Mar 22, 2012


I am sitting at Vancouver airport as I write this, filling out a questionnaire for a video that I will be helping out with for British Columbia's tourism and hospitality industry in nearby Victoria. One of the questions asked is a very good one.

Tourism British Columbia from Victoria, British Columbia asks:

What issues do you have when it comes to accommodations such as hotels?


Perhaps one of the most finicky things about accommodations is that many people do not fully understand what "accessible" means. For some places, they assume that if a place has no stairs or steps, it automatically becomes accessible. Worse, some other places consider places with a few steps are still "accessible." Basically there is no standard understanding of what it means to make something accessible.

One of the things that many people with disabilities tend to suggest is to be as specific as possible about what you may require. There have been situations where someone would phone ahead and would be assured that a place is accessible but arrives to find out that it is anything but.

For example, I know someone who was told that the hotel room he wanted was recently renovated to become fully wheelchair accessible. However, it was on the second floor of a building without an elevator, obviously making any renovations useless.

A less obvious incident from another friend involves an "accessible" hotel that had two steps at the front entrance. She uses a power wheelchair, so there was no way for her to enter the hotel at all.

I have come across a less obvious example myself, where the room is on a floor without stairs or steps, but the room itself is too tight to maneuver if you are in a wheelchair, in addition to having an inaccessible bathroom. I did all I could to ensure that it was accessible but without physically being there, there was no way I could have predicted those problems, so sometimes being specific does not always work.

As a side note, one particular pet peeve (especially among fancier hotels) is the use of thick carpeting. Even with good upper body strength, thick carpeting can make navigating through rooms (that are otherwise accessible) similar to getting around in quicksand. Able-bodied people can simulate the effect by trying to roll a suitcase on the same carpeting – it simply does not work well. The best carpeting to use is thin hard carpeting often found at airports. The softer and thicker the carpeting, the worse it will be for wheelchair users.

My advice to professionals in the industry is to do a dry run in a wheelchair or other mobility device in the rooms before declaring it accessible. In addition, see if it is possible to access the room from the outside; there may be some modifications to the hotel's entrance that are needed. In addition, do not be afraid to seek out local disability groups and societies for help; here in Vancouver, there are several organizations who would gladly provide some people with disabilities to do a "test run" of your building. Also, when they have recommendations, listen and never dismiss them; some places tend to do this for accessibility assessments ("It's fine, it's good enough"). We would not recommend things unless we know they are necessary.

There are a lot of advancements that can be made in this field for sure and it all has to do with understanding how things look from our point of view, instead of simply following ADA regulations and other access guidelines without thinking.

Mar 13, 2012

What are we called, exactly?

Tammy from Manchester, England asks:

If I see someone in a wheelchair/cane/etc., should I call him/her?


The person's name always helps. But with that aside, that is a good question.

There have been many words used in the past to describe people with disabilities. Just like many other civil rights movements, the words have evolved over time according to the sensitivities and perceived appropriateness of each generation.

In the past, there have been words used such as "cripple," "lame," "spazz" and so on. These words, over time, have gone from being commonplace to offensive. Some argue that the word "handicap" should be discontinued as well (which I will talk about later).

It seems that here in North America, there is a trend towards person-first language. For those who do not know, person-first language basically puts the person first and impairment second. For example, instead of saying "disabled person," the preferred term is now "person with a disability." (Obviously those who came up with this never had to deal with the length limitations of Twitter!)

The reason for this is that there is a movement to get the general population to change their ways of thinking about disability. Throughout history, there has been the idea that disability is something bad that limits a person's ability to live a full life. After the technological and medical advances of the past several centuries, this is no longer true; many people with disabilities are able to live a full and fulfilling life.

However, despite the advances, social perception of disability has not changed accordingly. It is possible for a person in a wheelchair to be viewed as helpless or limited simply due to his disability – even if the person is actually a Paralympian who has won a gold medal. There are many assumptions that people have, and it is all centered on the idea of what someone "cannot" do.

Hence, if you use the word "disabled" as an adjective, you are effectively describing the person by putting his/her disability first and foremost as if it is the most important thing about him/her. People with disabilities often want to be known for who they are as people, not simply as "the wheelchair guy/girl."

But there is a catch. This is not a universal rule. In the United Kingdom, the term "disabled person" is still widely used. I am not British so I do not know if there are many negative connotations that come from that like in North America. My Twitter has many followers from that part of the world; I would love to pick their brains about this topic one day.

The word "handicap"/"handicapped" could also be the next term to be phased out. Some see the word "handicap" as being an equivalent for "disadvantage." There is also an unconfirmed rumor that since the word's origins come from the term "hand in cap," it also has a connotation that people with disabilities are historically known for being beggars on the streets. (Again, this is not something I have been able to confirm.) Either way, I would not be surprised if this word is abandoned soon; that is why instead of "handicap parking," I err to the side of caution and say "accessible parking" instead.

The words "gimp" and "cripple" (generally considered offensive words) are undergoing an interesting change as well. Like the N-word, they are currently being reclaimed by those with disabilities. Sometimes it is a sign of pride. I have also seen it as a sign of defiance in response to assumptions about disability. Examples of how those words are reclaimed can be found at GimpHacks (a blog belonging to someone I know), My Gimpy Life (an upcoming series starring the wonderful Teal Sherer) and CripCollege (a blog teaching tips and tricks for wheelchair users that existed until 2010).

Of course, this is only English. In some other languages, the negative connotations of disability are embedded into the word itself, such as:
  • German's "Behinderung" (which can also mean "incapacity")
  • Spanish's "discapacidad" (which can also mean "without power")
  • French's "invalidité" (which can also mean "invalidity" or "nullity")
  • Chinese's "殘疾" (which can also mean "deformity")
  • Korean's "장애" (which can also mean "failure")

    (This list may not be 100% accurate since I am going by my own knowledge of these languages; obviously I am better at some languages than others. Please feel free to offer corrections.)

Some can argue that the English word "disability" itself would belong on this list too, due to "dis" meaning "not." This issue can get quite complex.

The safest term right now is likely "person with a disability" but do not be surprised if that, too, gets ousted over time in favor of another term.