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Disability Protests: Contentious Politics, 1970-1999

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In a workplace, complete and ideal communications accessibility would mean that all work-, safety-, and personnel-related information would be communicated through a modality that the worker with an impairment could understand. Information in all events, including training sessions, staff meetings, office parties, and water fountain gossiping sessions, would be accessible. Off-site work, such as interviews, presentations, or professional meetings, would be equally accessible for all participants. Complete accessibility of a professional meeting for a hard-of-hearing or deaf person would include the same choice to attend or not attend sessions or to change sessions in the middle that a hearing person would have, instead of limiting the person to specific times or sessions for which interpreters are scheduled. All personnel, including coworkers and supervisors, would be able to communicate with, and to understand the communications of, the worker who has a hearing or speech impairment.

Communications accessibility in education would involve the ability for instructors and other students to be able to communicate with, and understand, students with hearing or speech impairments. Classroom interactions would be accessible, so that no student would ever be told, “Oh, just read the book.” In addition, extracurricular activities, dorms, advising offices, and all other aspects of student life would be equally accessible to students with or without impairments.

Environmental Accessibility

People with impairments are demanding that all aspects of the built environment external to buildings be made accessible to them. One demand relates to curb cuts, which are needed by people who use wheelchairs or scooters. They argue that curb cuts also help several other groups of people, including parents pushing strollers, bicyclists, and rollerbladers. Another demand relates to streetlights. People who are blind are demanding that streetlights at intersections have audible indicators of when it is safe to walk. People with impairments are also demanding accessibility in parks and recreation areas that are built with public money. In some places they are demanding that paths be paved so that wheelchairs can move over them more easily or so that blind people can walk there more easily (Shribman, 1990).

Although access is a civil right sought by people with all types of impairments, impairment groups are somewhat divided on how best to operationalize the concept in some situations. This discussion of types of accessibility hints at some of the bifurcations that divide people with different types of physical impairments. Communications accessibility is a very different type of issue than architectural or transportation accessibility.5 Thus, change that meets the accessibility needs of one group might interfere with the accessibility needs of another. For example, curb cuts help people who use wheelchairs but they pose some difficulty for blind people. Having auditory announcements of subway station stops helps people with visual impairments but not people with hearing impairments.

Equal Opportunity

The demand for equal opportunity as one component of civil rights for people with impairments does not differ markedly from demands made by blacks or women in their pursuit of civil rights. Equal opportunity means that people are not held back by characteristics such as race, sex, or impairment status in their pursuit of the good life. Some disability advocates call this the demand for “a level playing field.” Equal opportunities for people with impairments include access to work and education.

Work

People with impairments are demanding equal opportunities in the area of work.6  These demands apply to people who are already working, who are looking for work, or who want to look for work. In these situations, equal opportunity means nondiscrimination. Using the same language and conceptions that are blacks or women, people with impairments demand that there be no discrimination based upon impairment status in advertising, hiring, promoting, firing, or any other aspect of employment. The notion behind this language when it was first applied to blacks and women was that people with equal qualifications should be treated the same rather than being treated differently, based upon their race or gender. People with impairments demand that such nondiscriminatory policies apply to them as well.