Flying Blind: The Mistakes I Made With Disabled Colleagues are Built Into our Language. Thankfully, They Were Accommodating.

Who in their right mind (see how easy it is?) would describe something that happened quickly as happening at "breakneck speed" when speaking to a paraplegic-one who suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident?
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Six months ago I took a new job as interim executive director of an independent living center, which helps people with any kind of disability live more independently. Independent living centers are somewhat unique in that they were created by federal legislation and receive federal funds, and one of the requirements is that at least half of the board of directors and half of the staff comprise people with disabilities. This means that three of my board members are in wheelchairs and two are legally blind. Of my staff, two people have cerebral palsy, one is blind, and one suffered a stroke in childhood that left her partially paralyzed on her left side. You get the picture.

"You get the picture" is a perfect example of the sort of phrase that has bedeviled my tenure at the center. If you are blind, you don't "get the picture." I had no idea how many figures of speech pertained to body parts or functions until I started putting my foot in my mouth (there I go again) on a regular basis.

Who in their right mind (see how easy it is?) would describe something that happened quickly as happening at "breakneck speed" when speaking to a paraplegic-one who suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident? Who would tell a paraplegic that a temporary fix to a problem would do "until we get our feet under us"? Or use the phrase "flying blind" with a visually impaired staff member? Or offer to "lend a hand" to a person who had no arm?

In six months, I've managed to say all of those things and more, and probably used some phrases that I didn't even recognize as insensitive at the time. Luckily, my board and staff have learned that I'm not malicious, just graceless. On one occasion when I apologized and asked, "Was what I just said hopelessly rude?" my board member was kind enough to remind me that no, it was just a figure of speech. And many of the people with disabilities I've met have a wry sense of humor about their disabilities, like the blind staff member, Christian, who offered to drive when I complained of being tired after a full day at a conference.

But figures of speech are not all I've learned from this job. I've also learned how peoples' ability to live independently depends a great deal on the systems we as a society create to support them, and that complaints about the associated costs are often overblown. For example, when the fiance of one of my staff members, Gaby, who herself uses a power wheelchair, had a back spasm that threw him out of his wheelchair, there was no way either of them could get him off the floor; they had to call 911. Who among us would begrudge the taxpayer expense of sending a paramedic to help him back into his chair, from which, by the way, he can cook, bathe, dress, drive a car with hand controls, and work?

Before I took this job I had never heard of JAWS, Dragon or MAGic, software which, respectively, is a screen reader, a voice-activated word processor that allows you to see your spoken words typed on screen, and a screen magnifier. These technologies allow visually impaired people to fully participate in the electronic world the rest of us take for granted -- email, websites and smartphones. All of this software is available in our public library system, accessible to anyone with a library card, a great use of two or three thousand public dollars.

For those people who can't drive, reliable public transportation, including "kneeling" buses and streetcars, or light rail with wheelchair ramps, is crucial to living independently. Yes, these accommodations add to the cost of the vehicles, but what would the costs be, financial and human, if a whole segment of society were sitting at home, unemployed, relying on family, friends or paid caregivers to buy their groceries and take them to movies and concerts or out to dinner, simply because they're unable to drive?

As my interim contract comes to an end, I decided I wanted to invite the staff to my house for dinner, to thank them for the great work they've done under difficult, occasionally chaotic circumstances. My house was built in 1937. To get in the front door, you have to negotiate a gravel, un-wheelchair-friendly street and descend five steps. Many of the interior door frames are 27 inches wide, not wide enough to accommodate most wheelchairs. Nonetheless, everyone on staff voted to find a way to make it work, even though we may have to carry people down the steps. And I'm still not sure what we're going to do if a chair user needs to get through my 27-inch bathroom door. But I bet she's already figured it out.

After all, I've seen my colleagues negotiate situations I couldn't have imagined, like Christian, who this year co-founded a blind baseball team, the Arizona Phenoms. The sport is actually called Beep Ball, and requires batters to hit a cantaloupe-sized ball that emits electronic beeps. If they get a hit, batters must listen for a continuous high-pitched signal to determine which of two pylon bases they need to tag before one of the blind outfielders, operating on verbal cues from sighted "spotters," retrieves the ball. I attended one of their practice games and watched in awe as the batters ran full tilt over an uneven lawn to reach the bases. Despite only a few months of practice, the team traveled to Rochester, N.Y. in July, where they were one of 24 teams participating in the Beep Ball World Series.

As we work to provide public accommodations for people with disabilities to live independently, we need to be reminded how often they, like my staff, make accommodations for us.

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