From Special to Universal Needs

Two people using their hands to read braille

Editor’s Note: Author, George Stern, teaches a course for college students studying to be special education teachers. He reminds us that whether holding a live or virtual event, think inclusive from the start.

A Cavalcade of Unexpected Things

“Hello, and welcome, everybody – how’s it going?” These are the friendly, welcoming words with which I opened a class for a group of K-12 teacher trainees. Except, not quite, because I said it in French:  “Bonjour et Bienvenu, tous le monde! Ça va?” I kept right on speaking in French as I introduced myself – (“Je m’appelle Georges; je suis étudiant diplômé au fac déducation à Texas Tech .”) – then introduced my co-presenter, our topic, and some initial questions, all in what I hope was beautiful inaccessible French. I wasn’t completely merciless: I did check in – (in French) – and ask if everybody could understand me, helpfully suggesting that they raise their hands and ask for an ASL alphabet cheat sheet if not. And when I felt like people didn’t understand my questions, I repeated them, speaking more loudly and slowly. Were these “accommodations” the least bit helpful? Only for someone who understands French.

Was that my audience? No. Did I mean well? Yes, yes, I think I did, and that should count for something, right?

There was much else going on in that classroom besides the surprise linguistic jump to another continent, a whole cavalcade of the unexpected. For one thing, the room was dark, or at least darkened. Also, the handout for the day, though in English, was printed in an atrociously artistic font that rendered it near-impossible to read in a well-lit room, let alone in semi-darkness.

There was a point, several points, to this exercise beyond discomfort and a sneaky way for me to get in some French practice.

Making Access Personal

You see, the standard accessibility conversation, when it happens at all, tends to center on hypotheticals. How would you do X activity if you had a student with disability Y in your class? How would you make venue P more accessible to special population Q? How would you do activity Y if you had disability Z? Sounds clinical and impersonal, doesn’t it, the natural consequence of reducing the complexity of human experience to a shifting array of variables. Always considering accessibility in the hypothetical has two major drawbacks.

First, it sets up a situation where access and accommodations are always afterthoughts, perceived as deviations from an ideal norm. I often see this dynamic in play with teacher candidates: they’ll have built their perfect lesson, their ideal project, then, boom! Along comes the hypothetical student who has a disability, and they start re-calculating like a GPS in a traffic jam, scrambling for the components they can add or subtract to meet this “special” need.

This leads us to the second drawback: hypotheticals are inherently limited by the scope of our imagination and the amount of effort we’re willing or able to put toward it. No matter how well-intentioned, how innovative, we all have a saturation point where the response to the next incoming “What if” variable is “I can’t,” “I won’t,” “I don’t knooow!”

I like to move the conversation from the impersonal hypothetical to the urgent personal, and how I do that is with intentionally-designed simulations like the Frenching Hour. The “intentionally designed” is stressed because there’s a lot of well-meaning but misguided simulation work around disability. Thus, in the Frenching Hour, there are no blindfolds or low-vision simulators, no ear plugs,  no wheelchairs – nothing, in short, that frames the experience as a vacation into a disabled identity, a pretense at being someone else. Instead, my students get a taste of being disabled exactly as who they are, simply based on the environment being unsuited to their “special” needs,” – which, of course, is the social model of disability 101: disability is less about what we as individuals can or can’t do and more about what society and the environment permits or prevents us from doing. We should not be an afterthought; we should be thought of from the start!

The result is a richer conversation rooted in a momentary (but intensely personal) experience of actual rather than pretend disability. Instead of coming away with laundry lists of accommodations for this or that specific group, there’s an invitation to consider the universal nature of access needs from the start. In a class conducted in French, everyone who speaks English is disabled. In a darkened room, the sighted people are disabled. And on the moon or under the sea, everyone who breathes oxygen is disabled.

The only real question is: am I empowered to negotiate access?

A Lesson from Covid

Let me end this by paraphrasing part of an article I wrote in response to our collective pandemic experience:

The coronavirus fundamental redefinition of norms has made involuntary, frantic access needs negotiators of those who were once the default poster children for the “normal” and “need-less,” a transformation discomfiting to a sizable segment of the population if the virulence of anti-lockdown protests is any indication.

An NPR report tells of seasoned lawyers flustered by the Supreme Court’s transition of oral arguments to a group phone call format, unsure how to gauge their efficacy absent the nonverbal cues of an in-person situation. Social media is awash in secondhand accounts of people feeling dislocated, anonymous, and detached in our new, perpetual masked ball. The grocery and food delivery apps, once derided as first-world frivolities for the lazy, the indulged, and the needy-disabled, are suddenly in mainstream use, more functional in the pandemic context than all the luxury cars in your driveway.

And just like that, with a cough and a sneeze, we’ve entered a reality where the non-disabled population finds itself checking many of the same boxes we disabled people have been since forever. Access to everything and quality-of-life activities constrained by someone else’s risk assessment? Check. Incredulous that an employer would rather fire and rehire than figure out how to go remote? Check. Frustrated and overwhelmed by the steep learning curve inherent in online everything under the sun in our new physical-distancing reality? Check. Shamed for being where supposedly well-intentioned people insist you have no business being, looked at askance for an involuntary bodily reaction, bored and depressed by your isolation from the community? Check, check, and infinite checks. Welcome to the fullest, loneliest club on Earth.

Everybody is disabled in the right circumstance. Everyone has access needs in the wrong environment. So, let’s make access a first thought, not an afterthought.