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A for Accessibility: Positive Wins Every Time

Ellen Perlow
Texas Woman's University School of Library and Information
Denton, TX

The immense tragedy of September 11, 2001 was a wake-up call to the United States, as well as to the world. Our prayers and thoughts forever will be with those who lost loved ones. Our vulnerability and frailty as human beings were exposed. Last September 11th, we were taught a lesson, that all of us are people who every day need to adapt to and be alert about our environment: some of us due to birth, illness, accident, lifestyle choice, natural disaster, and/or aging. Some of us due to war and terrorism.

For us here at this CSUN 2002 Accessibility Conference, we know the lesson by heart. We who come to this conference live the experience of having to do things differently every day. So we tend to assume that what we know to be vitally important to everyone on this planet: accessibility and equity of access for all, is common knowledge.

Unfortunately, it isn't.

How could ANYONE not believe accessibility to be a most relevant and worthy cause, a cause worthy of universal attention as well as funding?

The fact that we are here this week at this CSUN conference, learning about the latest, high-tech, super-cool, new technology and the media coverage of this conference is yet to surpass that of Oscar night or Super Bowl Sunday, attests to the fact that our message concerning the worthiness of the cause of accessibility may not be registering as it should with our stakeholders: everyone.

Yes. The world's perceptions of differability include:

1. We are problems that would just please just go away.

2. We are not even on people's radar screens. We don't exist. We are non-entities. People with differabilities are not even considered ZERO people. We are not people at all. We are gender-less "persons," objects, things. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people with differabilities can be sterilized without consent (Buck v.Bell, 274 U.S. 200; 47 S. Ct. 584; 1927 U.S. LEXIS 20; 71 L. Ed. 1000 (1927)). The case also is famous for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' commentary that "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." See also: http://www.elder-law.com/1999/issue640.html.

3. Disabled. What's "disabled?" Take a "TapLight." With batteries it works, the light goes on. Without batteries, literally disabling the device, the thing, as we call it in common everyday terms, is "disabled." The TapLight won't work, won't function, is as good as dead. That is what the term "disabled" means by dictionary definition: inoperable, non-functioning, incapable, incapacitated, as good as dead.

I know these above perceptions and observations to be true from life experience. Blessed with a mobility difference from birth, I have lived the depersonalization experience, and heard it and seen it and tasted and smelled and felt it every day of my life. The languages and religions of our various and diverse cultures and our media are ingrained with the "dis" and "non" and "not" and "won't" and "don't" and "can't" and "impaired" negative language that describes us.

For example, in an ABC News Good Morning America, October 18, 2000 interview, host Charles Gibson asked a mother why she did not secure her young child in a car seat (the reason for her subsequent arrest that prompted her appearance on the television program).

The mother answered: "My child has special needs."
Mr. Gibson's follow-up question: "What's her problem?"

Yes. We are problems that would just please go away. Guess what? We're not going away! We aren't dead yet! We know that the beautiful diversity of differability, the diversity of doing things differently, is universal. Everyone in the human race, as well as every living thing, shares this diversity. We all need to be able to do things differently, to adapt, to cope, to compensate, to be skilled at adaptive capacity. Everyone in the world learned this lesson on September 11, 2001. Every day of our lives we do things differently: whether it be taking a side road to avoid a traffic jam on a highway or the LA Freeway, or utilizing assistive technology by wearing a raincoat and using an umbrella on a rainy day. In any case, sooner or later, from birth, illness, accident, lifestyle choice, natural disaster, war/terrorism, or just by aging, we ALL are PEOPLE with differabilities. Why is this beautiful type of diversity yet to be celebrated and universally acknowledged?

Scenario:

"Good Day! Thank you all for inviting me. Right now, my persona is Alma Advocacy, Disabled Persons Coordinator at the Center for the Physically, Mentally, Developmentally Disabled and Impaired. I appear before you, the President's Committee to Fund Special Services, to appeal to you to provide the requested funding of $10,000 - a fifth of our original request - for our Center's programs. We have over 500 disabled persons registered for our service: blind, deaf, developmentally-disabled, learning-disabled, feeble-minded, retarded persons and invalids with cognitive, learning, motor, and other damage and disorders, defects, deficiencies, deformities, disruptive behavior disorders, difficulties, disturbances, handicaps, impairments, problems, syndromes, and disabilities. Our disabled, handicapped, impaired, ADA clientele most likely cannot achieve, cannot do the same work, will not graduate from our programs, will not find employment, as the fine capable individuals in the programs that you have previously funded over many years do to such a great degree. After all, our clients are disabled. We also apologize for setting them up for failure with false expectations. Their impairments, problems, and needs are numerous, and some, if not most of their equipment needs, such as hearing-impaired equipment, and are costly. Of course we understand your concerns about the great financial burdens that we are asking this Presidential Committee to undertake, especially in this time of national crisis and economic uncertainty when recruiting into our workforce exclusively perfectly able-bodied people seems the only alternative. That is why we have cut our request to a fifth of our original request, and are willing to accept even much less. We realize that we are advocating for welfare for the most disadvantaged, non-functioning, and lowest common denominators among us."

In the alternative, as a product saleswoman for an assistive technology company, a sample sales pitch to promote product lines of screen magnifiers and screen readers into the mainstream marketplace.

"Welcome to the new, improved products of our company "Disabled and Impaired, Inc." We manufacture and distribute products for the Blind and Visually Impaired and Handicapped, disabled persons with a wide variety of impairments and difficulties, and of course, the aged ..."

We the Consumers

Do the above paragraphs represent how we advocate for ourselves, the people for whom we advocate, how we promote our accessibility cause and our "high tech with the highest human touch" superb, wondrous assistive technology products?

Personally, as a consumer, I would not even give a passing thought to giving ANYTHING - my time, energy, OR money - to such a losing, desperate, failure of a cause. Would you?

- As a consumer shopping in a supermarket or on the Internet, would you buy a product ...

- As a corporate executive or funding agency, would you fund research and development for a product ...

- As an employer, would you hire an employee ...

- As a college admissions officer, would you accept into your program a student ...

that/who is advertised/promoted/described as "incapacitated, incapable, non-functioning" [some of the dictionary definitions of the word "disabled]", dependent on others' assistance, having problems, deformities, deficiencies, difficulties, handicaps, limitations, impairments, impediments, disorders and syndromes, being "damaged goods" and a costly financial burden?

Why would anyone waste his/her time, money, energy or even a passing thought to supporting a guaranteed-by-definition failing cause?

If buying/recruiting into the profession "damaged goods" and failure is the message that we are promoting to the outside world, let us also consider the messages being received and internalized by our most important stakeholders - the people for whom we are advocating; in this CSUN Forum, ourselves.

To quote "Life Law #2: You Create Your Own Experience: 'If you choose thoughts that demean and depreciate you, then you choose the consequences of low self-esteem and low self-confidence.'" (Phillip C. McGraw. Ph.D. Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters. Hyperion, 1999, page 68.)

* Negative thoughts and words result in negative perceptions.
* Positive thoughts and words engender positive perceptions.
* Change the language, change the perception.

We, The Advertisers

Ask any advertiser or its advertising agency. How we say what we say is important, crucial. Listen to or read any commercial or advertisement. How do the advertisers sell us the products and services that they want us to buy, the products and services that we do buy, and those in which we invest our time, energy, and money?

a. Do the advertisers tell us that the products and services cause problems and are not worth buying?
b. Do the advertisers tell us that the products and services have defects, handicaps, are impaired, invalid, damaged and/or disfigured, and/or can only work with [costly] accommodations?
c. Do the advertisers tell us that the products and services are disabled, or are, as the "d" word means by dictionary definition, incapable, incapacitated and inoperable, so cannot work or function?

Not if the advertisers can avoid doing so! Why not?

The advertisers know that we consumers would not personally spend or waste OUR precious, limited time and money buying, supporting, or investing in products that are damaged, defective, disfigured, dysfunctional, abnormal, impaired (that in American English has a strong connotation of being drunk), problematic, difficult, handicapped, disabled, and/or have a disorder, products that will not and cannot function or work.

The above product descriptors certainly sound familiar. The negative, depersonalizing "dis" terminology is the very terminology we and the media use every day to describe our positive accessibility products and services, the worthiness of the people for whom we advocate, and the worthiness of the very people who we are.

Is it any wonder that our positive accessibility programs, initiatives, products and services receive so little, if any, support or interest? If we want people to support our cause and to fund our programs, why do we describe and represent our products, our clientele, ourselves, in the most negative, unattractive way? Why do we utilize terminology that tends to motivate people to ignore or oppose our efforts?

Simply stated: Why would anyone support or promote ANYTHING that won't work, won't function, that is from the outset a failure and unworthy of support? By using the "d" words, and perpetuating the myth that we are "things" that won't work and cannot do, we are demeaning ourselves and our cause into a no-win situation.

How can we win? How can we convince others to want to join us in celebrating the diversity of doing things differently, in celebrating a new century that celebrates diversity?

Do what Madison Avenue does: Go Positive!

Positive Language Can Work for Us and Attract the Stakeholder Support that We Need

The masters of positive language are the successful corporations and their advertising agencies who make the products that we consumers buy - regardless of the actual quality or safety of the product.

If a company's advertising can attract consumer's attention and through POSITIVE imagery make us consumers feel good about ourselves, the product will sell. It could be a catchy slogan, a memorable jingle, or eye-catching graphics. Whatever it is: it makes us consumers feel good.

Positive Language works for advertisers. It works for politicians and their corporate supporters. It can work for us.

Why does positive language work? Positive language gives the listener, the receiver = our stakeholders what they want to hear. People want to feel good and positive language provides that feel-good feeling. It is human nature not to want to associate with the negative or negative labels that are simply a turnoff. Social causes like ___ control, anti-____, non-_____ , and _ against ___ have a difficult time succeeding because their labels create a negative perception of confrontation, control (no one likes to be controlled or told what to do about anything), conflict. Switch to positive labels such as pro- _____, _ safety, _-free ___, ___ for ____, one's cause automatically has the perception of success and being worthwhile.

A Top Ten To-Do List

1. Be Positive. Act Positively. Communicate Positively. PEOPLE First, Can-Do Language. Always.

Let us stop "dissing" ourselves. We need to match our already positive actions with positive words, thus establishing positive perceptions that will convince people to WANT to support our positive initiatives. We are PEOPLE first, PEOPLE who happen to do things differently, PEOPLE/ AN INDIVIDUAL who happen[s] to have "differabilities." Don't we all? Is there such a thing as a perfect person? Let us regard and describe others positively, with the same respect and dignity which we ourselves would like to be accorded.

2. They ARE Us. Care. [Positively] Encourage everyone to communicate positively and say it right: positively. Make accessibility, assistive technology, and universal design relevant to everyone, because they are.

We need to make our cause PERSONALLY relevant and important to others and inclusive of everyone, because our call for equity of access IS relevant for everyone. Forget the 'theys,' 'thems," and 'those people.' Differability is all about "We," "Us.""They" ARE Us. Everyone is diverse. Doing things differently is universal. Aging is a fact of human life, as are accidents, illnesses, lifestyle choices, natural disasters, and war. So sooner or later, if not already, every one of us in the human race will have to do things differently and use assistive technology. In fact, all of us do things differently and utilize assistive technology every day of our lives. Has anyone not traveled a different route to avoid an obstructed path or traffic jam or not recently utilized an umbrella, elevator, cell phone, hand-held computer, or remote control device?

3. Don't assume anything. Tomorrow it could be you who needs that accessible parking space or needs to ride public transportation. Never say "never, "cannot, won't, don't..." Perhaps we do "it" differently, but "it" can be accomplished superbly.

4. Advocate for changing and change names of services, programs to positive terminology: i.e.: "Disability Support"/"Disabled Student Services" = "Accessibility Office[r]." Re-word product descriptions to positive phrasing.

Instead of a program/course/workshop/article title "AT for the Blind and Visually Impaired/Hearing-Impaired/Learning Disabled/Mobility-Impaired/Retarded." Instead: "AT for People with Vision Differences/ Hearing Differences/Learning/Mobility/Cognitive Differences?"

PERSONS [gender neutral or neutered] with DISabilities " conferences ..
Instead: "Accessibility Conferences?"

"Directory of Services for Blind and Visually Impaired Persons"
Instead: "Directory for People with Vision Differences?"

"National Library Service to the Blind and Physically Handicapped"
Instead: "National Library [or Library of Congress] Accessibility Services"

"Assistive technology for persons who have difficulties ..."
Instead: "assistive technology who have [vision] differences ...

"Access to today's popular applications for blind and vision impaired individuals."
Why not: "Access to today's popular applications for people with vision differences ..."

"Disability Employment Awareness Month"
Why not "Accessibility Awareness Month?"

TV program: "Please Don't Stare: We're Not Monsters! (On "deformities") [If we're not monsters, what/WHO are we?]

Why not: So we look different: Doesn't Everyone?"

5. Describe ourselves and our work positively. If NEGATIVE is how we describe and talk ourselves and about the people for whom we advocate and the products we market, one should expect that our products and our cause are perceived equally NEGATIVELY. We need to be positive about ourselves for others to be positive about us and our cause.

6. Celebrate Diversity, All Diversity, including differability: the beautiful diversity of doing things differently. Differability is a beautiful type of diversity that is UNIVERSAL, a type of diversity that all of us in the human race, all living things share. We all do things differently. Every last one of us. Every day of our lives we do things differently: whether it be taking a side road to avoid a traffic jam on a highway or wearing a raincoat or using an umbrella on a rainy day. In any case, sooner or later, from birth, illness, accident, lifestyle choice, natural disaster, war/terrorism, or just by aging, we ALL are PEOPLE with differabilities.

7. Go for 150%. If our requests for support are for anything less than 100% of what we want, our stakeholders may be left with the perception that our cause might not be that important - to us either If we ask for 50%, we may get 10%, even nothing. If we ask for 100%, we may get 50%. Going for 150%, we may even get 100%. There is nothing to lose in trying for even more than everything.

8. PEOPLE First. 'They' ARE Us. Positive Language. Always.

9. Positive Language Sells. Positive Language Wins. Every Time.

10. "Toot Our Own Horn." If WE don't say it right, POSITIVELY, Who Will???

Just as we recruit new students to our colleges and training programs with positive imagery of our schools, our curricula, faculty, staff, students, resources and services, we can recruit new advocates to our accessibility cause with positive language, positive terminology.

A for Accessibility. "They" are us. We all "join the crowd" due to birth, illness, accident, war, natural disaster, lifestyle choice, or simply by aging, We all are people; people first: people who accomplish and achieve in different ways. We who do things differently possess the valuable life skill known as adaptive capacity. We all have differences: vision, mobility, hearing, perceptual, cognitive, learning differences, etc. etc.. Let us celebrate our differences, our diversity.

Positive language empowers and can change the course of events.

A Positive Language and Advocacy Success Story: During the Summer of 2001, despite the clear "people-first" standard, accepted, official language of "The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990" [The ADA] and subsequent legislation, our United States national library, the Library of Congress [LC], planned to change the current "Handicapped" LC Subject Heading to the even more negative, depersonalizing term "Disabled persons." The LC's Cataloging Policy and Support Office [CPSO] based its choice of the demeaning terminology on a usage note in an English language dictionary, not on the language of the legal documents of its raison d'etre, the U.S. Congress.

Embracing the power of positive language, this accessibility advocate personally enlisted the support of other accessibility advocates in a positive, people-first campaign that resulted in the Library of Congress' CPSO reconsidering its decision. Persuaded by positive, people-first advocacy, the CPSO decided to adopt current legally standard people-first language ("People with disabilities") as the new standard Library of Congress Subject Heading: a term that millions of people worldwide will use to search for resources in libraries around the globe.

A for Accessibility: Positive Does Win Every Time.

Now for the interactive part of the program.

Exercise: Pretend you are an advertising agency given a multimillion dollar contract to successfully market the worst product ever manufactured. Create an advertisement or commercial that will successfully sell it to people worldwide. Make it sound like the best, most practical, appealing product in the world. Please break into small groups and utilize the flip charts to list keywords, for instance, the negative on the left side, and the positive substitutes on the right. We will meet back in 15 minutes to experience your sales pitches....

Imagine: If we can successfully sell the worst product ever, think what we can do with our world class Accessibility services and personnel, and for the best people in the world: people who do things differently, people with differabilities (a/k/a all of us!).

Examples of websites with positive language:

- Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation http://www.hellofriend.org

- San Francisco Public Library Access Services http://206.14.7.53/access_services/

- University of Southern Maine. GENASYS: Generating Assistive Technology Systematically http://genasys.usm.maine.edu/

A Sample Taster's Test of Positive Language Sites via a Google Search Engine Search (accessed October 1, 2001)

National Spinal Cord Injury Association Resource Center Factsheet #8: Spinal Cord Injury Awareness - Understanding the Importance of Language and Images http://www.makoa.org/nscia/fact08.html

Using Positive Language http://www.work911.com/articles/poslan.htm

Positive Language Quiz http://ec.hku.hk/epc/interviews/postive_language_quiz_timed.htm

Teacher Talk http://www.ci.swt.edu/courses/Blocks/NBHSBlock/TeacherTalk


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