On Turning Non-Problems into Problems

So, one more academic semester almost down. I am nearly done with one-third (or, to be more accurate, and not that I'm counting, 3/10!) of my PhD. I realized earlier this year that I’m currently at something like the equivalent of 21st grade, with my penchant for staying in school. But… as I still ought to have learned by now, none of those postgraduate letters after my name will stop accessibility hurdles from sometimes getting in the way, even at convenient times like final exams week. I see myself as a problem-solver – or at least I’d like to be, all of the humanities-scholar joking about “problematizing” arguments aside – but that won’t stop me from sometimes turning into a “problem” for someone else.

As ever, I’m writing to problematize assumptions about the world (see, there it is again!!), not to play a game of particular blame and grievance, so I’ll keep the following at the level of a rough sketch, but this is the backbone of a conversation I recently had:

“You can’t sit there. That’s reserved seating. Someone else is sitting there."

“But I have an interpreter. This is the only place I’m going to be able to sit in this auditorium and see my interpreter.”

“Oh… Yes. Okay. But we’re really sorry. You can’t sit there.”

“Can’t I just take one seat?”

“No. We’re really sorry. That’s already reserved seating, and we can’t change that.”

“I’m asking you for accessibility reasons. You see, I need to be able to see my interpreter, and this is the only seat that will work. This seat will be great. Please, could you be flexible?”

“Well, let us think about how to solve this problem.”

“I’ve already told you how to solve it. I can sit here, and everything will work out.”

“Oh. I think we’ve come up with a solution. How about sitting in the back, in our handicapped section?”

“No. I just told you, I won’t be able to see my interpreter back there. And I’m not in a wheelchair. Look at me. I’m deaf.”

I won’t drag this out any further. Essentially, this sort of recent run-in got me thinking, when is disability a problem? When is access a problem? I wouldn’t describe accessibility as a “problem,” per se, just as an opportunity to think more flexibly about our own orientation in the world, to embrace perspectives and embodiments different from our own to try to make a more inclusive place for everyone. But it struck me anew that accessibility sometimes does become a “problem,” unnecessarily so, when other people turn it into one.

The stark lack of flexible thinking can be astonishing.

Ask me what I need for my interpreter, and about how I communicate, and then accept my experience and my knowledge. Maybe I can teach you something new about communication, if you give me the chance to try.

Ask my friend in a wheelchair about what she needs to go to the party you are hosting, and let her take the lead and tell you which space will allow her to participate. Don’t assume you know, and don’t create additional problems with your assumptions. You’ll all have a great time.

Ask another friend who uses a service dog how you can create space for both her and her dog, and then let her take her service animal there. You’ll be fine having them both around.

Ask my other friend who is prone to chronic fatigue or to sensory overload what kind of conversation or environment is best for her. Allow her to take the lead in managing that environment. It could make the space nicer for others, too.

In other words, don’t create problems that don’t need to exist. Don’t let your preconceived ideas or institutional “rules” overshadow essential humanity and behaving (and connecting) with grace.

Other “problems” I’ve faced aren’t just about where institutions tell me my interpreter is “allowed” to sit. They relate to other settings, too. To the waiter in a restaurant insisting that the lights remain dimmed, that they are fine and it’s restaurant policy to leave them low, even if I ask to turn them up because it’s too dark for me to see. To the movie theater steward insisting that the captions will be turned on for a film showing, but nevertheless forgetting to check that (oops!). To the person who assumes that she can give me a scant printed outline of her remarks, and that this will be enough for me to follow, even if I’ve asked for a full print-out of her talk. To the acquaintance that proceeds to speak to me in a hyper-slow, hyper-enunciated version of English (which feels rather condescending), even when I tell her I can understand her just fine if she talks normally.

These are “problems,” but they truly do not need to be. They’re ways of creating rifts and distance between people. But access frameworks are there. Solutions are there. I know them, and I can show you. You’ll be surprised – delighted, even – by how easy it is for us both to occupy this space. Please let me show you.

Sometimes accepting someone else’s authority – even if they are deaf, even if they are disabled, even if they don’t “fit” into an established order – is enough. Sometimes accepting another form of embodied knowledge is actually pretty easy. And, heck, that person doesn’t need a postgraduate degree (or any other kind of credential) for us to give them that courtesy. (Not that people always give me this courtesy anyway, so I concede, this is a moot point!)

I love to problematize things (it’s more or less what I do for my job), but not this one. I also don’t believe I’m a problem – even if I may sometimes turn into one, in other people’s minds. I don’t want to see other people as problems, either, but as opportunities for me to humble myself and learn about their versions of embodied knowledge. What am I assuming? How am I right and how am I wrong? Maybe writing here isn’t really a way toward solving these non-problems, but still, it’s a path toward bringing clarity toward matters that could otherwise go unexpressed, unseen, unrecognized within our “normal” way of doing things.

Now, let’s form a problem-solving committee to come up with approaches to solving all the non-problems that we turn into problems, shall we?! (New absurdist comic novel idea, right here. I think I’ll write the next Catch-22!)