Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Not Getting It


I used to be involved in organizing disability awareness days, both in university and later on a larger scale, but these days, I have conflicted feelings about them. With the benefit of hindsight, it became possible to see that too often, such days are "Trot out the Cripples Day" and after it's all over, people/the organization go back to not worrying about accessibility until it's time to plan the next awareness day. When these days are used as merely one aspect of an accessibility strategy, days to celebrate accomplishments made in the past year, they work and can be a valuable way of making the public aware of what's going on. If they are held in isolation, essentially being the beginning and end of an accessibility strategy, they don't really do anything at all.

Simulation exercises are often part of awareness days and this is when the able-bodied get to spend some time in a wheelchair, using earplugs to simulate being hard of hearing, dark glasses to pretend being visually impaired and you can imagine the rest. And I have conflicted feelings about those, too. On one hand, I hope that such exercises will give someone enough exposure to carry just a small amount of knowledge forward, just a tiny bit of nudging in the back of the head that gets them to consider access as they move through their life. On the other hand, I don't really think that happens. People forget or worse, become absolutely convinced this is terrible, that there's no way they could ever live like that and then we're back to the place where those of us who travel seated (or whatever) get put in a completely different category than regular people and become the recipients of the groveling admiration just because you decided to get dressed and leave your house.

Which is all a way of leading into this story, in which an intrepid journalist takes on the challenge of spending an hour in a wheelchair. It appears to be the result of a story by a parent of a disabled child reporting issues getting around apart in South Africa. If you've ever traveled in or with the wheelchair in a park, you know what it's like and the journalist describes his hour as "emotionally and physically draining." So far, so good, but then we get to the point where I got snippy. Because the journalist describes getting stuck, calling people to help, but if nobody responded to the call for help, "I simply stood up and moved the wheelchair, much to the surprise of onlookers."

WTF??

Dude, if I may be so bold, I would like to opine that you have completely missed the point of the simulation exercise. Nevermind the fact that spending an hour in a chair in a park by no means simulates life in a wheelchair, but unless you commit to spending that hour seated, without the escape hatch of being able to get up and move the chair from the obstacle, this exercise has no validity whatsoever. In fact, I might even question your journalistic integrity because you allowed the escape hatch to exist at all. How much more powerful with the article had been if he'd reported not just on the physical barriers of the park - getting only so far and remaining stuck would pack a punch indeed - but also on the social barriers by people not responding to the call for help. That article would have been a powerful call for change, might even have prompted some of that change. Instead, we are left with the usual groveling admiration expressed in the last line "I salute all those in wheelchairs." Which is completely useless.

Now, a simulation exercises meant that you were given an undetermined time in the chair, with the addition of electric shock if you try to get out of it for anything other than bathroom activity purposes… Well. That might do the trick.


5 comments:

AlisonH said...

Wait a minute, wait a minute--that cited article was among the "best in online journalism"?

The guy tried, but he didn't have the context to begin to know how he came short.

Diane said...

Years ago, I participated in one those simulations and used a wheelchair.  What stuck with me was a real appreciation of just how strong wheelchair users have to be.  My shoulders and hands were very happy to see the end of that day.  Later, I've been on crutches a few times, the most recent about 10 years ago.  Even after all the accessibility regulations, it was quite clear just how inaccessible my place of employment was.

By the way, look to the west soon...absolutely stunning sunset tonight!

Anonymous said...

Wow.  Just...wow.  What a tool. 

Anonymous said...

that was Kitten, btw.

Lucia said...

That's amazing. Not in a good way.

...no, it's not, which is even worse.