How able-bodied Kansans can be allies for greater inclusion of people with disabilities

At left, Shanna Groves wears a clear face mask. At right, a photo of Groves wearing a non-transparent cloth face mask. (Submitted)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. The author of two books about hearing loss, Shanna Groves teaches lip-reading/speechreading classes. 

“Staying alive is a lot of work for a disabled person in an ableist society.”

I can testify to the truth of those words from Alice Wong, founder of Disability Visibility Project and editor of “Disability Visibility: First-person Stories form the Twenty-first Century.”

It was my third year as a special education teacher in a Kansas public school district. Fellow educators presented on the topic of diversity and equity in education. We were shown graphics of children of varying heights standing behind a tall fence to watch a baseball game.

One child could see the playing field fine, the second child had to stand on tiptoes to see, and the third child was not tall enough to see over the fence. A second graphic showed the three children with supports to enable them to see the baseball game. While the first one did not require supports, the other children were given step-stools of varying heights in which to see over the fence.

This widely circulated graphic is frequently used to illustrate the concepts of equality and equity. (Submitted)

My question for the presenter was “Why does there have to be a fence at all? Why can’t the children join the other spectators on the field?”

The presenter turned her back to me and dismissed the comment, moving on with her presentation.

I have a severe-to-profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss and require communication support to engage in conversations and presentations. This includes visual access to speech by lip-reading as well as captioning and Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART). When the presenter turned her back, I lost the ability to read her lips and could not hear her. I am one of those children who cannot see behind a fence.

Why do fences exist with our disabled populations?

My work as a special education teacher consisted of advocating for our most vulnerable population: preschool-age children with disabilities. My students needed all kinds of support to engage in learning and play, and they were ensured these supports because of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. As an educator with a disability, my supports come through the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities and ensures the accessibility they need to engage within society. In other words, the IDEA and ADA are fence removers for the disabled.

Working with adults who do not have disabilities and may not understand accessibility needs, I had to become my own advocate. I had to work twice as hard to remove the fences around me: asking that closed captions be enabled with all workplace videos and virtual meetings, requesting to sit at the front of the classroom as a student growing up in mainstream schools, asking for CART for my graduate classes, and asking the cashier at my grocery store to please speak up and repeat her question into the microphone of my phone’s voice captioning app because I cannot read his lips from behind his face mask. I have even advocated for the inclusion of clear face masks at my workplace, which has made a huge difference in my ability to engage in meetings and casual conversations.

Yet the medical office where I have exams would not comply with requests to wear clear face masks or enable captions during telehealth appointments. This is a huge unmet accessibility need.

So, I have a request for all of you in the able-bodied community: Those of us with disabilities need you to ally with us for greater inclusion.

When you witness disability discrimination in your community, file an ADA complaint.

When you see an accessibility need not being met in your workplace, notify the human resources department to correct this ADA violation.

If a friend is being excluded from a Zoom videoconference because the presenter did not enable captions, speak up and demand that the captions be visible and that a written transcript be provided.

If a sign language interpreter is not present for a public event, ask to speak with the organizer to correct this action and then file an ADA complaint.

With everyone’s support, the disabled community will no longer have to stand on tiptoes or request their own step-stools to see the ball game because the fences will finally be removed. Then and only then will we have true equity.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.