I had just signed up for a conference for social workers and the online registration form listed potential accommodations that were made available to attendees. There were options for “vegans/vegetarians”, “ASL Interpreter”, and “Other”. Next to the “Other” category, there was a note that indicated a phone number to call if I needed “Other” accommodations.
After being redirected a few times, I finally reached the person who was in charge of the conference and the “Other” accommodation section. I gave her my name, told her that I had signed up for the conference, and asked if I could get materials in large print. She asked, “What do you mean, ‘large print?'”, and I rattled off an example: “Like, if there are worksheets or other supplemental materials, or if there’s a PowerPoint; if I could have that printed off in advance to have at my desk. I’m legally blind, so, like, 18 point font works best.”
Note: I didn’t have to tell her that I am legally blind, but it kind of just came out in my rush to explain to her exactly what I need. (See what I mean when I say that I don’t always get this whole “reasonable accommodations” thing?) However, I was clear and specific in what I was asking for. What I needed was a printed PowerPoint and anything else in 18 point font.
“Well, how will you read the manual that comes along with the class?” she asked, completely ignoring that I already told her specifically what I needed. Her tone was a bit challenging in nature.
This woman’s question about how I would read the manual totally threw me off guard because that wasn’t what I was asking about. I wasn’t asking for accommodations regarding the manual. I was asking for accommodations regarding a PowerPoint. I wish she would have asked, instead, “Do you need any accommodations in reading the manual?” because then I would have had told her that, no, I do not, thanks for asking, though.
When someone asks me “How” I am going to accomplish something because of my visual impairment, it makes me feel challenged — like they have preconceived notions and expectations that I am ultimately going to fail; as though they are the very first person to think about the “how” of a situation, and are educating and warning ME about my own limitations. It makes me feel like an “Other” — just like that little checkbox on the Accommodations section of the registration form! A sassier part of me wanted to ask the woman on the phone, “How do you think I completed my Master’s degree, which is a prerequisite for this very training?” However, I stammered something of a response about using a magnifying glass and having the manual part already figured out for myself.
The woman on the phone seemed relieved and explained to me that she worked with another social worker who is blind. That social worker received all of her information on the computer because she had a screen reader that would provide audio of the text on the computer. The woman asked if I needed the PowerPoint sent to me electronically so that I could use a screen reader, too. I explained to her that my personal experience of vision loss isn’t one that uses a screen reader as an accessible tool, and I said that I would prefer printouts of the PowerPoint in a larger font.
It is in moments like these that I realize that still have so much to learn from one another, I think, when it comes to how we engage with those who have visual impairments. Not every experience of vision loss is the same, and not every accommodation will work for every person. That other social worker may use a screen reader; I prefer print-outs in large font or a screen magnifier for my computer (Magnified up to 300%!). Some people need lots of light in their workspace or home (me!); others with vision loss thrive in low-light settings. Some use a guide dog, some use a white cane, some prefer to navigate without those tools.
It’s important when asking for accommodations, to be as specific and clear as possible. You know your needs better than anyone– you live with your eyes every day! However, there may come a situation where you’re unsure of the assistance you need, and that’s ok, too. It can be frustrating, and sometimes discouraging, but I believe that the more we educate others through our daily lived experience of handling vision loss, the more we can change people’s fears and perceptions about what it means to love with this diagnosis, and the more we are better able to thrive in our communities.