Technology is a wonderful thing, but it cannot make up for a lack of understanding, or a refusal to include others who are different.
By Michelle Martin
Published March 13, 2016
I was out for a coffee last fall with a person who travels in a manual wheelchair, and I had to open the door to the coffee shop. I asked him what he does when he is on his own. He told me he waits for someone to come along that he can ask, or for someone to notice. I asked him how often that works for him. He told me it works about half the time.
Wheelchairs are great technology. They've come a long way from their clunky beginnings, with ultra lightweight frames and better motion, even power motors. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) has improved access to many places. Smaller businesses are required to train employees on providing service to customers who have disabilities, and to do things like welcome service animals.
However, if a business has fewer than 20 employees it is not required to submit an AODA compliance report, and buildings are not currently required to undergo renovations or retrofitting - which presents innumerable challenges to people with disabilities as they travel through the beautiful, older neighbourhoods in our cities.
In practical terms, in Hamilton, this means that a neighbourhood event like Art Crawl on James Street North is not one hundred percent accessible to someone who uses a wheelchair.
Even if the threshold of an entrance is level, a fully accessible doorway includes an automatic door opener, or at least a buzzer or bell to notify employees that a customer is outside who needs help with the door. And a fully accessible business includes a fully accessible bathroom, or at least clear information about where to find one nearby.
Last year, a photography exhibit called You Can't Get In illustrated similar issues for Toronto audiences and artists with disabilities, in another burgeoning arts scene that relies on commercial space in older buildings.
This feels almost like high school - there's a wall between some of us and the cool kids: some of us just don't get to eat lunch at that table.
And, in Hamilton, some even get derided behind their backs because of the particular mobility device they use: cue the sneers about power scooters downtown.
Cue the virtuous tweets about "shopping local" (guilty). I love our business districts: Ottawa Street, Locke Street, James North... but if I needed a mobility device, I would be sticking to Walmart or Limeridge Mall - both fully accessible venues.
Technology is a wonderful thing, but it cannot make up for every deficit. It cannot make up for a lack of understanding, or a refusal to include others who are different.
In our own family we've seen the gap that exists between seemingly miraculous technology and full inclusion. Our youngest daughter has a hearing impairment. She received a cochlear implant at the age of one, and has learned to listen and speak very capably.
Growing up with a lot of exposure to language in a large, busy family has helped her. Now, as she reaches the end of her elementary school years, she is doing grade-level work with success, thanks to an individual education plan and an FM system that amplifies her teacher's voice for her, on a channel that broadcasts directly to her speech processor.
She doesn't hear every word in a conversation, but when she is familiar with someone's patterns of speech and vocabulary preferences, she is able to fill in a lot of the words she misses. At home, or in a quiet room, when she can face the person who is speaking to her, she manages well most of the time.
Her latest audiogram indicates that, when wearing the microphone and speech processor attached to her implant, she can hear about 75 percent of sounds. However, that test was done in a soundproof booth. A classroom presents more of a challenge but is still largely manageable for her.
A noisy outdoor schoolyard or a game of volleyball in the gym make it much more difficult for her to hear everything she needs to hear. By four o'clock she can be quite tired from the work of listening all day - something that the rest of us do effortlessly.
Think back to your own childhood. Remember how much listening you had to do to develop social skills and to fit in with your peers. You needed to pay attention not only to the words spoken but also to the tone of voice used. You had to learn when someone was being sarcastic, for example.
Both insults and pleasant greetings were shouted to you across a distance and over the heads of laughing, playing classmates. Would you have been able to manage if you were often unable to hear what was being said in the schoolyard, or the noisy cafeteria?
Our daughter's up-to-date equipment can't bridge that gap. That's where the willingness of others to include her needs to takes over. It doesn't always happen, and I can see on her face how much it hurts, sometimes, when she gets home from school.
As our city grows into the vibrant one it was meant to be, our willingness to include others has to take over what assistive technology can't accomplish alone. When we talk about place making, we have to think about more than SoBi hubs and "unique destinations": we have to look at accessibility intentionally.
Perhaps it is unrealistic to ask small business owners, especially those just starting out, to willingly meet an AODA physical accessibility standard they are not legally obligated to reach, but business associations and event planners can still put accessibility front and centre with whatever tools are immediately available.
A guide that rates the physical accessibility of various sites and businesses, and the locations of fully accessible washrooms in a business district, would be a good first step. This would be a nice thing to see on the Supercrawl 2016 website.
And in the twenty-first century, we have other technology available to help us take over where an assistive device stops: stores can use a clearly marked call bell and a portable debit machine, along with a clearly posted sign that this service is in place, to sell to customers who can't get cross the threshold.
If we all put our heads together we could come up with other creative, inexpensive solutions.
What it boils down to is kindness, pure and simple: a concern for the needs of others, a willingness to step forward and assist individually and collectively, to go beyond what is minimally required by the law or policy. And technology can't possibly make up for the lack of it.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the February/March 2016 edition of The Point.
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