A Change in Mindset is Much Needed – This isn’t About Doing Favors

Accessibility is not specific to physical or electronic access. Attitudinal barriers are identified as one of the greatest obstacles to equal access for people with disabilities. Changing a mindset or perception that is deeply ingrained in societal norms is much more difficult than installing an access ramp.

The idea of providing accessibility is often viewed as doing someone a favor or granting an advantage rather than an understanding that modifications are just changes that enable completely able individuals to perform tasks that they are capable of performing.

We All Need to Broaden our Perspectives

Necessity or Luxury?

As a completely blind person, I have gone through much of my life fighting against people’s preconceived notions of what I am or am not capable of doing. Often times, the misconceptions are formed due to lack of understanding or exposure to people with disabilities. Interestingly, if attitudes were to shift, physical and electronic access would naturally occur because people would have developed the conviction that audible crosswalk signals are in fact a necessity of life instead of a luxury.

It’s the Little Things

Experiencing attitudinal barriers is nearly a daily occurrence for me. Sometimes it is an insignificant interaction, but other times the problematic attitude has real-life consequences.

It would be impossible for me to count the number of times that I’ve been out to dinner with a friend, on a date or even with my parents and the server asks my companion: What would she like? My younger self would take offense and would sometimes reply: She would like the cheeseburger with fries.

Such interactions would leave me feeling unimportant, dependent and helpless. I eventually learned that my own perception of the situation needed to change. Otherwise, I would spend the rest of my life feeling small and insignificant. In the grand scheme of life does the server not addressing me actually have any kind of impact on my life other than irritating me? The answer is not really.

The Real Consequences of Actions and Behaviors

All that said, these interactions still demonstrate the attitudinal barriers that exist within society and they should not be trivialized or brushed aside. What would happen if the server had ignored me and asked a prospective business contact what I would like for lunch? That small act could plant seeds of doubt in my abilities as a professional.

If I can’t even order my own lunch, who is going to want to hire me to write a policy manual for their 6 figure company? It’s the small day-to-day changes in attitudes that will eventually have the largest impact on accessibility.

Sometimes I Just Have to Laugh

It is often people’s split-second judgment of me and my life that causes attitudinal barriers.

I cannot say for sure what makes people react the way they do to me, as I never have the opportunity to ask them. But some people’s knee-jerk reactions are quite comical.

Just the other day I was standing with my guide dog at the bus stop, heading to the high performance gym where I do much of my triathlon training. It’s a bus I take frequently and the drivers have started to recognize me. On this particular chilly morning, my dog stood up from her sitting position, as she normally does to let me know the bus is pulling up.

As per normal, the doors opened and we got onto the bus. It’s a busy time of day and there is only ever standing room available.

As I settled my dog at my feet I couldn’t help but notice that the driver hadn’t closed the doors yet. Suddenly, he called out, inquiring whether or not people were getting on and that he was going to close the doors. At least two people hustled on to the bus and I felt them cringe away from me and the dog as they passed.

That kind of reaction used to make me quite upset. Quite frankly, it would hurt my feelings; bringing up those feelings of less than again.

However, this particular morning it just made me smirk to myself. My friends and I used to joke that either people thought the dog had the plague or that blindness was a contagious condition. Again, the other passengers’ aversion to either me or my guide dog was inconsequential to my daily life. But their reaction is indicative of a more deeply-rooted societal attitudinal problem.

Disability Does Not Equal Inability

The notion that people with disabilities are less capable or even less willing to be contributing members of society could not be further from the truth. I’ve never had potential bosses cringe away from me in job interviews as my fellow bus-riders did, but I have certainly had it happened with university professors.

Did their personal bias impact my grades in any way? I’ll never know because I can’t prove it.

And that is where the problem of attitudinal barriers lies:

  • I can prove that the wheelchair access ramp is too steep based on specific measurements set out by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • I can prove that a website is inaccessible when my screen reader literally reads out: “empty” when I try to navigate through the space.
  • How do I prove that someone’s misconception about my abilities is the reason I didn’t get a job or an A+ in my master’s course?

It is Impossible to Measure Attitude

Attitudinal barriers, for the most part, are invisible; not tangible or measurable. So then, if we can’t prove that they exist, how do we begin to change them?

The solution to attitudinal barriers is just as evasive as proving that they exist. People have to be willing to challenge their own beliefs and perceptions. And even more challenging, people have to be willing to admit that they don’t actually know and then ask questions.

The attitudinal barriers that permeate social interactions, whether business or recreational, will only be eradicated if people become more self-aware and strive for personal growth. Being willing to embrace difference as a strength rather than a deficit will move accessibility in all of its forms forward exponentially.

I’d Like to Challenge You to Examine Your Attitude

My challenge to you would be to re-evaluate your own split-second judgment or perception of someone.

Is what you are observing actually the case or is a different lens required to analyze the situation?

We are not perfect and we are all human at the end of the day, but changing daily perceptions and, consequently, interactions will be what brings about real social change; and ultimately, facilitate equal access.