Assistive Tech & Pop Culture: “Miss Smith, without your glasses you’re beautiful!”

If you ever want to confuse people, tell them glasses are assistive devices that assist people with lower-level vision impairments, and then compare these assistive devices to such things as arm crutches or wheelchairs. In my experience, they’ll often insist that people who wear glasses are normal. (Not like people who use wheelchairs or arm crutches or any other type of assistive tech, no no, those people are disabled. And everyone knows you can tell who has a disability and who doesn’t just by looking at them, right?)

I’ll often introduce people to the idea that our image of what “disabled” looks like is constructed by talking about glasses as assistive tech, just assistive tech that is generally accepted by society. For a lot of people I interact with every day, getting glasses is routine, and you’ll see glasses everywhere on the street – advertisements for fancy glasses frames! and for new types of lenses! Glasses for everyone! (For certain definitions of “everyone”.)

At the same time, media & pop culture still use glasses as “code” – either for This Is Serious Work, or This Person Is A Nerd/Geek (and a particular type at that) or a scientist/doctor, or a Serious Scholar. This is true whether the person uses glasses all the time, or if they just use them for certain things. On Leverage, for example, when “the bruiser” character Eliot puts on his glasses he suddenly becomes totally sexy and I’d totally hit that because I’m shallow it’s usually an indication that his persona for the episode is Egghead/Nerd or Expert on something. Neal, who is a “recovering” con artist, does something similar in White Collar when he’s doing close-up nerdy-type work on his forgeries, or when his persona is “doctor”. I also clearly remember Elle Woods putting on her Serious Glasses and getting into her Serious Clothes for when she wants to be taken seriously as a lawyer in Legally Blonde. Glasses = Smart!

What brings this back to Glasses As Assistive Tech is that glasses are very normalized to people watching the shows, and yet glasses aren’t all the common as just a Thing The Character Wears in the show. I know why this is – glasses cause light-reflections, glasses make it harder to read someone’s expression on the screen, glasses can be dangerous in fight scenes, if they have lenses they can get scratched up and cause more problems, and if you’re not someone who wears glasses all the time I’m betting they’re distracting.

But, of course, movies and television aren’t the only media we consume. Comics, novels, and video games don’t have these problem. You can give every character in a novel glasses if you want, and it doesn’t really matter. And yet, when I was reading romance novels & chick lit all the time, I can only remember one heroine who wore them, and she went through the whole “Oh, but no one will find me pretty! Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses!” (And, despite her glasses being a huge thing in this novel, the cover art didn’t show her with them. Not that this is surprising, but still.)

So what does this have to do with anything? Well, glasses are assistive tech that is very normalized, and yet doesn’t appear very often in our media. When it does appear in our media, it’s often a code for something. This person is Smart. This person is Studious. This person in Playing A Role. This person is Eliot and his glasses make him really really hot omg why are there not more episodes of him wearing glasses and being friendly? And if we can’t see this incredibly common type of assistive tech in our media being used as just a Thing That People Wear, it’s no wonder we so rarely see people using assistive tech in our media just because Some People Are Blind or Some People Uses Arm Crutches or whatever.

Commenting Note: Sadly, I am still on Thesis Time, and likely will be until the end of the calendar year. Comment-approval/responding to will be slower-than-usual on account of this.

(semi)-Weekly Job Round-up

Brussels: European Disability Forum

The European Disability Forum is looking for a dynamic policy officer with good knowledge in social, employment policies and human rights.

You are committed to a human rights and social model approach to disability, and you have an understanding of social policy in relation to disability policies. You work in both English and French. You are looking for a challenging position to improve the life of 65 million Europeans with disabilities.

This position is based in Brussels and is a unique opportunity to advocate human rights before the European institutions. The knowledge of EU policies, institutions and procedures is an asset.

Gross starting salary: 2800 E/month

Contract: One year renewable
Closing date for receipt of applications: 30 August 2010
Date of the interview: 21 September 2010
The European Disability Forum is an equal opportunities employer and believes that its objectives will be better achieved if a significant proportion of its staff at all levels is composed of persons with disabilities.

Location: Belgrade

Seeking Applications for Eastern Europe Regional Officer position – Belgrade, Serbia

Disability Rights Promotion International (D.R.P.I.) is establishing its Eastern Europe Regional Centre in Belgrade, Serbia, in partnership with Centre for Society Orientation – COD and Autism Society of Serbia.

There is an immediate opening for the full-time position of Eastern Europe Regional Officer working from the Eastern Europe Regional Centre in Belgrade. Please see the attached posting for details about the position and the application process. Applications will be received until August 25, 2010.

Please share this information with your networks.
Disability Rights Promotion International (DRPI)
York University, 5021 TEL
4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M3J 1P3
tel: 416-736-2100 ext. 20718 fax: 416-736-5986
web site: DRPI

Recommended Reading for Monday, August 9, 2010

It looks like almost all of my links today (save the last) are mainstream media news stories or press releases. I haven’t looked at the comments because I like not being angry and hating people, but I have never found the comment section of these places to be awesome for nuanced discussion, so read with care.

Air Canada fixes ill boy’s broken wheelchair

A terminally ill boy whose specialized wheelchair was broken on an Air Canada flight from Toronto to New York has been given it back after the airline had it fixed.


Stratten said the Air Canada response has “so many lies it’s not even funny.

“They did not send an electric wheelchair last night, there was one sitting in the lobby this morning that was not adequate. We were never told it was there,” he said in an email. “They never called to say it, they never called after hearing it was inadequate and the replacement that just got here is a scooter people use to go shopping, and is worse than the first.”

Having traveled with AirCanada and helped Don deal with the subsequent broken wheelchair, I will just link back to this previous link round-up of ‘flying while crip’ fun times.

Canada: Provinces to Team Up on Drug Purchases

Canada’s premiers are joining forces to rein in ballooning health-care costs by pooling their purchasing power for drugs and medical supplies.

The premiers unveiled plans on Friday to set up a national agency that would be responsible for purchasing $10-billion in prescription drugs a year as well as medical supplies and equipment.

Having one entity responsible for drug purchases for all 13 provinces and territories would lower costs on a major contributor to the growing tab for health care.

I saw this as a good thing, Don saw it as a bad thing. What are your thoughts?

Canada: Access for Sight-Impaired Consumers Press Release:Access for Sight Impaired Consumers Board Backs Human Rights Complaint

In January 2008, the Access for Sight Impaired Consumers (ASIC) Board approved a motion to back the filing of a human rights complaint against the City of Richmond. The complaint seeks to resolve the City’s unwillingness to provide access to public information in an audio format – specifically street names at controlled intersections equipped with an accessible pedestrian signalling (APS)device.
While the City is refusing to provide what amounts to public information through this audio or voice messaging format, it is also refusing to use similar voice messaging at approximately 60 “special” crosswalks which are already equipped with pedestrian activated amber warning signals. Without an APS device at these “special” crosswalks, pedestrians who are blind or sight impaired are unable to utilize such crosswalks in a safe and independant manner. Given there is no universally recognized tone to indicate the amber pedestrian signals have ben activated (unlike the well recognized “cuckoo” or “chirp” at controlled intersections), voice messaging is emerging as the accepted standard by other Metro Vancouver municipalities. For reasons unknown, the City of Richmond is unwilling to follow the successful practice of neighbouring municipalities.

Australia: Disabled Australians subjected to hate crimes

Dr Sherry says thousands of Australians experience disability hate crimes each year.

“Some of it goes back to social Darwinist ideas about survival of the fittest; some of them talk about their images of disabled people being smelly or dirty or bad karma, possessed by the devil,” he said.

AM spoke to a former Australian adult guardian, the statutory appointee who oversees the affairs of adults with disabilities.

He said he had not encountered the issue of hate crime against people with disabilities.

Dr Sherry says that is “exactly the level of ignorance” that allows it to continue.

UK: New report: Council websites are getting slightly worse

Using websites is now second nature to over 80% of the UK population, with web users going online to browse, shop, book tickets etc. So why is it in our latest annual council usability report, looking at the top 20 council websites, that there’s been a slight dip in the usability of council sites?

Leading councils in this year’s report included South Tyneside with a 70% usability score, South Holland with 68% and Chichester with 66% – not particularly top scores given these are supposed to be the best sites. Areas of disappointment included navigation, error handling, calls to action and progress indicators to support users when conducting online transactions.

CALL FOR PAPERS: Race/Gender/Media: Considering diversity across audiences, content, and producers [via Ithiliana]

Purpose: The third edition of this edited reader will present an array of scholarship designed primarily to introduce undergraduates to considerations of race and gender in the media. Though written so that lower level students will be able to engage with the content, I want the book to be interesting and sophisticated enough to also appeal to juniors and seniors, who may be the largest consumers of the text. Some lower-level graduate courses (specifically those that also enroll advanced undergrads) also may find this of value. The text will emphasize critical and reflective thinking about these issues, and will encourage critical consumption of mediated messages. The first two editions contained mostly original work, but revisions of recently published works are more than welcome. To get a sense of the very wide array of material I want this book to contain, I encourage you to explore the tables of contents for the first two editions, and other information available on the publisher’s websites.

Sorry to link & run, folks. Hope your day is being slightly more under control than mine! *grin*

National Association of the Deaf Videos

When writing in my own space, I tend to make a lot of jokes about how much I enjoy doing “history in the future!”, by which I mean a lot of primary sources are on-line. Last year, for example, I randomly put the name of one of the people I was writing about into Google, and out popped a bunch of articles he’d written about his theories on Deaf people in the 1860s, which drastically changed my thesis.

For those of us who like to highlight disability related history, the internet can be a huge boon. Whereas as little as five years ago, reading Susan Burch’s description of the Hotchkiss videos for the National Association of the Deaf would have been my only way of learning about them, various video-sharing websites (especially YouTube) allow for us to see these videos, and get a better idea of their impact and importance, for ourselves.

Transcript, as provided by pdurr on YouTube:
Description: John Hotchkiss is an older white man wearing a suit and signing for the camera.

Excerpt of Hotchkiss discussing memories of old hartford from the NAD Motion Picture Project
translation of excerpt by P. Durr – NOTE translation’s accuracy is not confirmed.

“Another time Clerc called a boy who had passed by his house asking, “Please tell (name sign of bent L handshape going downward from top of lips to bottom of chin indicating a beard) S-T-E-W-A-R-D to please have wood delivered to me.” “My pleasure,” the boy replied and went on his way. But this boy completely forgot about this message as his mind was set on playing. Thus, it totally slipped his mind to inform Steward (name sign) of Clerc’s message of his need for wood and Clerc never received any.

A few days passed and again Clerc approached this boy, tapping him with his walking stick and holding him by the shoulders. “I told YOU to PLEASE tell Steward to bring me wood and you said, ‘Ah huh, Yes, Yes, Yes’ but instead you went off and completely forgot. Darn you for forgetting.” and he went off in a huff. As days went by, Clerc would continue to bump into this boy and would always say “Darn, you’re the boy who forgot” (hand at mouth) and stomp off.

The boy was embarrassed and became weary of Clerc’s insults so he decided to go to him and asking his forgiveness for having forgotten to deliver the message to which Clerc let out a joyful laugh and said “alright, you are forgiven, you are forgiven, be on your way.” And with that they departed.

Context, of course, is important. Hotchkiss is telling a story about Laurent Clerc, who is considered the father of the US Deaf Community – for certain definitions of Community, which I will get to in a moment. Dr. John Hotchkiss himself is a very important member of the Deaf community, having been part of the first generation of Deaf students to attend Gallaudet University. Once he graduated he took up teaching, and was a passionate advocate for the continued used of Sign Language in teaching Deaf children.

In the 1910s, the National Association of the Deaf began making several films of Sign Language masters such as Hotchins, and they toured the country. While they were mostly seen by Deaf students, there were hearing students who also saw these ‘silent’ films, exposing them to “the beautiful language” as well.

These films were created as a means of combating the oralist movement (requiring Deaf people to learn to lip read and articulate verbally, a movement that also attempted to ban Sign Language in schools), as well as recording the history of US Deaf people. Looking at the present, the increasingly easy access to video technology is leading to a similar growth in easily accessible videos by and for Deaf people, many of them on YouTube.

What is not obvious from this one video but would be if you went seeking out the rest of the National Association of the Deaf videos from roughly this time period is that “the beautiful language” that they’re preserving is pretty much the beautiful language of white men with the means to attend Gallaudet University. Gallaudet accepted one class of women pupils, and then refused to accept any more for over a decade. Even afterwards, women pupils were discouraged from attending, because they risked “stealing” jobs from more-deserving men. As well, there was a great divide between white and non-white/people of colour in terms of Deaf education. There was a segregated Deaf school system in parts of the US, and Black Deaf schools developed their own form of Sign Language. You can read a bit more about this at the Black ASL Project. Historians like Susan Burch make it very clear that there was no attempt by white Deaf leaders to support Black Deaf people, and only limited support in the non-segregated school system of the North and Western US.

I like to highlight some things in disability history because I find it frustrating that, if you want to learn about the history of disability in a non-specialized context, you’re probably only going to learn the tragedies. I’ve taken classes that have talked about forced sterilization and the eugenics movement, both in North America and abroad, but never had a class that dealt with the foundation of the Deaf press, say, or the National Fraternal Order of the Deaf – even in classes that were about Fraternal Orders in the US. I’ve taken classes that have focused on the resistance of marginalized people, but somehow fail to mention decades of resistance by people with disabilities, and often fail to mention even the success of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

We have a history that is more than tragedy, that is more than the last 20 years of fighting. It is not all brave plucky fighters, and it is certainly not all wonderful people who had no prejudices and only celebrated good things. People with disabilities are people, and I think talking a great deal more about this history is part of the way we fight against stereotypes and the boxes people put us in.

Commenting note: I am, as I said, on Thesis Time right now, which basically means I’m hardly at all around. If you decide to comment, please keep commenting policies in mind, and I’ll do my best to keep up with them.

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