If you used Google to get here and you are sighted, you might have noticed that the graphic for Google Doodle today commemorates the introduction of tenji block on railway platforms in Okayama, Japan, fifty-two years ago today. “Tenji block” is the name that Seiichi Miyake gave to the tactile paving slabs that he invented to enable blind people to navigate public spaces independently. Disabled philosopher Michael Gillan Pickett’s essay, “Follow the Yellow Tactile Road in Japan: In Praise of Tenji Blocks,” is posted to The Limping Philosopher (blog) here.
By coincidence, I came to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY this morning to post an essay that poet and author Stephen Kuusisto published on his blog Planet of the Blind yesterday and that I subsequently posted in the BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY Facebook group. The essay, in Stephen’s characteristically evocative prose, indicts nondisabled academics for their indifference to accessibility for their disabled colleagues. The essay, entitled “Disabled and Alone on Campus,” is copied below.
Disabled and Alone on Campus
I’m a blind professor and the other faculty don’t know me. Oh they recognize me alright but that’s a different matter. One may acknowledge any sign—a traffic cone or ceremonial ribbon—they’re designed for limited provenance. “Stop!” “Go!” “Ignore!” My blindness (and that of each visually impaired student I know) is a sign to be ignored.
An icon is a sign that calls for reflection: the Statue of Liberty or the holy cross. Unfortunately the disability access signs one sees in parking lots and alongside electric doors are not icons. They designate “access” which means “here’s how you get in” but nothing more. For the non-disabled faculty these signs mean: “You’re here. Now don’t ask me to think about you.”
When a sign is just a sign it allows for habitual overlooking. Scofflaws know this. I’ll never forget a rough edged student at the University of Iowa who told me speed bumps had no meaning to him. (He wasn’t speaking metaphorically.)
In higher education disability access signs are advertisements to the faculty to ignore the disabled.
Consider my story (such as it is): I teach now at Syracuse University where I hold a prestigious professorship. I’ve been tenured at the University of Iowa and The Ohio State University. I am, by all measures, “having” a distinguished career in academe.
What’s ironic as hell is that these institutions have not been hospitable, though I’ll give a shout out to Ohio State because they’ve a progressive and talented ADA Coordinator named Scott Lissner who was always there to help me and all other disabled solve accessibility dilemmas.
But this has not been the case elsewhere and over the past few weeks I’ve struggled to get accessible job related documents just as I’ve struggled almost every month over the course of my nearly eight years at Syracuse University.
One of the ironies at Syracuse is that the university was in the forefront establishing the field of Disability Studies some thirty years ago.
When I tell faculty (who are largely without disabilities, or at least none they’ve publicly declared) about my problems I’m mostly greeted with shrugs. Sometimes I get a note saying “that’s too bad.”
And these are the progressive faculty who should care.
Silence means that accommodation signs are just there to be ignored.
Moreover, as every disabled person involved in higher education knows, if you keep speaking up about inaccessibility you’ll be labeled a malcontent.
Pejorative labeling attaches to accessibility signs like lamprey eels to fish. “She can’t get accessible materials because she’s difficult somehow. We all know that.”
Inaccessible software; inaccessible PDF documents; inaccessible handouts in meetings; inaccessible video conferencing and presentations; building after building without accessible directories; a bureaucracy without a system for resolving these issues….these are the daily realities for the blind in higher education almost everywhere.
The silence of faculty around the nation about disability is a direct reflection of the privilege most have—not needing accommodations themselves they’re free to overlook the signs on buildings. They’re just signs, not icons.
The essay “Disabled and Alone on Campus” is posted to Planet of the Blind here.
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