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Robert Pearson

  Accessible Media

01/19/2015

Reframing Perceptions of Disability Into Ability

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The first step towards mainstreaming the rights of persons with disabilities is to change entrenched perceptions of their abilities, writes Robert Pearson.

Image: Understanding can come by focusing on a few objectives, the primary of which is education.
Image: Understanding can come by focusing on a few objectives, the primary of which is education.

The other day, I was at an indoor playground with my 3-year-old daughter. It’s turned cold here (in Toronto) and these types of facilities are well designed for toddlers to play until they’re tired.  We have noticed our daughter taking to gymnastics and she enjoys the high beam, the uneven bars and the rings. That is where we found ourselves today, with me kneeling on the mat underneath the rings while boosting her up so that she could reach them. 

Even though the physical disability that I have is limited to no use of my left hand, as I discussed in a recent blog post Disability as a Driver of Accessibility, I’ve found ways to adapt over the years to be able to do many things, including helping my daughter with gymnastics. 

Perception of Ability
My hand has garnered a wide variety of reactions. On this day at the indoor playground, it was a nice couple walking by who very kindly enquired as to whether they could assist with what I was doing. I gave the one-minute standard explanation that I was OK; it wasn’t a burn or frostbite and thanked them for their offer of assistance. The interaction had me thinking about how they perceived the appearance of my left hand and what facilitated their response in comparison to other curious strangers I have met in the past.

The perception of disability elicits different responses. From my own experiences, I have developed an instinct to quickly measure sincerity within someone’s enquiry. In doing so, it has allowed me to respond accordingly by either giving them a brief overview, telling them the more detailed response or for those “special few,” providing a response so farfetched about why my hand looks the way it does that perhaps they will think twice about making similar enquiries in the future. This has included responses such as: it was a bear attack, it was a shark bite, don’t eat the shrimp at the buffet table, and “shucks, I accidently put my hand in a wood chipper.” 

Well over a year ago, my family moved to a new neighborhood and has found our neighbors to be fantastic. One gentleman, who lives beside us and whom I see regularly and have had numerous conversations with, has never enquired about my hand. I find that to be honorable. What does it take for an individual with a disability to receive that level of respect so that it can be understood that they are not defined by their appearance or their abilities? They simply are like everyone else.

How Inclusion Works
We focus on this in the provision of our services at Accessible Media Inc. (AMI). Through our three broadcast networks, we provide fully accessible content with audio description and captioning, but it includes a focus on highlighting a person’s abilities as opposed to what may be considered their disability. 

Also by Robert Pearson: How do we measure progress in accessibility efforts?  

We have blind and low vision reporters on air and located at each of our offices across the country. We feature content that may otherwise have gone unnoticed by mainstream media, because it may have been deemed too narrowly focused on a specific group of individuals. We focus on putting disability and accessibility at the forefront so that it is never considered to be something different from the norm. We all have unique abilities and we should not be defined or perceived by them.

Role of Education
Understanding can come by focusing on a few objectives, the primary of which is education. Education propagates an understanding that not one person is the same and we each excel at some things and may be less proficient at others. We could promote this understanding by mainstreaming disability and accessibility, so that they are not considered as special accommodations, but in fact are a part of regular life.

To my readers, what are some of the ways you have challenged stereotypes about your disability? Write to me by posting your comments below and share your stories @G3ict and @a11ymedia.

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Related Resources

Blog: Predicting an Inclusive Future -Robert Pearson's Article.

Publication: e-Accessibility Policy Handbook for Persons with Disabilities - Download Free PDF.