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Robert Pearson

  Accessible Media


Persons with Disabilities Can Help Change Historical Perceptions of What Constitutes as 'Normal'

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The onus of changing historical perceptions and societal attitudes towards what it means to have a disability lies with users of all abilities. All of us are change makers, writes Robert Pearson.  

As changemakers, we can lead users of all abilities into acceptance of what is considered normal, writes Robert Pearson

Image: As changemakers, we can lead users of all abilities into acceptance of what is considered normal and embrace the disability spectrum, writes Robert Pearson. 

This blog post is dedicated to the passengers and crew of Air Canada flight number 7359 from Washington, D.C. to Toronto on March 17, 2015.

Any person who considers themselves to have different abilities or who is perceived to be a person with a disability will tell you that the definition of normal is most certainly contained within the eye of the beholder. That person knows though that who they are and how they are perceived in the world around them are not equitable in terms of being considered normal.

The perception of disability has historically always been skewed. Of course, I am not saying that there isn't a historical or societal understanding of what disability is, but this is something that is changing for the better every day. However, notions of fear and continued discrimination based on fear and prejudice continue to exist.

On March 17, 2015 I had the opportunity to participate in the first meeting of the United States Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Disability Advisory Committee as a member of the Video Programming subcommittee. The committee and each of its subcommittees comprise dozens of individuals representing multiple sectors and industry across the United States. In addition to those participants though, I sit as the only foreigner assigned to the committee to provide insight and guidance on video programming initiatives based upon the experiences and initiatives undertaken by our organization Accessible Media Inc. (AMI) here in Canada. It will be an insightful two years working with this group, providing consultation on a variety of disability issues falling under the purview of the FCC. Overall, the goal will be to provide guidance on how to effectively communicate with persons with disabilities.

Later that evening, I traveled home to Toronto where I was to deliver the March 2015 webinar for the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) on the topic of 'Captioning and Audio Description Best Practices and Technologies,' the following morning. However, I would have a unique first time experience on the flight home, noted above, that would speak to both the issues and objectives that I've also noted above.

In one of my recent posts, 'Disability as a Driver of Accessibility,' I described my own physical disability. To summarize, I have little to no use of my left hand and it has an appearance of being either burned or frost bitten. I have had comments and concerns expressed about it for many years, but none quite what I encountered on the flight that evening.

The flight attendant came by and asked if they could speak with me at the back of the cabin. They had received a request from a fellow passenger to determine whether the withered look of my left hand was due to some contagious disease. If this was the case, then the flight attendants would need to activate certain protocols on the flight. I didn't react. Instead I decided to give them a detailed response; I regaled them with highly detailed tales of my past medical history. Eventually, they had enough and I went back to my seat to continue watching the movie, while regularly stretching my arms above my head and flaunting my hand for all to see.

What though if I had not be so forth coming or I did not have the background in accessibility that I do? What if I had taken the enquiry as an insult? What would those certain protocols have been? What if they had decided that they required proof that my disability wasn't contagious? Considering the purpose of my trip to Washington that day, this was an insightful end to the day.

If I had been blind or deaf, I would not have received the same reaction that I did. However, I have a physical disability that isn't common and therefore it is an unknown. Historical disposition is seen as an appropriate reaction in this instance and therefore it becomes a safe harbor for those without the predisposition to understand that differences exist in the world. When this occurs, an appropriate solution is education and the reaction must not be one of discontent.

AMI's three broadcast services and the other initiatives that we undertake serve a primary audience of blind and partially sighted Canadians. Changing mindsets and attitudes about disability and accessibility is facilitated through a cooperative approach. Within our industry, it has propagated an understanding of accessibility through the broadcast medium and it has facilitated accommodations, such as an increase in the amount of described programming across the spectrum that is available to consumers.

If we are able to build on this momentum and others that have already been initiated, then we can continue to lead an understanding of disability in an effort to change historical perception. This may also in time allow for an establishment of a normal reaction to disability within a generally accepted context and not as something that is perceived to be extraordinary.


Related Resource

Blog: Stop Ableism - Mainstreaming the Rights of Persons with Disabilities | Read Robert Pearson's Article.

Publication: Model ICT Accessibility Policy Report | Download Free Report.

Event: 2015 Disability Matters NA Conference and Awards | View Event Details.