keynote address on accessibility standards
Hello. My name is Tracy Odell and I’m pleased to be here.
I’ve been around for quite a while. So long, in fact, that now when I meet some younger people with disabilities, they can’t believe the way things used to be.
When I was young and first diagnosed with a disability, the standard recommendation was to place such a child in an institution where they would be cared for, forget about them and have another.
Thousands of people of my generation had parents who took that well-meaning advice.
My parents had not one, but two of us with the same disability. My sister, Sandy, being the older one, was the scout.
Anyone could see she was a bright little thing, articulate, perceptive. She went to the regular neighborhood school for Grade 1.
The teacher didn’t really understand that she couldn’t walk. She looked so normal and cute sitting on a chair. My Mom recalls a day when she was coming in to the classroom to bring Sandy home.
She found the teacher standing over her, commanding: “PICK—THAT—UP!” It was a pencil or eraser or something. Possibly, my impish sister tossed it aside in an act of defiance, but the teacher was asking her to do something she simply could not do without falling off of the chair and hurting herself.
Mom marched into the classroom, picked it up, said coldly “Is this what you wanted?” and handed it to the teacher. If looks could have made that teacher change places with my sister, it would have happened. I remember the look my Mom reserved just for the worst kind of behavior – some of you may have had mothers who had that look as well. No doubt my sister’s teacher got a sample of it that day.
It was a long time ago, and the general population didn’t know as much about people with disabilities as they may know today. But too often, we have been made to feel like that little kid: unable to do things when we are asked, in the way we are asked. Or made to feel outrage like my mother, when witnessing an injustice.
A year later, the school board said my sister could not go back there. They were worried that my sister could not defend herself if she got into a schoolyard scrap. They said the teachers could not carry her to the washroom, to recess, to other classes in the school. My mom was on her own with us by then, making a meager living as a secretary. She could not afford a wheelchair for my sister, let alone for both of us. My sister was not welcome at school.
However, they recommended a special school for Sandy. It was full of children just like my sister. I forget the name except for the fact that the word “crippled” was a prominent element.
So my sister went there, until they decided that she could not continue. You see, she had a type of disability that would not improve with therapy, and the school wanted only students who could benefit from their program. So Sandy was not welcome, there, either.
For her third year, my sister had a teacher come to our home twice a week. I was still too young for school but I was very intrigued about all the neat stuff she got to do. These were the days where there were perhaps 3 channels on the TV, one of them static-y. No videogames. No huge children’s market for books or toys – not that we could have afforded them anyway.
For the fourth year, when I was old enough to start Grade 1, I got to have the home teacher alongside my sister. It was our own little one-room schoolhouse. I learned to read and practically swallowed books whole. I would do all the exercises the teacher left for me before I left the kitchen table. OK true, I couldn’t get down until my Mom put me down, but I must have been pretty content to do all my homework in all my subjects in one sitting. My teacher started to write on the top of the page which day she wanted me to do what. She didn’t think I should go too fast. Not sure why, perhaps it didn’t fit her concept of what a “crippled” child should be able to do.
Eventually, Mom worried that Sandy and I would become too isolated. Sometimes she even went out and invited the neighborhood kids to come and play with us. Our friends were our babysitter’s kids. Our social circle was very small and Mom feared the day when it would shrink even more.
So when a visiting nurse came and saw my sister and I crawling around on the floor, she convinced our Mom that the best thing for us would be to – yes, you guessed it – send us away to Toronto live in an institution.
My sister was 11 years old then when she left home. She was upset and asked Mom repeatedly what she had done wrong to be sent away. She promised to behave. But we all know that wasn’t the reason she had to go.
A few months later when a child there died unexpectedly, a spot opened up there for me. At 7 years of age, I left my home and my little buddies and went to join my sister in the institution.
I tell you this, because it’s important that you understand where many people with disabilities have come from. Customer service for persons with disabilities in those days was basically an attitude of, “We know what’s best; you don’t need a say; WE will look after YOU. We know what you need.” Well, that attitude didn’t work for the women’s movement, and it didn’t work for us, either.
People with disabilities started to push for change. Some of us pushed hard. We were called “uppity cripples” and worse. But we were driven by a sense of justice, a simple desire to do what others did, live like others lived, have the right to make our own decisions – even bad ones – but to make our own decisions and live and grow and hopefully, thrive.
Before there were curb cuts – those little ramps on the corners of sidewalks – people in wheelchairs dashed across the middle of the street connecting from driveway to driveway. Bill Owen was a man who pretty much singlehandedly persuaded Toronto to start putting curb cuts in place. At first, the city balked at the idea. It would cost a fortune to rip up every corner and put in a ramp! They wondered if Bill had thought it through. What should the city STOP doing in order to pay for all this? Why did people with disabilities think they deserved more than their share of the pie??
Those who knew Bill knew he was a quiet man, a reasonable man. So why did he press so hard? Why didn’t he just accept that the city was doing its best? Why not settle for the status quo? Well, because Bill was wheeling all over downtown Toronto in a manual chair. He really didn’t need to do all those extra miles to go from A to B. He wanted to go the most direct route, safely, like anyone else.
And finally, the city listened to reason. Bill pointed out that they could make sidewalks accessible FROM NOW ON, and in 10 year’s time, the city would begin to be transformed. Today, it is standard practice to ramp a curb. And when people who were blind had difficulty figuring out where the sidewalk ended and the road began, they lobbied for changes to the design to put texture as a marker. Now, curb cuts work for all of us. Curb cuts and ramps tell me I am welcome.
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA as it is called, for short) gave a 20 year time frame for change. This, in an age where people state they don’t want to wait on hold for more than two minutes or stand in line for more than ten. Many of us cut our teeth in a “do more with less” era. Yet, despite DECADES of waiting for people to do the right thing, progress has remained painfully slow.
This is why the AODA was needed.
Fast Forward: Now I am a rebellious teenager, still living in the institution. We just enjoyed a coupe, forcing the establishment to refer to us as “students” and not patients. We were not sick. We were all in school. Other kids our age were called students, after all. We flatly refused to respond if we were called anything else but students, and it stuck.
Language and what we call people: It’s basic etiquette and a foundation for customer service. It’s how we make people feel welcome. The word “crippled” has slowly been traded for other, more acceptable terms. The most acceptable of all? Just my name. If it is necessary to refer to my disability, remember that it is the person who comes first. Please make sure in your mind, and in your words whether spoken or printed, I am a PERSON “with” a disability.
It’s hard this language thing. I ride Wheel-Trans every day to and from work. The dispatchers, the drivers, even some of the passengers get sucked in to using dehumanizing language.
A driver might say, “I have two wheelchairs to pick up after you.”
“Oh,” I say, “just the wheelchairs? No people in them?”
It takes a while to get them to understand that as long as they see us as “wheelchairs” or “scooters” or “ambulatories” it is harder for them to remember we are people. The terminology they use is a window into their attitudes. You see, if we are only a wheelchair, then it doesn’t matter if our rides are late – after all, we should feel grateful to have a ride at all; it doesn’t matter if our ride is long in order to scoop up others who needed rides – we’re lucky there was a ride available; and it shouldn’t matter if we get there an hour late, or two hours early – since “wheelchairs” don’t have lives. Most of all, it doesn’t matter that the level of service provided to us is inferior to transportation service offered to others in our city. THEY are people. WE are “wheelchairs”.
If the drivers begin to see us as PEOPLE first, they might have more empathy when our rides are long or we are distressed at being late. They will work with us to make improvements for the better. If they see us as people, they will not resent being given an extra person to pick up. They will see us as a person they were able to serve, as someone who had somewhere they needed to go – not as a thing to do something to.
Customer Service: it doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. But it’s a big deal when it’s done well.
First I’ll tell you a funny story. As a young adult, after I had signed myself out of the institution, I was out at a bar with a few friends. It was getting late and so we started going our separate ways. I came across one of those curbs that hadn’t been cut into a ramp yet, and paused to assess my approach. Was it too high for me to spin around and back off of it? I looked for the nearest driveway. At that moment a group of chivalrous young men decided to come to my rescue. Without asking, and before I had a chance to say anything, each one grabbed a part of my chair. They intended to lift me up and off the curb and get me to the other side.
Imagine their faces when my chair came apart in their hands! Footrests and armrests flew off my chair in every direction, yet I remained right where I was. It was very funny. They had no choice but to listen to me about how to put everything back together. Then I had the chance to explain how to help me across the street – in one piece, not five.
Another story: One time I was invited out to Alberta to give a keynote at a teachers’ conference. I made my flight arrangements and had a friend come with me as an attendant. The only thing was that I was speaking in Prince Albert, and the plane only went as far as Saskatchewan.
I spoke to the conference organizers to find out if anyone had an accessible vehicle they could lend or rent (my friend drove). There was none available. They offered to pay a taxi, but there were none that were accessible. Finally, they made a deal with the special transit provider in Prince Albert. Apparently, they had requested a loan at a bank and the banker was somehow related to the conference organizer. All I can say is they got their loan, and I got my ride.
I knew none of this at the time. I was just told that someone would be there to pick us up in an accessible vehicle. When the driver found me, he led me out to where he was parked. “What do you think?” he asked. “About Saskatchewan?” “No,” he said, “About the VAN.”
“It’s very nice.” I said. He asked me, “Who ARE you, anyway?” Nobody. Just here to speak at a conference. “Oh,” he said. “You know, they made me WASH the van before coming to pick you up!”
That trip to Prince Albert stands out in my mind as one of the best customer service experiences I ever had. When I needed a ride, I called them. They got to me in 10 to 15 minutes, tops. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t have to book the rides 5 days ahead of time, like we had to in Toronto back then. When I got on board, I let them know where I was going. And if it was a different driver, I could pick up the conversation where I left off with the person before, since they were all chatting with each other over coffee, comparing notes from driving me, the celebrity from Toronto. I had become their own Miss Daisy.
So what does accessible customer service look like today? What could it be like? What SHOULD it be like?
David Lepofsky would say it should be pro-active. Let people know what’s available, what their options are. David told me about a great experience he had in a store, where every now and then the soothing muzak was interrupted with announcements. One of the announcements informed people of accessible features available – like alternate formats, or customer assistance. Hmm. Think about it. Isn’t that clever? It’s the audio equivalent to posting a sign!
Accessible customer service is respectful. It is offered naturally, right alongside others. It’s not a 3-ring circus: Foghorn Leghorn isn’t there announcing his presence, it’s enabling us to do what anyone else would be doing, but in accessible ways.
Is there a menu? Is there a form to complete? If so, people will need to be able to access it in different ways. Some will use their eyes, some will use their ears, some will use their fingertips. We can be ready to offer an accessible alternative to someone. It doesn’t have to be super-expensive. It can be simply reading some information to someone, or using a pen and paper to communicate with someone who is deaf.
Accessible customer service is convenient. People with disabilities are not centered out to be the only ones who have to get a key or an escort to use the washroom. We’re not forced to wait weeks and weeks for documents we can use, when other people can get theirs almost right away. We’re not made to line up in a separate area. We’re not treated like second class citizens.
Like you, people with disabilities also come in all colors, shapes, sizes and temperaments. And all of us come with different abilities. We may have different ways of doing things, but that’s OK, so do you. And all of us deserve respect.
Some of us may need more time to figure out the right change. It just takes a little diplomacy so people waiting in line are less inclined to be impatient or rude. Some people with learning disabilities may need things explained in a different way, using diagrams, for example, to explain directions or procedures. They would want you to know they are not being difficult or obstinate – they just won’t “get it” if the information isn’t presented in the right way.
Some of us may need assistance to locate rooms in a building. We might need a little help to find our way, to spot the right door or decipher a map. It just takes a little planning to figure out how to design that information sign, or to ask, “May I Help You?” And unlike my would-be helpers at the curb that night, take a moment to wait for the answer first – there might be important information about how to help safely and effectively! Getting the right kind of help and the right amount of help, tells us we are welcome.
Imagine being in a position where you have to go to appeal a decision. You might be anxious and worried about the outcome. There might be a lot at stake for you. Will they be fair and impartial? Will they hear your side of the story? How do you know? Well, if you are confronted with barriers, it can feel like a hostile environment. A person might feel like the deck is stacked against them and that the process is a charade. Having accommodations and a friendly voice helps to level the playing field. It doesn’t guarantee that a person will win their appeal, but at the end of the day, any person wants to believe they were heard, respected and treated fairly.
And remember – it’s not just people with disabilities who need accommodation! Have you ever stopped to think how much money we would save if we stopped bothering to accommodate all these sighted people with their lights? They just learn Braille and how to navigate in the dark! How much cheaper would telephones be if we got rid of the ringers. Only hearing people need those, anyway. Ah, you laugh. But in effect, people with disabilities are often expected to do without the things they need to function and participate.
Accommodation, when it is done well, works well for everyone. That’s why it’s considered “universal design” now. If we build ramps and curb cuts, it helps people with strollers, people with luggage or briefcases on wheels, people with catering and delivery carts. Wider hallways and doors help everyone move around easier. Uncluttered hallways prevent accidents and are also more accessible. Alarms that can be seen and heard help everyone, and if you ask everyone, “May I Help You?” no one is centred out.
Accommodations are your way of telling people with disabilities that we are welcome in your establishments, that we’re not a bother, that you don’t resent serving us, and that on the contrary, you welcome our business and respect our rights.
There is no question that we have come a long way in the last 25 years. It’s also clear that we still have a ways to go. Accessible customer service is a key starting point. With your commitment, we will get there.
All welcome? Help to make it so through your thoughts, words and actions.
Thank you very much.
Citizens With Disabilities – Ontario
March 6, 2009
|Crystal Van Boxtel||180|