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Accommodation Versus Normalization of Disability

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: This article makes the case for universal design of products and communities. Ray Barfitt is a free lance writer, who lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Lately, I have been thinking about the difference between accommodating people with disabilities and normalizing disability. I will attempt to explain it as I see it.

To get to work in the morning, I use the OCTranspo bus system. Most bus drivers do not announce bus stops even though their regulations require them to do so. A bus rider who can see looks through the window to determine when the desired bus stop has been reached. Since I cannot look out the window, I must ask the bus driver to announce my stop. If the driver remembers my request, he/she accommodates my disability by announcing my bus stop when the bus gets there. Frequently, the driver will patronizingly say, "This is your stop." If the driver would follow the prescribed regulations and announce all stops, whether or not a blind person is on the bus, my disability would be normalized. I could site many more such examples to illustrate my point.

I believe that the vast majority of persons with disabilities would prefer to have their disabilities normalized rather than accommodated. Accommodation smacks of charity and paternalism and often robs us of dignity, self-respect and independence.

Curb cuts are not an accommodation for people who use wheel chairs. They are a normalization of a public facility to include people using wheel chairs. The same is true of audible pedestrian traffic signals, building entrance ramps, television and film signage for people who are deaf, talking elevators, braille elevator button indicators, wheel chair accessible washrooms, tactile and large print signage and so on. These are not accommodations for people with disabilities. They are normalization of facilities to include the greatest possible number of people.

We must stop thinking of disability as exceptional. We make doorways sufficiently high to permit tall people who are otherwise able bodied to pass without having to stoop. So why do we think of disability as exceptional? It is because when it comes to disability we have a them and us mentality.

This is reflected in the language we use. We refer to "the disabled", "the blind", "the deaf", "the handicapped" and such. This language objectifies people in these groups and separates them from the rest of us.

Until recently, we listed equity groups as women, visible minorities, aboriginals and the disabled. People with disabilities were always objectified and listed last. This has changed somewhat. We now say "persons with disabilities" but we still list them last, and this new terminology has not yet permeated our social consciousness.

So why do we have a "them and us" mentality when it comes to people with a disability? I believe it is based on fear at the conscious and unconscious level. Traditionally we have dealt with this fear with the "out of sight out of mind" approach. People with disabilities stayed at home or were institutionalized. So we did not normalize them into our public consciousness, facilities and systems.

And what is it that we fear? People with disabilities remind us that there but for the grace of God go I. And we dread that we may yet go there before our time is done.

We are often awkward and stiff in our approach to people with disabilities. Our conscience tells us to help them, but our instinct is to run. We see them as helpless, but we don't want to offend them by letting them know we think this so we say things like "May I be of assistance?" and "I don't know if I am doing this right" and we become stiff and rigid while escorting a blind person. Some people even tremble. So with these attitudes, it is not surprising that planners do not normalize their facilities, products, systems and services for "them."

It is argued that accommodating facilities for people with disabilities is expensive. While retrofitting can be costly, if facilities are developed with inclusion in mind, I believe the cost may well be lower than the cost of accommodation due to this social failure. And why should people with disabilities bear both financial and spiritual burdens for our collective social failure?

Now let's look at automation in the work place as it relates to accommodation and normalization. Computers are designed for people who have perfect vision, hearing, manual dexterity and cognition. Because computers have not been normalized for all people, expensive accommodations are required. Blind people need screen reading software, speech synthesizers, braille displays, braille printers and braille translation software. Others need speech recognition software, on-screen keyboard software, special mice and cognition adaptation software.

Many companies have found their niche by developing these expensive accommodations. In most cases people with disabilities must find subsidies so they can pay the high prices charged. But it does not stop there. The Windows operating system is so heavily visually biased that even with expensive accommodation a blind person cannot properly use it and its applications unless developers write their software in conformance with specific accessibility standards. Developers must normalize their software at least to the point where the access accommodation can do the rest.

The United States government has recognized this impasse and has passed Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1998 that requires all hardware and software purchased by the U.S. Government conform to explicit accessibility standards. If a prospective vendor fails to comply with these standards, that vendor will not sell to the United States government. They understand that prospective vendors must face consequences for non-compliance.

Since we do not have equivalent legislation in Canada, any technology accessibility policy we set will be weak and less effective. But there is hope: Section 508 will compel mainstream vendors to develop technology according to accessibility standards. This improved technology will then be available for purchase here.

Other areas of life that must be influenced by the principles of "universal design" include: cell phones and text messaging, on screen programming for television and pay movies, Information screens and kiosks, Point of sale terminals, On line shopping sites, Trip booking sites, and household appliances.

When will we be considered as part of the mainstream? When will the needs of persons with disabilities be taken into account in the design stage? And what will it take to get designers to consider our needs when they are designing new products?


Are you Ray Barfitt formerly of George Anderson Drive Toronto ? I'm Marlene (Famulak) and just back from my first trip to Newfoundland where I thought fondly of you and your sister. Bizarre, but true.

Hi Marlene. Ray is at my house right now having lunch with me and we decided to read this article, well written I might add. As I scrolled down I read your email message to him. He was surprised. I'm so glad to see that you only just wrote it in July. Ray will write you back from home.