In Public Meetings, a Lack of Disability Competence Says “Go Away!”
As part of my work, I attend a lot of public meetings and hearings. These are events where a state agency receives input from members of the public about some action that the agency is taking (such as changing a law or rule, or designing a new program). These meetings are almost always inaccessible to people with disabilities, even when the meeting is about something that will only affect people with disabilities.
What do I mean by this? I mean that podiums and microphones are placed too high for wheelchair users to access. I mean that PowerPoint presentations are designed with low visual contrast (lots of nice pastels and gray-on-light-gray), making them hard to read for people with visual impairments. I mean seating arrangements that place wheelchair users in the aisle, a lack of name tags for committee members, and microphones that are switched off during the introduction of every member of the committee. They do not have or enforce a scent-free policy to ensure that people with chemical sensitivities can participate. They do not offer Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART) for people who do not use American Sign Language (ASL).
These little details add up. They communicate a message: people with disabilities are going to have to fight to participate in these meetings. They say, “this is a meeting for us, people who are not disabled (yet), to decide what we are going to do about all of you, people with disabilities.”
Accessibility is important everywhere, but American society is not yet to the place where every place I go is accessible. When the place is a meeting to discuss disability issues, though, I think it is reasonable to expect that meeting to be accessible to people with disabilities. A lack of accessibility reveals something: even though the meeting is about an issue that affects people with disabilities, the people who are organizing the meeting aren’t really thinking about people with disabilities at all. This is especially troubling when the people organizing the meeting are state officials who are making disability policy.
One of the great things about working for an organization that is filled with people with disabilities is that disability competence is built right into the culture of the organization. It’s not an exception, it’s not an accommodation: it’s just what we do. If people with disabilities were in charge of the public meetings that I’ve been attending, you can bet those meetings would be accessible to everybody.
Which makes me wonder: what else would these agencies do differently, if people with disabilities were actually in charge of the decisions that affect our own lives?