Not So Brilliant Maybe?

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about disability “innovations” that aren’t as great as they seem to be. For example:

Special ID cards and police registries for disabled people

Parents of autistic and developmentally disabled children have been pushing for practical solutions to the risk of police violence against their disabled kids. One of the more popular ideas is creating I.D. cards developmentally disabled, and deaf people can carry that explain to police that they are disabled, and so may not behave in expected ways when confronted by police.

Grid of four different disability symbols with a light bulb image over them

This is one of those disability-related “innovations” that can seem practical and sensible, but only if you have a certain kind of idea about what the problem actually is. If disabled people’s tragic encounters with police are solely about miscommunication and lack of information about specific disabilities, then informational I.D. cards make sense.

However, if you factor in deeper, more entrenched ableism, and especially racism, then I.D. cards seem not only inadequate, but possibly dangerous.

Police are first and foremost people, who live in the present society, and carry the same kinds of ingrained prejudices other people have. These prejudices may be slightly reduced or short-circuited by training, but it’s doubtful at best that they can be completely undone. In tense law-enforcement situations, police officers may not take the time to read and absorb the information on an I.D. card, and may in any case react on instinct, complete with lifelong prejudices. And it’s certainly not unheard of for people in positions of authority to doubt the validity of people’s “special” claims of disability. Just look at the doubts people have about paperwork, insignias, and “certifications” for service animals and “handicapped” parking. People are suspicious that these things are obtained dishonestly. It’s not hard to imagine an officer thinking that a disability I.D. card might be misused.

Even more simply … what do we expect could happen when a developmentally disabled, autistic, or deaf person, with a gun pointed at them, moves to retrieve and show an I.D. card? Would police be reassured when a suspect puts their hands in their pockets or into a purse for their I.D. in a high-tension situation? And yeah, it’s only sensible to ask, what if the person is also black?

Disability I.D. cards seem to be another solution thought up by people with a basic trust in authority and rational communication … neither of which is very reliable in police encounters these days.

Wheelchairs that climb stairs

A few tech inventors have been trying for years to perfect and market a stair-climbing wheelchair. People who are excited about them seem to have one or two main reasons for their enthusiasm:

1. They are fascinated by new, high-tech solutions to the problem of poor accessibility. They’re cool!

2. They gravitate towards individual solutions that don’t depend on broader and seemingly harder to achieve improvement in physical accessibility,

Pessimism about the social goal of universal accessibility leads them to seek a personal way around the problem.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting and possibly significant that non-disabled people seem overall to be more interested in stair-climbing wheelchairs than actual wheelchair users.

Then there is the implied evasion of the social responsibility to promote general accessibility. If these cool wheelchairs somehow become standard equipment for wheelchair users, maybe we can all stop worrying about accessibility. Intentionally or not, this reinforces the idea that disability is a personal problem that disabled people are responsible for adapting to, not a social problem for society as a whole to deal with.

The problem is that these wheelchairs are only ever likely to be practical and affordable for a handful of wheelchair users. They are no use at all for people who are mobility impaired but aren’t wheelchair users, and no use to people who can’t afford these wheelchairs’ huge price tags. Also, they don’t seem practical for anything but climbing stairs. They don’t look suited for everyday wheeling around, especially in confined spaces like small homes or along narrow pathways.

Finally, they just don’t look safe, do they?

Retail businesses staffed by disabled workers

I got into a lengthy Twitter discussion this week about a “feel good” news story focused on an ice cream shop in Texas where most of the employees have developmental disabilities. Are these kinds of retail businesses designed to employ disabled people a big improvement over sheltered workshops? Are the owners praiseworthy innovators in the field of disability employment?

The only fair answer is “maybe” and “sometimes.”

It is of course possible for someone to start a business with the deliberate aim of providing paid jobs to disabled people in a public, mainstream environment that’s essentially the same as other retail businesses … and for the right reasons. If they pay Minimum Wage or above, don’t claim the legal right to pay less, provide avenues for advancement, include non-disabled workers in the mix, and include at least some disabled people in ownership or management, it could be a good thing.

But these crucial factors are rarely addressed in the inspiring “human interest stories” done about them, the ones that usually come at the end of a nightly news program to make you feel good. Journalists especially should look much more critically at how disability-related employment ideas actually work, and what the owners are really doing. Do they participate in media stories in order to promote general improvement in hiring disabled people in all workplaces? Or, are they taking a bow for being a humanitarian? Does the story focus on the actual disabled workers and how they feel about their jobs? Or, is it all about grateful parents and community leaders heaping praise on a charitable enterprise?

And what are we to think when the owner says something like this, from the article linked above?

“It amazes me … how hard it is to get good help, especially in an economy like this where you’re paying $10 an hour for busboys and they’re not sticking around,” says Landis. “The answer to me is the special needs population.”

This should be a big red flag for possible exploitation, intentional or not.

Are the disabled workers paid less than $10 an hour because their disabilities and prejudice in the job market make it impossible to find a better paying job?

Do disabled employees “stick around” because they feel they have no other options, and everyone in their lives tells them they should be grateful for having a job at all?

How do we draw a distinction between touting the quality and reliability of individual disabled workers, and “selling” disabled people as cheap, easy to handle employees … who won’t quit no matter what?

Any of these “innovations” can be valuable to some disabled people, in some very individual and very specific situations. The problem comes when they are offered as a panacea for deeper problems that society just doesn’t wish to deal with … problems like accessibility of the infrastructure, ableism and racism, and the balance between business profitability, fair labor practices, and a living wage.

More Apps & Accessories

Illustration of a light grey computer keyboard, with one key colored blue with a white wheelchair symbol on it

Back in May, I did a couple of blog posts about Apple products for people with disabilities:

Apps For That?
May 11, 2016

Apps For That? Follow-Up
May 24, 2016

It looks like Apple has again rearranged some of its disability-related products, so I want to link to them and share that with people who read this blog:

Operating System Accessibility

An overview of built-in accessibility features of Apple’s computers and mobile devices.

iOS Moble App Store

Apple still maintains a list of scores of mobile device “Apps” designed to be helpful to people with disabilities.

iPhone Accessories - Home Automation

This is where Apple lists third-party add-ons that control household appliances through the iPhone and iPad.

iMac Accessibility - Accessibility

Apple has added a collection of attachments that help disabled people control and interact with Macintosh computers.

I am an Apple person, so I naturally gravitate towards Apple products. One of these days I do plan to write about similar products from other companies. Please feel free to comment below about non-Apple products you use or know about that make computers and mobile devices accessible, and that turn off-the-shelf technologies into adaptive solutions for people with disabilities.

Shopping Strategies

Photo of an electric mobility shopping cart

One of the most energy-expending things I do on a semi-regular basis is shop for groceries. I enjoy a few aspects of grocery shopping, especially the part when I am almost done with it, but mostly it’s just a tremendous pain that forces me to confront my physical disabilities head on. I’m not tired all day after a big shopping trip, but I try really hard not to shop on a day when I have any other obligations.

Recently, I made three deliberate changes in how I lay in supplies for myself:

1. I order bulk goods online and have them shipped to my door. This works great for non-perishable foods I use a lot, physically large items, and very heavy items. For example: laundry and cleaning supplies, canned goods, cereal, snack chips, paper towels, toilet paper. I use, an online retailer that ships for free, and also which also offers free shipping when you have an Amazon Prime membership. It’s a little more expensive than going to Walmart or Costco, but it more than pays for itself in convenience and sheer physical accessibility.

2. I maintain a running shopping list using the Grocery IQ iPhone app, and I try to eat away at it with small trips for just a few items that can generally fit in one or two light bags I can carry from my car into my apartment in one trip. It’s usually easier on me to do several short shopping stops like this than one big trip. If I'm already going to be out for something else, might stop and get just bacon and bread, checking those off my list and making it that much smaller for my next real shopping trip.

3. When I do have to do a very large single-trip shopping, I try to arrange it so a friend or paid aide will be available to help me carry all the groceries from my car into my apartment. I use the electric cart at my local big supermarket, so the actual browsing and choosing products doesn’t bother me that much. It’s the getting there, parking, walking in, getting out, and especially the car-to-apartment trip and putting stuff away that’s the real killer. A bit of help with that once a month is a nice thing, and even a good investment if you have to pay someone for it.

These steps accomplish two things. First, It makes shopping easier for me, less draining, more accessible. Second, and even more important, because these strategies make shopping easier, I am much less likely to procrastinate and go without important supplies. One thing about physical disabilities and chronic illness is that unfortunately, just not doing a thing is always a possibility. That’s certainly true for things we’d like to do, but also for things that, strictly speaking, we really have to do. And shopping is one of those things I have always found it relatively easy to put off, or do in a half-assed way that feels better in the moment, but is bad for me in the long run.

That’s why it feels remarkably great to have these strategies that have made shopping, to me, a much more feasible and even satisfying chore. It’s never too late to learn to adult, and to adapt.

Beach Break

Photo of a smooth sandy beach by the ocean

This seems like the wrong couple of days to continue writing about threats to disabled people. Not that racially-connected police killings and killing of police make threats to disabled people less important. Just that I feel like it’s a better idea to allow a couple more days before digging again into darker side of ableism when the darker side of racism deserves undivided attention. I’ll pick up the topic again tomorrow.

In the meantime, a Facebook friend of mine has alerted me to an interesting accessibility story I’ll share instead.

A beach in North Carolina is installing “accessibility mats” that make it easier for wheelchairs and people with impaired mobility to navigate sand. It seems like a natural idea to me, and a notch better than those beech wheelchairs, which can only help one person at a time. It puts responsibility onto the facilities rather than on the users, which is of course a bedrock principle of accessibility.

The linked news story includes a video, but it’s not very good, and I’ve found a much better video about the same thing that actually shows how the mats work. I’m embedding it below:

An App For That? Follow-Up

Yellow and white iconic symbol for electronic home automation

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about disability-related apps in the Apple App Store. I noted then, as I have a few other times on this blog, that Apple keeps teasing the idea that there are ways you can control all sorts of household devices with an iPhone app, but that it's strangely hard for consumers to figure out exactly how.

Yesterday, I found an additional resource right there on the Apple website. It's a whole subsection of the iPhone Accessories area, just for Home Automation. A few more puzzle pieces fall into place. There are appliances you can buy that connect with some sort of router-like device, which in turn can be controlled through an iPhone app. It’s easy to imagine how this might be really useful to people with significant physical disabilities.

The problem is that there still aren’t many appliances to choose from, and some of them seem more like novelty items than useful utilities. They’ve got lights, door locks, smoke alarms, and thermostats. That’s pretty good, but what window and door openers? What about setting and adjusting clocks, stoves, and ovens from the iPhone? What about emergency response systems?

And I’m still quite puzzled why Apple and other allied appliance companies don’t mention how their products can enhance disabled peoples’ independence. Are they afraid that will stigmatize the whole line … that people would conclude these are all products just for disabled people? Plus, the whole business still seems way too fragmented and cryptic.

What they should do, (Apple, or any other company in the field), is assemble three or four complete packages of products at different price levels. Offer one low-cost package for small apartments, one medium-priced package for an average family house, and an expensive set for bigger houses and more bells & whistles. Pay one price, and get everything you need to set up a living space controlled from an iPhone app … no guesswork, no hidden purchases, total compatibility.

If buying these devices were that simple, I could easily imagine health insurances, including Medicaid and Medicare, paying for them, especially if doing so would reduce the hours of home care a disabled person needs. $1,000 or so for a package of off-the-shelf environmental controls is cheap compared to an hour or two a day of additional home care, in perpetuity.

So, we seem to be getting somewhere with smartphones and environmental controls, but the whole thing still lacks focus. If you’re reading this and you have experience with environmental controls as adaptive tools for disabled people, tell your story in the comments!

Apps For That?

Icon of the iOS App Store

One of the first things I did this morning was check out the App Store on my iPad, and the first thing I noticed was that this week they are highlighting apps for accessibility. Here's a snapshot showing most of the collection they've put together:

Screen shot of the Accessibility section of the iOS App Store, as displayed on an iPad

Apple did the same thing last summer, in recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some of the apps this week are the same, but a few that were there last summer are missing, and a few new have been added. It's fun and maybe useful to browse these apps, if you have an Apple device. As I flick through the apps and try to figure out what they all do, a few thoughts come to mind.

- It looks like they left out the writing and dictation apps, and added a group of apps for speech. That's a decent trade if there is limited space in the promotion, but someday they should do a really thorough listing of apps for every kind of disability. I'd also like to see some of those accessibility mapping apps like AXSmap and AbleRoad included.

- There seem to be somewhat fewer free apps in this collection than you usually see in App Store groupings on a theme. In fact, the cost of these apps seems to be quite a bit higher than usual, and a few of the more powerful apps are quite expensive. That said, for the cost of a modest iPhone and a $120 app, you can give a non-speaking person with additional print disabilities the power of speech. Technology that did that used to cost thousands of dollars just a few years ago.

- Once again I am both intrigued and perplexed by the apps that look like they are supposed to control household devices. There is some kind of Apple-based system for operating appliances, lights, heating and cooling, and even opening doors and windows with the right attachments. The problem is that Apple hardly promotes it at all, and there's surprisingly little information available on how to get started automating your home. They might start with some clear indication of how much it all costs! Or, maybe I'm just being dense about it and haven't found some really obvious source of information.

- Overall, it still feels like the present capabilities and usefulness of apps and mobile devices combined haven't really sunk in with the disability community. Even your basic out-of-the-box apps like calendars, to-do lists, word prediction, and voice input and output can make life with all sorts of disabilities easier.

Return Of The "Pool Noodle?"

Photo of a child's feet in sneakers standing on a one-step platform with a while cane for the blind out in front

Just short of a year ago, we read a similar story, about an American school district taking away a young blind boy's white cane because they said he used it to threaten harm to someone. They gave him a semi-flexible foam "pool noodle" instead, and shortly afterwards, gave the cane back to him and apologized for confiscating it. Compared to this British girl, that case seemed like more of a real dilemma. One way or another, safety was at least a bit of a reasonable factor. The disability rights consensus was 1. Don't confiscate a disabled person's main tool for adaptation, and 2. Do make sure that young disabled children are trained in how to use these tools safely and appropriately.

The same formula probably should apply for Lily-Grace, or any kid just starting to use a white cane, crutches, or a wheelchair. Nobody is saying she's reckless with the cane, but she's seven years old, and there's a method to using a while cane. You don't automatically know what to do with a cane just because your blind and they had you one.

Both situations underscore how small disability-related problems get out of hand when one or two people with some sort of veto authority get antsy about anything unfamiliar going on in their professional territories. It gets worse when they happen to have a personal preoccupation with certain aspects of disability life. It may sound strange, but there are people who have very firm opinions about the use and abuse of white canes, crutches, ramps and elevators, and wheelchairs ... not to mention service animals. And they absolutely do not see it as ableism in its purest, simplest form. I suspect the officials responsible for both of these crises felt that they were the only ones with the good sense to raise concerns and put the brakes on well-meaning but carelessly permissive policies. Couple that with administrative procedures that handle contentious issues too slowly and deliberately, and you get, I think, maybe 75% of the news stories about ableism that make it into the mainstream press.

It's so galling when it is happening, that it's easy to froget that most of these situations are resolved more or less properly in the end. Blind kids get to use their white canes in school. Customers can, usually, enter coffee shops with service animals without it making the local news. Most people don't regard ramps and elevators as expensive luxuries, at least once they are fully installed. But in the meantime, massive time is wasted futzing around with pointless deliberations when the eventual outcome is rarely ever in real doubt. This is where a bit of autocracy can actually be a good thing. We need more school principals and headmasters who are willing to say, "I appreciate your concern, but unless there's an actual problem, blind students will be able to use white canes ... or whatever they need ... in our school. That's the way it's going to be."


Celebrate Access Equality, September 26, 2015

Join us on September 26, 2015 Below, a row of accessibility icons for wheelchair, sign language, learning disabilities, visual impairment, hearing impairment, walking with cane
I have been seeing Facebook posts and Tweets from disability blogger, activist, and filmmaker Dominick Evans, about a multifaceted event he’s been planning for September 26, called Celebrate Access Equality. For some reason, I kept mentally noting it and then promptly forgetting about it. I can’t keep track of every disability rights event, and even if I could, I don’t have the time and energy to dive deep into all of them. So this one slipped to the back burner.

Celebrate Access Equality September 26, 2015
Today I got an email from Dominick, which he sent out to a whole bunch of online disability activists and bloggers. I read it, and basically, I’m in! This event is going to be well worth the time and effort, no matter what kind of disability rights activity you are into. Here is Dominick’s email.

Hello Everyone!

I hope you are well! I’m writing to tell you about a project I’ve been working on the last several months. I am working with others with disabilities around the world to promote a day to educate and inform about access barriers. I believe that the vast majority of discrimination people with disabilities face is due to lack of access.

In my mind, access isn’t just about physically being able to move around this world. Access barriers can be mental and emotional. Access barriers can include stigma and oppression. As such, something needs to change. We need to make the  world aware of access barriers, so that real change can be made. That is the idea behind the day of Access Equality.

Participation can occur anywhere in the world. There are a variety of ways to participate. These include:

-sharing our FB page located here:
-tweeting about access barriers using  #AccessEquality
-contacting state and federal government representatives
-protest in your own community
-sign petitions relating to access barriers
-rate a business for accessibility on apps like AXS Map and AbleRoad
-support organizations holding protests, actions, and events on September 26 by sharing their updates

We’re also planning events throughout the day, including a twitter chat, and live streaming.

We are offering two gift cards on Amazon to encourage participation. One person will randomly be selected from those who choose to blog, and one person will be selected from those who take pictures in their community and post them to our FB page and/or using our #AccessEquality. Participants do not have to be disabled themselves, although we heartily encourage individuals to share their own personal experiences with access barriers!

The idea is to create so much content and noise on September 26 that it is too hard not to notice us.

You can find more ideas and information here:

I could really use your help. Please share this information with your networks and encourage participation. Please also consider participating. We need your voices!!

I appreciate your consideration and possible participation.


I plan on joining in the Twitter discussion on September 26, posting a blog post here at Disability Thinking on that day, and helping promote all of the above activities.

Most of all, I plan to help Dominick kick off a really significant push for disabled people and disability activists to enter hundreds, maybe thousands of businesses into online accessibility mapping tools like AbleRoad and AXS Map. Nothing is definite yet, but it looks like our best bet will be to use AXS Map, which has a feature that keeps track of group mapping efforts.

To review ...

These mapping tools use existing Internet-based maps and consumer review sites like Yelp to form the basis of easily consulted reports on accessibility at businesses and other public facilities. Both programs can be added to and consulted on a PC’s web browser, and both also have accompanying mobile apps, so you can enter reviews immediately, without having to take notes and enter them later. Anyone can go to one or both of these sites, download the apps, and get started. If you’re still foggy on how this works, check out this video:

Our tentative plan is to set up a Mapathon at AXS Map, and invite people to register (for free) and commit to enter a certain number of site accessibility reviews. We are thinking we will use September 26 for the kickoff, with an end date of December 31. As soon as the Mapathon is set up, we’ll announce how to get started.

Meanwhile, here is some additional information about the September 26 Access Equality Day:

Dominick Evans - September 14, 2015


Accessibility Apps Need Us!

Illustration of an iPhone with icons of apps streaming out of its face
I spent the morning exploring the new Apple mobile device operating system, iOS 9. Among other improvements, the Maps app offers more information on businesses and attractions. Just click the label for, say, the Dunkin’ Donuts on Main Street, and you’ll see the address, phone number, price information, and both quotes and a direct link to Yelp reviews. I live in a small City and I don’t travel much, so I don’t expect to use the Maps app much myself, but it’s pretty cool.

It also got me wondering, for the eleventyith time, why we still don’t have a really comprehensive Internet-based database where disabled people can find out about the accessibility conditions at all kinds of businesses.

There are a few sites and apps designed specifically for accessibility ratings, like AXS Map and AbleRoad. Both build upon existing mapping and review services, Google Maps and Yelp respectively. This seems like the obvious way to document accessibility everywhere. The information can then serve as a guide to individual disabled people, and as an advocacy tool to encourage business to address their accessibility problems sooner rather than later.

The problem is that the system will only work if enough people add accessibility reviews, and that is up to us, the disability community. I don’t know how many disabled people regularly add accessibility reviews with mobile apps or websites, but I almost never hear anyone mention it, either in person or on disability blogs like this one. I could be all wrong, but it still feels like most of the disability community complains about accessibility, but relatively few of us help document the problem using tools that are more effective and easy to use than anything we’ve had before.

Isn’t this something we could all get behind? Can't we do this?


Imagining The Next Apple Event

Apple computer logo and accessibility logo
I watched today's Apple Event, which included a major overhaul of the Apple TV system. I may find the new Apple TV hard to resist, but I'm going to try.

The new Apple TV will apparently run stand-alone apps. This suggests the possibility of using Apple TV, with its new Bluetooth remote and Siri-based voice controls, to run a full slate of household appliances and devices. This could make it the most elegant and complete home automation unit ever ... a blast for tech nerds, and a major liberation for people with significant physical disabilities.

Imagine turning lights on and off, opening and closing doors and windows, turning heat or air conditioning up and down, controlling kitchen devices, or flushing a toilet through voice commands or the flick of a thumb. That's what I'm talking about. It's not far fetched at all. Lots of companies already sell control devices you can plug into any standard appliance, and control from a central unit like a smartphone. It's just that right now it's a rather confusing and very expensive field. Apple is great at making things easy to use, and, if not cheap, at least reasonably priced and easy to pay for. Apple seems like the perfect company to make environmental controls an everyday, common reality, including for disabled people.

The problem is, I still don't know and I can't seem to find out whether anything like this will be included in the new Apple TV, or any of Apple's other product lines. If anyone knows about new apps and systems that maybe just didn't make it into the event, please let me know.

The last Apple Event, back in March, did include a lengthy demonstration of Home Kit, a suite of home appliance devices controlled mainly through an iPhone. However, the presentation was a bit confusing and I don't recall Tim Cook mentioning how useful these controls could be for disabled people.

Here is what I hope to see, maybe at the next Apple Event:

- A smoothly operating, flexible, and simple home appliance control app that will work on any Apple device, including the Apple TV.

- A control app designed by Apple, included free with all Apple operating systems. Users would pay only for each device control unit they want or need for their own homes, purchased from third-party developers.

- I would love to see Tim Cook introduce a person with significant physical disabilities to explain and demonstrate the app at the Apple Event. It worked well when he had Christy Turlington introduce the Apple Watch's fitness features.

I don't mean to imply that the system is only for disabled people. It's just that disabled people can dramatically illustrate, in a unique and memorable way, how useful environmental controls could be for everyone.

Apple is already a leader in making its products accessible to disabled people. I am still waiting for the company to turn it's products into tools to make the whole world more accessible for everyone, especially disabled people.