Friday, May 29, 2020

Navigating the New Normal

Now that the stay-at-home orders are being lifted in some places, there is talk about a new normal.  What has become the old normal in cities like Ann Arbor, Michigan will be spreading to more rural areas that have not experienced living with restaurants that moved outdoors onto city sidewalks.  This old normal that blocks pedestrian travel is a nightmare for people who are blind, visually impaired, or using walkers and wheel chairs.  Tables and chairs are usually put next to the street, but servers walk in and out of the businesses at a fast pace as customers find or leave their seats.

If people who are living with disabilities are not included in the decision-making, the history of these communities will come full circle to a time when they were excluded rather than included.  We know what that looks like in ann Arbor because there are Grandfather laws.  These laws allow buildings to be exempt from having ramps, elevators that are used by the public, and doorways that provide easy access. 

After a fire, the Saint Vincent de Paul Thrift Store was returned to its original pre-ADA architecture.  A few years ago, Literati Bookstore was allowed to open in one of these old buildings that has three floors.  Events are held on the top floor where the coffee shop is also located.  IF a customer who wants to attend an event has a disability, the clerks will move the event downstairs to the main floor or they will turn on the intercom so the event can be heard downstairs as well as upstairs. 

I really wanted to hear an author and buy one of his books on an evening when I did not have the strength to climb the steep stairs.  I did not want to force the clerks to move everything downstairs, so I sat in a chair they brought for me on the main floor and just listened.  Another customer, also a senior citizen saw the accommodation that was made for me and requested a chair too.  That made me feel so much better because, as you know, those of us who live with disabilities really don’t want to attract more attention than we are already getting.  After the event, and during the book signing, a clerk took the book I purchased to the author on the upper floor and had it autographed.  I did not have the opportunity to meet the author or ask questions along with the other participants.  As “accommodating” as the young and apologetic and kind clerks were, this bookstore lost my business.

Do we really want to go back to the old normal?  Do we want to go back to the days that our grandfathers and grandmothers endured?  Watch the movies, Annie and Newsies, that are very entertaining as they show what life was like after the Spanish flu and during the Great Depression to see what their lives were like and how people with disabilities were portrayed.

I have been asked why I did not fight the discrimination I have experienced and chose, instead, to educate.  The answer to that question can be found in Seeing Lessons:  The Story of Abigail Carter and America’s First School for the Blind.  In 1832, Doctor Samuel G. Howe opened his home to young blind children like 10 year old Abigail and her sister.  As students were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, walking, recitation, music on the piano, and voice lessons, they were also taught to ignore slights, insults, and bullying.

The long history of the blind and visually impaired has been primarily one of coping rather than living.  Writers who are functioning with many different levels of vision loss are finally finding their voices and sharing their experiences through their memoirs, poetry, journals, blogs, books, and stories.  I hope more of these writers will create works of historical fiction and nonfiction to record the highs and lows of this amazing community that has been so welcoming to me.

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