By Jonathan Craig

Listen to the audio

Communication: The imparting or exchange of information, ideas or feelings.

It’s a theme that arises frequently in this edition of Blind Citizens News. Rikki Chaplin writes about how BCA’s new, fully accessible phone system has made his communication at work much easier. Gisele Mesnage talks about what we can learn from Lainey Feingold, whose innovative “Structured Negotiation” method has led to huge advocacy wins in the US.

Emma Bennison and Joana d’orey Novo both grapple with the way technology doesn’t always have the impacts we would initially expect on our communication. But as we say a fond farewell to SoundAbout, BCA’s quarterly audio magazine, we can also reflect on the innovation and dedication with which leaders overcame the communication challenges of the past to bring us the information we needed.

In my last editorial, I wrote about my belief that communication, through stories and conversations, is the beating heart of our community. But now I want to look outward, to briefly examine the challenges of communicating our unique needs in a society where competing priorities and the constant push for progress make it harder than ever to consider marginal groups.

Since stories seem to be my obsession of late, I should probably tell one of my own. BCA has campaigned tirelessly in 2018 against the increasing adoption of inaccessible EFTPOS terminals. On these terminals, customers input their pin via a touch screen, but customers who are blind or vision impaired have no way of differentiating numbers by touch, and thus can’t input their PIN independently.

Recently, I encountered one of these for the first time, when paying for a doctor’s appointment at a clinic I’d never attended before. The receptionist immediately understood the problem, and seemed more embarrassed than I was by our predicament. Rather than force me to disclose my PIN, she offered to conduct the transaction manually, as if I were paying by credit card over the phone.

This isn’t usually a suitable alternative, because it’s not available to all businesses, carries its own security risks, and takes much longer than an EFTPOS transaction. I agreed in this case, partly because I knew it would be memorably inconvenient for the business.

But mostly, it gave me a chance to talk more with the receptionist and her colleague. I explained that as far as I knew, there weren’t many functional advantages to touch screen terminals, and that they were introduced for aesthetic reasons. They both agreed, and promised to mention it to their manager.

I’m returning to the clinic soon, and will be interested to see whether anything has changed. But I was struck by the genuinely apologetic attitude of the women I spoke to. They seemed to understand how disempowering the situation felt for me, and suggested that the problem had only arisen because no one had thought of it until I arrived at the counter.

I’ve encountered a similar pattern again and again, a confounding combination of good will and bad awareness. I spoke to Martin Stewart for this issue about another advocacy win regarding the high capacity trains to be introduced in Victoria next year. Though I’m very happy to see them resolved, I was shocked that nobody else had thought of the significant issues he raised.

As I’ve said before, I believe the majority of Australians broadly want a more inclusive society, but don’t know where to begin. Maybe this is partly because those who haven’t encountered people who are blind or vision impaired, often don’t have any understanding of what our daily lives are like.

There’s proof of this in this issue’s letter to the editor, which describes some very negative misconceptions about living with blindness. While my personal experience suggests these attitudes are growing less common, I’m reminded, whenever I meet someone who’s utterly fascinated by a screenreader, that a lot of people are still surprised that I can even access the internet.

While I feel there’s a lot of good will at the personal level, I suspect the corporate and policy levels view minorities much more cynically. Businesses are encouraged to be inclusive when they see potential loyal consumers. Politicians are moved by potential votes. Helping minorities, for both, can often generate great, cheap, public relations victories.

But, for example, I believe we don’t have audio description on Australian TV, largely because the Minister for Communications doesn’t feel most Australians know what it is. It isn’t seen as a good investment, because the only votes it will win are ours, and those are not enough.

We often benefit profoundly from social and political progress. But as inaccessible EFTPOS, non-existent audio description, and ill-considered public transport all demonstrate, there are times when progress leaves us behind. As the rate of progress increases, more and more changes will be occurring simultaneously, making it increasingly difficult to catch the harmful ones in time.

This is why I believe raising awareness is so crucial. The more people understand how we overcome our barriers to access, the more support we’ll have for initiatives which help us remove them. The more we can encourage people to consider us as valuable participants in, and contributors to society, the more businesses and governments will be motivated to consider us when designing their products and policies.

This, to me, is the great communication challenge we now face. I think it’s profoundly important that we collectively ask ourselves how we can better inform people, at all levels, about what being a person who is blind or vision impaired is like in the 21st century.

One area where I feel there’s plenty of room for improvement, is our representation in the media. Whenever I see us on screen, I prepare for disappointment and frustration at another wasted opportunity. I enjoyed the “You Can’t Ask That” episode on living with blindness, and I feel we should be fighting for more forums like that where we can be our own ambassadors.

On a personal level, I really encourage readers who encounter something like inaccessible EFTPOS terminals to be careful when you communicate the problem. I know how upsetting and frustrating it can be, and I think it’s valuable to talk about those feelings, as I did.

But the person serving you usually didn’t choose to buy the touch screen terminal, and regardless, they probably feel bad about this situation. Blame is a hard burden to bare, and if you place it directly on their shoulders, they may try to shift or deflect it. Guilt can curdle, and become anger, but it can also turn into action. Which of these will help us more?

Ultimately, I don’t have answers to many of the questions I’ve raised here. My opinions and observations aren’t facts, and I’m happy to be proven wrong, or argued toward different conclusions.

But as an editor, I feel I have two key responsibilities. The first is to be a great listener. I’ll let you judge my success, but to the best of my ability, everything I’ve said here is based on what I’ve heard. The second is to ask great questions, the kind which will inspire readers and writers, and start conversations.

So let me pass these questions on to you. Let’s talk about whether, and if so why, many people still know so little about living with blindness. And let’s talk about the challenge of effectively communicating information about how we live, ideas about how our lives could be better, and how it feels when we aren’t heard. Let’s tackle, together, these big questions about how, through good communication, we can bring about positive change.

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