Sometimes people have a general idea about accessibility, alternatives or adjustments, but a one-size-fits-all approach is often as bad, if not worse, than doing nothing at all.
What’s the problem?
Everyone is different. People have different needs, different abilities, and some adjustments just won’t make any difference to them.
Often, the worst thing you can do is to make assumptions. The best person to know what will be helpful is the person who actually needs the help. Or maybe they don’t need any help – you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve just been going about my day, but people saw the guide dog or white cane and automatically assumed I needed something!
Most of these adjustments would have been helpful to someone – just not to me. Some aren’t adjustments at all – just a bad way of doing things.
I have no problem with people asking questions. In fact I have more of a problem with disabled people getting snappy when others are asking questions because they want to offer help or just be friendly and aren’t sure what to say.
But assumptions are a problem, because you can get it wrong, and in some cases you might communicate the message that you, as a stranger, know better than someone who has possibly been living with their disability or medical condition for years.
Most of these people were well-meaning or trying to do something helpful, but I want to use some of my own experiences to show how that worked out in real life!
1. I’ll send you the information in large print
This was a utility company. I was having a long drawn-out issue with them, which had nothing to do with my disability. However, as soon as the customer representative found out that I had a visual impairment, she insisted on sending everything to me in large print.
This would be fine if I could see well enough to read large print, but I can’t see anything. Email would have been great, and it is the solution that we finally agreed on so that I could read the correspondence. It somehow took a while for the large print to stop coming though, and this made me sad – it went straight in the shredder (more work) or the recycling (waste of paper), and it was really not necessary!
Tip: accessible formats are great, but only if the person can access that format. Braille would have been ok for me too, but not all blind people can read it.
2. We don’t have step-free access, so that might be a problem
A lack of step-free access is definitely a problem for people who need step-free access, but that doesn’t automatically include all people with a visual disability.
My last four houses have had stairs. I often took the stairs rather than the lift at work because it was good exercise. Not being able to see doesn’t mean that a person is looking for step-free access.
Tip: Step-free access is a way to make sure that your event, building etc is accessible to as many people as possible. This is a good thing. But if you make the assumption that all disabled people will have a problem if you can’t provide it is not helpful.
3. I’ve brought a wheelchair
My pet hate at the airport. It hasn’t happened to me as much recently because I’ve usually been accompanied by my partner, but when I was travelling on my own a lot, you could be sure that they would turn up every single time. The obligatory wheelchair in which I was expected to travel. I never did.
To be fair, this was more of an issue in UK airports than anywhere else, but it often took a robust discussion before the wheelchair was taken away.
Some blind people just go with it because it’s easier, but I can’t do that. For a start, there may be someone who actually needs the wheelchair, and they might be waiting for it. But really it’s the blanket assumption that all disabled people are unable to walk, and the suggestion that I should use it because it’s easier to transport me that way than to walk alongside me, that I object to.
I’ll get on the carts with my luggage – that makes sense and is faster. But keep the wheelchairs for people who genuinely need them.
Tip: Ask people what kind of assistance they require and don’t assume that everybody wants or needs the same things. Wheelchairs should be provided for people who need them.
4. I’ll make it nice and loud for you
Most blind people don’t need things to be louder. In addition to my blindness, I have noise sensitivities, which means that loud things are particularly unpleasant and I will generally try to get away from them.
Tip: people with vision-related disabilities don’t need you to over-compensate with another sense. We don’t have super-senses as some would have you believe, but we are generally good at using our other senses and don’t need things to be louder. People with hearing loss may, but sometimes just making things louder can distort the sound.
5. I’ll take your luggage off the plane for you – even though you asked me not to!
This made me angry!
An air hostess asked if I would like her to take my carry-on luggage off the plane at the end of the flight. I declined politely. She did it anyway.
This meant that A. I had no idea where it was, B. it was unattended and could have been stolen or tampered with, and C. she completely ignored what I wanted, thinking she knew what was best for me. She succeeded in making problems for me, even though I was doing just fine before she got involved.
Tip: Don’t ignore someone when they ask you not to do the thing that you think would be helpful. Maybe someone who had difficulty lifting or carrying things would have been grateful, but that wasn’t the case here.
6. I knew a blind man once and he …
In this particular instance it was that he wanted his food to be cut up for him, which I definitely don’t. Whatever it is though, one person with a disability is just one person with a disability.
Most of my friends have never met another blind person before and to be honest, I quite like that! It generally means they’re more willing to listen to how I do things or what they could do to help!
I do have some friends with lots of blind contacts, but they respect that we are all different. Some are more independent travellers than others. Some have better IT skills. We don’t all access information in the same way or want the same information about our environment.
Tip: Our diversity is what makes people interesting! Please remember this because even if people have exactly the same disability, there are so many other factors which influence their life, access needs, and way of interacting with the world!
7. I’ll speak to the person with you
There are very few occasions where this is a good or helpful thing to do. Does she want a coffee? Would she be interested in…? Would she like to…? None of these things are good. Nobody likes being spoken about in the third person.
My partner doesn’t engage with it and is likely to say “ask her yourself!” It’s actually quite infuriating though and in a business context I have made sure that companies have lost our business because of it!
Tip: just don’t do it! Speak to people directly.
8. Why do you need a guard dog in the restaurant?
I just included this because it made me smile. Really it was a misunderstanding. I often had people try to deny me access because I had a guide dog, but this person thought I was famous and needed to bring a protection dog. That’s not what I was asking for when I said my guide dog would be coming along!
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This wasn’t supposed to be a ranty post, but I did want to take some of these examples to show how well meant doesn’t always mean well done!
I don’t want to see people withdrawing and not doing or saying anything for fear of saying the wrong thing to an unapproachable, prickly disabled person (I’ve seen that too, and whilst I can understand some reactions, I don’t think it’s the best way to fix the problem!)
I want to generate discussion and do something useful to bridge the knowledge gaps, hopefully showing why some things aren’t helpful, and others depend on the individual set of circumstances.