Braille Monitor               February 2023

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Allyship and Inclusivity

by Rishika Kartik

Rishika KartikFrom the Editor: This article is taken from Future Reflections, a magazine for the parents of blind children. It appeared in the 2022 convention issue, Volume 41. Here is the way Debbie Stein introduced it:

For the past several years Rishika Kartik has built strong connections with the blind community. She leads art activities as a volunteer at the Colorado Center for the Blind, and she conducts art workshops with blind and low-vision students from the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind (CSDB) and in school districts across the state. In 2019 she received a two-year grant to expand her work from Arts in Society, a Colorado foundation that supports arts programs in underserved communities. Rishika has the distinction of being the youngest person ever to receive an Arts in Society grant. At the time her grant was awarded she was fourteen years old!

Rishika and her father attended their first face-to-face National Federation of the Blind Convention in New Orleans. In this article Rishika reflects on her experiences.

Percussive cane taps accompany cheerful greetings and chatter. Braille dots adorn the pages of pamphlets, and enthusiastic "talking signs" guide people to their destinations. People of all ages, identities, and perspectives share stories, coming together from around the world.
In July I attended the National Federation of the Blind's National Convention, the largest gathering of blind people globally. Convention is an event that involves training, support, and information-sharing for the blind community. It facilitates human connection and inspires people to lead full, independent lives.

As a sighted person attending this convention, I grappled with how to support a community I care about as an ally. As an Indian American woman, I understand the value of affinity groups and identity-specific events. Being surrounded by people who share your identity allows you to be fully yourself and feel understood in a distinct way. I did not want to prevent others from having this experience by attending as a sighted person. I am grateful for the way the National Federation of the Blind has welcomed me with open arms.

Volunteering with the blind and visually-impaired community over the past four years has taught me that everyone must be involved in issues around accessibility and diversity. Just as men can amplify a feminist message of gender equality, sighted people can become part of the blindness movement and work to dismantle ableist narratives. The key is to speak out by listening, to maintain an open mind and hand the microphone to those around you. As allies we inevitably will make mistakes. But by learning from our mistakes and engaging in open dialogue with those around us, we can work together to build inclusive communities.

The National Convention emphasizes that blindness, while challenging, unlocks a unique way to live life. Rejecting the notion of conforming to societal expectations allows people to find creative ways of doing what they love, from cooking and playing an instrument to studying and traveling. Unfortunately, a lack of communication between sighted people and the blind community often leads to uninformed design.

Disability advocate and design strategist Liz Jackson describes uninformed design products as a "disability dongle": "a well-intended, elegant, yet useless solution to a problem we never knew we had." Technology, such as VoiceOver and Braille displays, has been instrumental in promoting inclusion. However, designing expensive technology without spending time with the blind community creates products that blind people may not necessarily want or need.

A common example of misguided solutions is the movement to develop complex sensors to help blind people detect objects and obstacles. Designers often pursue these technologies "in order to eliminate the need for the white cane." "We don't need three-hundred-dollar gadgets to reinvent the wheel," staff members at the Colorado Center for the Blind say. "The cane has served as a valuable, affordable, and useful navigation tool for years."

Another instance of impractical technology is the development of artificial intelligence initiatives that transform 2D visual images into sound, with various tones representing objects in the picture. In-depth training is required before a person can interpret these sounds. The system is not intuitive for everyday use.

Disability dongles illustrate a broader societal issue. Sometimes would-be allies don't make enough effort to listen to the perspectives of blind people before they act. Sometimes, out of their fear of doing the wrong thing, they do not act at all.

Haben Girma, the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, affirms, "Disability drives innovation. When you think about new ways of accessing information, new ways for people to connect and engage with each other, you're going to find yourself designing the next best thing." By practicing authentic allyship people create accessible solutions that help everyone. SMS texting was invented by Finnish inventor Matti Makkonen and his team to help deaf people communicate. It now makes life more convenient for all of us. One of the first working typewriters, technology we use daily, was created by an Italian inventor, Turri; he wanted an easier way for his blind lover to send him letters.

Small changes, too, can create universally beneficial accessibility solutions. When designing the website where I post my blog, mentors of mine encouraged the use of high-contrast colors and hierarchical text for users with low vision and dyslexia. These changes made the site more user friendly and aesthetically pleasing for all visitors. Using alternative text to describe images optimizes Google's search engine, allowing people to find webpages much more quickly using keywords.

When I volunteered with the Educational Support Group at the NFB, we created tactile models to explain complex mathematical concepts. This work helped me realize that I, a sighted person, am not a visual learner. Now I often create 3D representations when I struggle in math, which helps me understand calculus concepts much more quickly. Unfortunately, the standard educational model still only accounts for visual learning, isolating many people from success.
My friends with low vision often express frustration with being forced to use their unreliable vision instead of being given accessible learning alternatives. In order to inspire creativity and build confidence, kids need the message that there is no single "right" way to do things. This message can start in the classroom. Providing Braille materials and embracing unique learning styles are imperative in ensuring that every person receives the education they deserve.

The NFB National Convention taught me that everyone is impacted by issues around accessibility, and everyone can take part in creating solutions. Rather than forcing "solutions" within an existing paradigm, disability inclusion is an opportunity to revolutionize current ideas. By abandoning conventional norms and exploring new ways of doing things, we unlock a new way of life.


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