Braille Monitor                  December 2021

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Transforming and Accelerating Accessibility: The Need for the Organized Blind Movement to Innovate through Inclusive Design

by Sina Bahram

From the Editor: This presentation was one of the more exciting we received during our 2021 National Convention. One of the things that made it exciting is that it was delivered by a former scholarship winner who has gone on to create a business based on innovation and accessibility for all. The thrust of his presentation is simple: don’t just think of yourselves as you advocate for accessibility, but act in a way that you would have others act when it comes to accessibility for you. Here is what he says:

SINA BAHRAM: Mr. President, thank you for such a kind introduction. You can tell it's been a long day. Good evening, everyone. My name is Sina Bahram coming to you from North Carolina under this thunderstorm late in the evening. I want to tell you a little bit about what I do and talk about inclusive design.

I run a company called Prime Access Consulting or PAC for short. It is a really cool job. I'm incredibly privileged. This week alone, one conversation was around how we make holograms accessible. The other one was when I was told, “We have an immersion room, and we have only projectors and no electricity on the walls. So how do we make things inclusively designed for everybody whether you can see or hear or use your feet to walk around?”

These are some of the conversations I get to have and some of the amazing spaces I get to play in. And the reason that I get to play in those spaces is because of this philosophy of inclusive design.

We all talk about accessibility: those things that are done especially for persons with disabilities. Sometimes it is defined as the things done for those who depend on assistive technologies. But really what it comes down to is that there's a difference between that and inclusive design. Inclusive design is a way of thinking that allows us to design experiences, places, buildings, services, products, what have you, in such a way that it is usable by the widest possible audience—in such a way that it doesn't introduce barriers. It means doing things upfront and not making things accessible after the fact.

The common example of this stuff is things like the curb cut, right—critical for some audiences like those with mobility differences. But it is augmentative and helpful for everybody. Easy examples are parents with strollers or people with luggage at the airport.

We don't think of certain other things as inclusive design but they are. Think of audio description that is not only helpful for those of us who are blind and use it on services like Netflix and so forth but also my friend who is autistic uses it. I was over at his house. We have a pretty irreverent relationship. “You know you can see, right?”

“Yeah, I do. But I use it for the emotional content I want to know in certain dramas in which it is hard for me to detect emotional content.”

We see this with visual description in art galleries. It is useful for those who can see, not just for those who can't because it lets you know what's going on. And it lets you have a guided looking experience.

So if you really want to think about this difference, here is one way of looking at it. At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, there is the Greensboro County counter. It is an exhibit on segregation, detailing the violence portrayed against the men of color that sat at the counter during the civil rights movement in this country.

If you go there and you're a wheelchair user, you're asked to roll down to the end of the counter where it's been lowered a couple of inches. Now this is accessible, right? But we think in the work that we do at PAC that if you're a black woman in a wheelchair rolling up to this thing, you're asked to roll down to the end of the counter. It is accessible and legal, but it is in no way inclusive. That's the work that we try to do. That's the kind of situation that we try to avoid in the world.

So we need to remember that a lot of us know these facts, these numbers. We hear them all the time. Twenty-five percent of the people in the world have a disability. Your chances of experiencing a disability is one out of two over the age of thirty-five. We all have different abilities and skills and ways of interacting with the world, and we need to get out of these silos.

A lot of the work we do concentrates on understanding we need to be able to build coalitions amongst groups of persons with disabilities, whether it's deaf folks and blind folks and autistic folks and so forth because only together can we overcome some of the incredibly significant challenges that are facing us today and in the near future. We need to understand this doesn't take away from our individual causes; making the world more inclusive is not against the mission of the NFB. But we need to understand we have these amazing talents and expertise that we can bring to these conversations and only together through realizing that when something is inaccessible or othering for one group of people, it is inaccessible and othering for all of us. That's the underlying ethos behind the work that I do and what I tend to believe in.

Why does this matter? It matters because we live in the most accessible time in the world! And you know what else is simultaneously true? We live in the most inaccessible time in the world. We've become pretty complacent as persons with disabilities when it comes to the way we think, especially about technology. A lot of us are enamored with our various touchscreen devices—Phones and iPads that have built-in accessibility, and those are wonderful things. They should be celebrated. The thing is that, over the next four years, there will be more inaccessible experiences created than in the history of humanity. That's the nature of exponential progress. That is what we're up against. If we don't do something about that and we don't do something about that together, then we are absolutely out of luck.

You see, we can't be talking about accessibility because if we're having a conversation around accessibility, it is already too late. That's a post facto conversation. We need to be talking about inclusion and inclusive design upfront.

Take for example some current events. The ACLU right now has a major campaign against facial recognition. They are not bad people, but they are really stigmatizing facial recognition as a technology and for good reason. Facial recognition technology has been used to perpetuate massive harm and violence, especially against marginalized groups such as persons of color in this country. Here's the thing: a lot of us use facial recognition all the time not only to do something like unlock our phones but to understand who's in a photo because Apple has built in artificial intelligence into our devices. Someone who is autistic can use facial recognition technology to detect emotional content either on a video stream or through image recognition. These things really matter, but these policies that are being put forth are being put forth by well-meaning people. They're being put forth by folks who want to do good and prevent harm in the world. However, they're deeply ableist. They're deeply naive solutions to complicated problems.

So we need to work together and have a unified voice, especially amongst all persons of varying abilities. Otherwise, my friends, we have absolutely no chance of solving these problems and making sure our voices and our roles in the world are represented in the way that we want them to be.

This is a little bit of doom and gloom, so what can we do about it? We can think inclusively. When we have an experience, we don't only think about ourselves in terms of was that described or was this available in Braille? Go beyond that. Was there sign language? What would I have done if I didn't have the privilege of being able to walk there? Was there a ramp to get access to that thing? We need to be thinking about all of our brothers and sisters and fellow humans that have various abilities because we need to then be surfacing these issues and problems when we notice them in the world. So, to state what I hope is obvious, we can be helping each other and by doing so, of course, help ourselves. We need to also be able to bring on board allies. This means, for example, the individuals who are creating experiences. I work with thousands of designers and developers every single year. Me and my team work across hundreds of different products in the industry, whether it is health care or in museums in which we do a ton of work. A lot of these people are simply acting first from a lack of education about accessibility and inclusive design. And second of all, they come from a place of not knowing what it is they can do. They're told one thing and expected to quickly become an expert in certain matters, but they're not set up to win.

We need to be able to group together with other persons with disabilities—with other groups—to establish education pipelines, to establish unified messaging, and to really go after legislatures on this topic so that we are unified in our approach. This is so because there is an avalanche of new technologies headed our way. It will blow your mind what is going to happen between now and 2030. It is not a mathematical exaggeration to say that it will be more than all of humanity has experienced since there have been people on this planet. If we realize that that is true, we cannot be complacent and satisfied.

Now being unsatisfied does not mean being ungrateful. I have the privilege of working with some incredible people every single day. Some of those people say, "I didn't even know computers could talk." That's where some people start. Other people are like, “I think I know everything about accessibility,” and after a couple of conversations with my team, they realize they don't.

We all have different journeys we're walking on, but we cannot be complacent in that. We need to be grateful but pushing forward with incredibly fervent behavior. If we don't, then we're going to be left behind at a rapidly accelerating rate.

I invite you to think about your personal experiences. Think about going through the world in whatever capacity you do, whether it is education, whether it is in the practice of law, whether it is in technology or in music or in anything that it is that you do. Think about those experiences not only from the viewpoint and through the lens of blindness, which we in this group of people and in this virtual room do such a good job at. But also view this under the lens of making sure that these experiences and these environments that we have the privilege of existing in are as inclusive as we possibly can make them for our fellow humans.

Now this has some practical consequences. It means that when we notice something like there's no captions on a video, we need to be complaining about that just as hard as no audio description. It means that when we notice that there's no sign language interpretation at a dramatic event, it is just as important as not having audio description. Things like this are a way that we can start building consensus that there is a unified need. A lack of inclusiveness is not an option. We need to make our environments less disabling.

Remember that old argument about the real problem of blindness being physical disability or primarily socially constructed. It is not the individual who is disabled. It is the environment that is disabling. We need to work together to make sure that our environments are not disabling as we move forward throughout the world.

In closing I just want to say thank you so much to all of you for your time. Thank you, Mr. President, for your invitation to speak to the convention this evening. I hope everybody has a wonderful convention. Have a good night, everybody.

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