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The Braille Monitor – October 2000 Edition


A Meditation on Civil Rights    

by Steve Jacobson

Steve Jacobson
Steve Jacobson

Last July the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) narrowly passed a ruling mandating that a specified amount of network programming be video-described. Those supporting the FCC position often argued that blind people have a right to be provided access to all the information sighted people have. In other words, all information access is a civil right, which among other things means that it does not matter how much it costs or how many people are inconvenienced to provide it--a right is a right, and society or individual purveyors must pick up the tab. School bussing to provide the civil right of equal access to good education was a remedy embraced after Brown vs. Board of Education, to counteract school segregation, and no matter what the cost to cities and school districts, the remedy was applied to protect that right.

On the disability scene the right to a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment and the right to physical access to public accommodations for people using wheelchairs are now generally recognized even if people still have to fight to make them a reality. The problem is that many have begun to pronounce that all sorts of conveniences are actually rights. Without considering the financial cost, the damage to personal independence for us, or the price we pay in increased resentment and negative public attitudes, these folks beat their breasts, lamenting the inability of "people with blindness or visual impairment" to cope with the world as it is. They paint dreary pictures of the limitations with which we live and do their best to stimulate sufficient guilt among the sighted to change the laws or set the standards they happen to advocate at the moment.

No consumer organization of blind people worth its salt would argue that blind people need nothing in the way of accommodations. Access to the printed word, the Internet, the workforce, the organizations and activities of daily life--all these require some mandated modification of business as usual. Justice demands it, and society as a whole will be better off when we have these things as a matter of course.

The problem is to decide which things are necessary and which are not. Provision of all too many services and conveniences leads to dependence, continued incompetence, and blunted motivation. There are no easy answers. Self-confidence, high expectations, and personal creativity must be stimulated in blind people if they are to learn to live satisfying, successful lives. A dozen times a day we are faced with the temptation to let the disability office, the secretary, or the public official do it for us. We should not be surprised, then, when whatever it is is done badly, unfairly, or incompetently.

Steve Jacobson is a leader in the NFB of Minnesota and the NFB's computer science division. He wrote a post to an NFB listserv grappling with some of these issues. He was responding to one of several comments to the effect that the FCC had acted wisely in mandating descriptive video because blind people should have the right of access to all the information sighted people get. This is what he said:

Now that the FCC decision has been made, I am wondering if anyone is interested in exploring the broader question, namely, what it is that we have a right to have. There have long been some fairly deep divisions among blind people over the issues listed in the note to which I am replying, particularly street crossings and subways. Whenever those issues are debated directly, the debate seems to degenerate into emotional name-calling to at least some degree. Yet it seems to me that some concepts going beyond any of these issues are important in figuring out exactly where we as blind people are going. As an organization I believe that the NFB has a pretty clear sense of this, but an understanding of rights versus interests that blind people and society as a whole have in common needs to be explored and understood. Yes, I know, some feel that this sort of exchange of ideas is a waste of time, but I think such an understanding is essential if we are going to chart a successful course through the maze of accessibility to electronic information in particular.

The note to which I am replying implies that we have a right to all information available to the sighted public; at least that is how I read it. I know that this belief is shared by others, and I do not mean to pick on this writer by choosing to reply to this particular note. Actually I intended to raise this subject earlier, and this note just gave me the push to do so.

How much of what we are requesting is because we have some implied right to receive it, and how much of it is because it makes good sense both for us as blind people and for society? We have some legal rights under United States laws such as the ADA and white cane legislation that we have felt were necessary to establish. But I feel that such laws have arisen because it makes better sense, at least in part, to include us within mainstream society than to keep us in rocking chairs in back rooms as has been done in the past. That sort of waste of human potential can't be tolerated. I believe we all agree on that.

We have a civil right to be considered equally for employment and other benefits of a modern society, but I also accept that society is not obligated to provide a mechanism to perform every job if my lack of vision places me at a disadvantage. The right to be equally considered does not extend to driving a taxi, for example. But this sort of exclusion must be watched to insure that exclusions are not made that have no basis in fact. Some have believed that sight is as much a requirement for teaching or parenting as it is for driving, and that assumption cannot be permitted to stand.

At the other extreme, I don't consider it necessary for all water faucets to have a tactile indication of whether they control hot or cold water because there are a number of approaches for me to determine that for myself, and most do not involve getting burned. Yet most faucets do display in some way for the sighted public whether they control cold or hot water. I don't expect every door to have a Braille label to tell me whether to push or pull, since in part I can determine that by experiment just about as quickly as by reading the label. I could probably list other examples upon which we mostly agree. In other words there are a lot of things in life for which the information provided to the public can be extracted using other techniques.

It, therefore, seems to me that many of the issues that we face are not those of civil rights. Rather, they are issues of balance between the cost to society and the benefit to us, or having some information provided to us as opposed to getting it ourselves.

What scares me is that anything that is defined as a civil right is by definition not analyzed to determine its benefit to us or cost to society because civil rights do not need to be justified. It is therefore convenient to classify some issues as civil rights so that one doesn't have to think about their relative value. I am not trying to say that everyone supporting DVS has used that argument because well-constructed arguments have been offered supporting the mandating of DVS. However, it does seem that more and more people argue for more and more services on the basis of civil rights.

Which issues are civil rights, and which are a matter of cost and benefit, and how do we tell which are which? When is it our job to find and use alternative techniques, and when ought we to expect society to change? It saddens me to see blind people, in the name of their rights, drop out of classes because their screen readers don't work with certain software rather than simply working with a reader for a few days. Civil rights are supposed to broaden one's options, not narrow them.

I know of no law that makes society responsible for erasing all disadvantages and obstacles that arise because we are blind. In some instances our independence is enhanced by developing techniques to deal with certain circumstances rather than by having those circumstances eliminated. We need, therefore, to analyze carefully the issues that confront us to come up with solutions that really work and to know the difference between our civil rights (what we need) and what we want because it is more convenient. How do we determine in which category to place an issue?

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