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I’ve lived in a body whose eyes don’t function “normally” for over three decades now. My life is generally happy, productive, full of friends and hobbies and new trails to blaze, with unique fringe benefits of having eyes that don’t function quite the same way as anyone else’s. That being said, I will never ever say that being blind is easy: from the minor inconvenience of not being able to visually locate things when I drop them, to the more serious potentially life-altering perceptions of hiring managers, academic professionals, or complete strangers on what my abilities are supposed to be… Sometimes being blind can be really really hard. You can’t have one side of this equation without the other, and to be honest, I wouldn’t really want to.
But I also can’t deny that people with disabilities are treated differently than those without. Encounters on the street focus on how sorry someone is, we occasionally get asked if someone can pray for us, and we are presumed incompetent (if we say “no thank you” to an offer of assistance, it gets offered over and over again). That is a problem… but sometimes we perpetuate our own special treatment while demanding equality.

 

Over the past week, two news stories have blown up my social media accounts for completely different reasons:
1) A resolution from a blindness organization that basically lambastes Apple, a company who arguably has put accessibility at the forefront of their testing and release processes, telling them they haven’t done enough for blind consumers;
2) The fact that the CNE (an annual fair and exhibition in Toronto) is no longer offering free admission to people with disabilities. This decision has proved anecdotally unpopular among the disability community.

Both instances deal with the issues of equality and preferential treatment, and they are mutually exclusive; you can’t have one while demanding the other.

 

Accommodation is Not Special Treatment

 

Not long ago I had someone tell me that bringing my guide dog on a plane was a special privilege. In an unrelated note, I was once told that it would never be an employer’s job to provide assistive technology or other accommodations in the workplace because that would give the person with a disability “special treatment”.

Both of these examples are untrue. Guide and service dogs (provided they are well-behaved) enhance the independence of their handlers and can sometimes mean the difference between traveling independently and confidently… or not leaving the house. If a disabled person requires the assistance of an aid to guide or administer medication or otherwise assist them with daily living tasks, it’s far more preferable than being forced to stay in their homes. And assistive technology can be the difference between being employed and living on assistance… so is it still “preferential treatment” when it levels the playing field? Um… no…

If assistive technology, mobility aids, or other accommodations make it possible for a person with a disability to live, work, study, or access information just like the general public, on what planet is it special treatment? And if people with disabilities are viewed as equals (like the lip service I hear about everyone being equal), then no one should deny us the ability to work, study, or travel using the tools that provide us the autonomy that makes us “equal” to everyone else. If you do deny this, you prove that we are not as equal as everyone else, and should keep your mouth shut and think about your stance on “selective equality.

 

NFB Resolution: We Want our Cake and to Eat it Too

 

Disclaimer: I do not use Apple products, and it’s my choice to do so. I am not affiliated with the NFB or any other blindness organizations. This to say… I have no horse in this race.

If you get through all the big words, what you need to know is this:

  1. Apple has continuously made huge strides in the accessibility marketplace. It’s one of the first, if not the first, to make built-in accessibility options such as the Voiceover screen reader part of all devices straight out of the box. Traditionally, accessible options had to be purchased separately and loaded on to any device, resulting in extra costs and less independent setup options.
  2. Because of this, Apple has been praised by many in the disability community for making people with disabilities a priority, making products instantly usable right off the shelf.
  3. The NFB resolution appears to be saying that Apple simply hasn’t done enough, because they are not prioritizing accessibility bugs and blind beta testers above others. This is a double-edged sword, however, because Google and Microsoft have their own accessibility issues that were not addressed at all in this resolution…
  4. Many have pointed out that this resolution has basically betrayed Apple for releasing software with bugs, telling them that they haven’t done enough for (exclusively) their blind consumers. Others have stated that accessibility bugs are now prioritized on the same level as other bugs in the software… isn’t that what the NFB claim they wanted in the first place?

Ultimately, I agree with those who state that there’s a HUGE double standard here. I use other software that was not lambasted so publicly, and like it or not, it has bugs too. The blind are not the only disability community in the world, and sighted users had problems with some of Apple’s software rollouts; that’s the nature of having software. If Apple were willfully ignoring the community that praised their accessibility efforts in the first place, that’s one thing; but they are creating software that, like it or not, isn’t perfect… for some blind users, but not all; for some sighted users, not all.

A brief note to those who voted for this resolution and publicly stabbed Apple in the back… it’s not always about you!

 

The CNE: Take me to the Fair!

 

The CNE is a well-known exhibition in Toronto; most major, and even some smaller, cities have their own annual fairs. Many provide discounted rates to guides or aids accompanying people with disabilities (see “accommodations” above?). This year, the CNE has decided to stop providing free admission to people with disabilities, but will continue not to charge for people who are guiding or otherwise assisting them. In the above referenced article, it’s made clear that this new policy might not be popular…

I’m all for it. As a fellow disability activist stated: if I can’t afford to go, I don’t go. I read a comment that people with disabilities are statistically living with higher poverty rates and should be given this “perk” because of it. But what about people without disabilities who don’t always have the money… who’s giving them a break? And what about the disabled person who’s fortunate enough to have disposable income… are they not taking advantage of resources designed to assist those who don’t?

If you can afford it, go to the fair; if you can’t, don’t. Nobody owes us extra perks; we face enough “other” treatment as it is.

 

Conclusion: Special does NOT Mean Equal

 

We have a long way to go before we are viewed as equals to those without disabilities. No one can deny that. We face access refusals because of our service dogs, are presumed incompetent for job duties unless we prove otherwise, and seem to be public sources of inspiration for getting out of bed in the morning. We need to decry true discriminatory practices for what they are, but also to live with the full responsibilities that go along with desiring equality. We should not be charged more to attend a fair because we require a guide or an aide, but we should not be charged less. If a company makes a valiant effort to make their system accessible, we need to praise them for their good work while kindly and gently encouraging them to improve things for everyone (not just us). When it comes right down to it, we’re not special snowflakes, and we will never reach true equality while taking advantage of special treatment.

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