The Beauty of This Century: An Invitation to Conversation

Here’s a joke for you: What do you get when a Georgian, 2 Floridians, a Californian, a Texan and a transplant Wisconsinite, all falling somewhere along the incredibly diverse deafblind (DB) continuum, walk into a room? Or more precisely, when they check into a residence hall on the campus of Gallaudet University, as Kelvin Crosby, Divya Goel, Jason Corning, Crystal Morales, Virginia Maze and yours truly did for one week in the summer of 2009? You get expanded horizons and the beginnings of life-long friendships. You get new perspectives and activated change agents. You get an experience whose power and impact suffices to birth an unique organization: Deafblind Citizens in Action (DBCA), incorporated as a 501©3 in May of 2014. DBCA’s mission, “to empower deafblind people through education, technology, and legislation and to ensure that deafblind persons have a strong political voice so that they may lead productive lives with equal opportunity,” is, in the spirit of that seminal Deafblind Young Adults in Action (DBYAA) program, a bold aspiration to new roles in the societal conversation. DB people would no longer be mere passive consumers; we would be active stakeholders, with power to activate others. We would not settle for promises of possible solutions, but would, through innovative collaboration and rigorous problem-solving, become guarantors of definite solutions. It is to one of these innovative collaborations which I devote the remainder of this article.

On Thursday, June 29th, the joint efforts of Verizon Wireless, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), and DBCA culminated in a most extraordinary evening. The event, billed broadly as a “forum on the intersection of technology, leadership, disability and community,” began with a tour, an entirely accessible physical appreciation of the evolution and diversification of technology across the decades, then continued into a discussion that was a tour in its own right; an intellectual tour of the ideas, concepts, and emerging realities that are defining the 21st century. Verizon’s Zachary Bastian kicked things off with a reaffirmation of the value of community outreach for tech companies, and a shout-out to the “Internet of Things,” and its promise of autonomy through automation. And then it was over to a mixed panel of DBCA members and new DBYAA mentees to elaborate our experiences with technology, its function and potential for us in our capacity as leaders.

First, we acknowledged the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for their crucial roles in promoting inclusion. Through the ADA and IDEA, disabled individuals have gained access to many physical rights and premises previously denied us: a place in school, in the marketplace, on the job site, in civic life. We acknowledged, too, those basic technologies which have expanded the boundaries of our physical inclusion; braille and the various iterations of braille devices, wheelchairs, video relay and text enlargement and text-to-speech software, among others …

But it is the internet, in its capacity as interweb – pervasive, transcending the finitudes of physical space – represents an unparalleled revolution. Through the interweb, access and participation for people with disabilities move beyond questions of mere physical premises and accidental geographical concentration and become vibrant, visible parts of the social melieu. What does this look like, in concrete terms?

It’s Kelvin, a longtime DBCA member and founder/CEO of the adaptive tech company Living Beyond The Label, being able to reach across the Atlantic to a French company to explore novel web accessibility options. It’s Danielle Burton, a new DBYAA participant majoring in elementary and special education at Morehead State University in Kentucky, reaching out to an online community to procure teaching materials for her student in New York. It’s Hunter McGowan, a social work major at Edinboro University of Pensylvania, having access to the literature and conversation of his intended profession, as well as access to the communities he wishes to serve. It’s a middle-aged deafblind man posting photos of his fruiting pepper plants to rave reviews on a foody page, an intern at the ARC of America offering comments on protests in the Senate building, disabled professionals weighing in via listserv and blog on abortion trends in Iceland or a euthanasia case in Belgium. In short, the interweb and related technologies accord people with disabilities more equal footing in the wide-ranging current of societal conversation, and, as DBCA members Divya Goel and Zach Fox highlighted, an unprecedented array of options for accessing and contributing to said conversation. That’s what empowers us, the fact that we have options. That’s the beauty of this century. Equally beautiful, we’re seeing major companies like Verizon, Facebook, Google, Apple, and others, as well as organisations like the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) accept the notion that people with disabilities has the same expectations about our quality of life, quality of education, quality of participation as anyone else,and committing to designs that challenge and redefine limits rather than reinforcing them. Most beautiful of all, though, is how young this dynamic century is yet, and how much more we at DBCA, in partnership with Verizon and other forward-thinkers, can do to move our society to a better place than we found it.

 – George Stern