as having the internet be more accessible than not) generally don’t happen on their own

Overall Web accessibility won’t happen until we all advocate together, until the general population is speaking up.

While you likely can’t make your Web material accessible to all populations, here are some things to consider.

If you’re setting up your own space on the Web, your best bet is to use the KISS model—Keep It Simpler Than Simple. Yes, I know that’s supposed to be Keep It Simple, Stupid, but I don’t hold with calling anyone stupid; the sole exception is if they’ve hurt me or those I love. You can use these guidelines from the W3C accessibility project to evaluate your site as you go. If you hire a web developer, make it clear to them that you expect them to familiarize themselves with these guidelines and follow them. Most of the guidelines are pretty clear to we non-tech types, so even if someone else is designing and building your site, you can collaborate with them on equal footing when making sure it’s accessible.

Bottom line? Making Web spaces accessible isn’t any harder than creating the spaces themselves. It may take a little more time to create alt-text tags to go with the screen shots on your blog. It may take more care to ensure that all your links are properly labelled. But doing these things, and others, is just part of good Web design.

If you have specific questions, please leave them in the comments or contact me directly.

Feb 202014
 

In the first part of my commentary on “porn for the blind,” I suggested that visual forms of porn don’t retain much of their eroticism if they’re made accessible. Erotic picture does not necessarily equal erotic tactile picture.

This isn’t because blind people’s erotic sensibilities are any different from those of people who can see (the continuums of what people find erotic are the same whether a person can see or not) but because the frame of reference is different. The whole of a visual image is more than just the sum of its parts.

Today, let’s find out what happens when people give audio descriptions of visual erotic material.

As always, I’ll be as objective as I can, but I’m only one blind person among many, so reactions may vary.

PornForTheBlind.org is a crowd-sourcing site at which people can upload their narrations of mainstream porn trailers from around the net. There are no guidelines for these descriptions, and no obvious forms of oversight for what is uploaded.

Listening to the handful of descriptions I was able to get through, I was bored to tears, and ready to go do the laundry or some other equally mundaine, non-erotic task.

This site falls into the category of interesting, not erotic. Describing what video porn looks like is not the same as consuming it as porn. The erotic elements are not there.

Granted, each narrator describes differently (there are no guidelines or even guiding principles for describers) so the quality varies. But, while some were narrated more helpfully than others, none of the descriptions floated my erotic boat.

What does lacking erotic details look like? No coherence, lots of ums and uhs, no emphasis on using sexy or descriptive language, no panache, and most of the narrators sound bored out of their skulls. The majority of the narrators speak in a monotone, and don’t seem to have practiced their spiel ahead of time.

Perhaps consequently, many of the descriptions are funny (not erotically funny), and the funniness is more painful than entertaining. The language used is often clinical at best, and missing colour supplied from adjectives, setting descriptions, and sexual slang.

this article explains the nature of the material on porn For the Blind this way:

…there’s something hot about the absolute amateur quality of the submissions, just like a homemade snapshot capturing real sexual energy can have more impact than a studio photograph of a professional model.

If there’s something hot here, I’m missing it. This writer may be confusing amateur with raw. (She is also, I suspect, assuming that everyone describes with the rich detail she uses; Her descriptions (which she provides links to in her article) are, so far as I can tell, the exceptions, not the rule.) She sounds like she’s enjoying herself, and does supply descriptive detail.

There is definitely something raw about the porn being described, but the descriptions lack “sexual energy” and are so stark E.G. (“there is a man lying on a couch; a woman is on top of him; they’re having intercourse.”) that any raw sexiness is edited right out.

Again, we have a situation in which making the visual genre accessible to people who can’t see strips much of the erotic appeal out of the content. With Tactile Minds, I assessed part of the problem as being the presence of too much stylized detail. With Porn for the Blind, I believe we have too little.

were the narrators of these clips to script their narrations, using words which set the stage and describe the mood of the activity as well as what is happening, I think we’d have more of that sexually raw content available in the audio. As it is now, we’re just hearing what happens on the screen. This is not the same watching experience as that which people watching it firsthand get; They’re absorbing the mood of the setting, the characters’ actions and body language, all with their own concepts of what is sexy informing their reactions. While word choice in narrations would necessarily influence the hearer’s perception of the scene (we’d be getting the narrator’s perception of what’s happening) it would add more in the way of interest and appeal than what is currently there.

So, the description I quoted above might then become: “A man is reclining on a leather sofa; he lies still as a woman straddles him and vigorously fucks him.” or, it might read: “A man reclines on a leather sofa, arching his hips up towards the woman who straddles him, her long hair brushing his chest as their pelvises rock together. (No, I’m not going to sign up to describe porn any time soon, but hopefully you get the picture.) :)

It may be too that this genre of porn really cannot be narrated. Listening to these descriptions reminded me of the time I watched a full-length artsy erotic film with some friends, and the machinations they went through to describe to me what was happening on-screen left all of us in peals of laughter. The film was essentially a montage of elaborate sexy scenes that switched about every minute. The scenes in a 30- to- 45-second trailer flip even more rapidly, and with less context, than those in a full-length film. Keeping up with these flips, plus supplying evocative information, is a challenge for any person trying to describe, and if it is going to be done, should probably be done by someone who has experience with providing audio descriptions.

So, in short, Porn For the blind is an interesting exercise the result of which ends up pretty far away from the intent.

Conclusion: Not erotic, not entertaining, and (because of the generally inexpert description) not even overly educational as to what happens in porn.

Next time, a review of a site with exclusively audio content.

Feb 132014
 

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.