Article by Erin Ball
Last month I said that I would be doing a series of interviews. I want to focus on accessibility beyond wheelchairs. Wheelchair accessibility is very important and definitely needs to be considered, but it is not the only type of accessibility.
At one time I was using the words “fully accessible” to refer to various situations. After contemplating it and communicating with many people with various accessibility needs, I decided to try to refrain from using those words together to describe anything. There are so many access needs, needs that I have probably never even imagined, that it seems questionable to me to suggest that something is “fully accessible”. I think that doing our best, and doing better as we learn more, is the most that we can do. I learn more and change my opinions and ways of doing things all of the time.
When I opened my studio, I asked everyone that I knew about everything in the space that I could think of and more (beyond laws). Everything from mirrors to soap dispensers to grab bars to signage, etc. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. I realized just last night that my digital waiver system is not really accessible for the blind/partially-sighted community. I made it work by reading it out loud but there are always things to improve on. I tried to take into consideration as many people’s needs as I could and some of the feedback has been very positive. I had someone with an arm that ends around the elbow, tell me that no one had ever asked him about his “hand” soap dispenser preferences, and he said that he was very touched.
I am not writing this to toot my own horn. I am writing this to say that there is always more to consider. Also, some access needs are opposite of each other. I think that we can always do more but I also think that some access is better than none.
Two large groups of people that I notice that are still commonly not thought of, particularly during the planning of public events, are the Deaf community and the blind/partially-sighted community. I do notice that sometimes there is something to the effect of “if you have access needs, please let us know”. I understand this completely. Often financially, it makes sense to only offer things like ASL interpretation and audio description if it is known that someone will be using it. I get it and I feel financially strapped too. The problem is that I truly believe that people should not need to ask for access every time they want to do something. Equal access means making those services available and known so that people in these marginalized and often forgotten communities can start to decide last minute, like the rest of us, if they want to attend an event.
My first interview is with the incredible, Kingston-based, Leah Riddell.
Leah is Deaf and is a huge advocate for Deaf awareness. She works with municipalities to provide training and education to staff about creating truly accessible resources. Her aim is to not just meet, but to exceed the needs of Deaf individuals and families. Leah is a certified American Sign Language teacher for intervenors, families and the community.
Leah shares: “Deaf culture is the set of social beliefs, behaviours, art, literary traditions, history, values, and shared institutions of communities that are influenced by deafness that use sign languages as the main means of communication.
Deaf people are usually regarded by the hearing world as lacking one of the five senses. Deaf people disagree and have ongoing debates about disability and what it means to be human, as well as challenging assumptions about what is normal.”
Deaf people and the hard of hearing face communication barriers on a daily basis. According to the Canadian Association of the Deaf, there are 357,000 culturally Deaf Canadians and 3.21 million hard of hearing Canadians.
Leah suggests that funding needs to be made available to increase access in Kingston. She hopes to see theatres offering ASL interpreters and captioning . She also strongly encourages people to hire Deaf performers. We have some incredible ones based right here in Kingston that create stunning visual shows.
Leah, like myself, is hoping for open caption options, instead of devices that fail. Captioning can help everyone with story lines, etc. Imagine all people being able to enjoy a movie together.
Leah was thrilled that the movies that played downtown provided closed captioning and that no one complained. What an amazing thing for people to be included.
On the subject of attending public events, Leah states that if CC and interpreters are not provided, the Deaf community does not go. She also thinks that these are not things that should have to be requested.
Leah encourages businesses and organizations to build Deaf-friendly policies. If you have never met a Deaf or hard of hearing person before and are unsure how to interact, or you want to learn ASL, or you have other questions, reach out to Kingston’s grassroots organization, that Leah co-founded: S5WAVES16@gmail.com.
Leah shares some concrete solutions and practical ways to interact: “As a bare minimum, deaf-friendliness includes eye contact, clear speech, willingness to use pen and paper, and tons of patience. Whatever individual perceptions are, deaf-friendliness is not something businesses can afford to skimp on.”
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