Is it time to transform the tone of advocacy?


The first entry posted on The Accessible Insights Blog, in its current iteration, is dated September, 2009. Previously, I had launched a blog effort on the WordPress.com hosted site, and prior to that, I had been writing about various aspects of disability and accessibility for other magazines, in both print and online publications. The re-launch of the blog coincided with my first foray into social media, as my @Accessible_Info Twitter account became active shortly thereafter.

When I first began writing, my purpose was to reach out to the non-disabled community, to whom I presented material on disability etiquette and best practices for effective communication. I never intended for the blog, or my social media efforts, to attract the notice of the disability community, nor had I ever intended to speak to the community directly. Since then, my readership seems to have consisted almost entirely of blind and visually impaired members of an online “tribe” that has seen its share of evolution over the years. From my early days of using Easy Chirp on Windows, to later firing off my tweets,, posting blog entries, recording podcast episodes and managing a business all from my iPhone, the tech landscape, along with my following, has grown.

As attitudes about disability and other marginalized groups have changed, so have the many ways in which to advocate for those groups. In-person protest, civil unrest, and petitioning has given way to online platforms that serve as a megaphone for anyone with a cause to conscript a willing constituency. It occurs to me, as I’ve struggled to come to terms with a lack of progress, and the speed of that progress, to achieve equality if it might be time to change the way we deliver our message.

Social media has certainly been convenient. In one sense, perhaps too convenient. It has become the lazy person’s way to communicate, in that it takes almost no effort, and less sacrifice, to blast out our thoughts about whomever holds political office, the latest celebrity gossip, a customer service snafu, or our complaints about how we are being discriminated against, tagging our tweets with clever subtext that serve as micro-aggressions. unfortunately, though, in the case of the blind community, we have enjoyed little improvement, as compared with other minority groups, on a variety of fronts, especially employment, despite the fact that technology has enabled us to accomplish more than ever. We may have reached a point at which our carefully crafted messages of inclusion have failed to manifest past the community echo chamber.

This has led me to wonder whether it might be time to undergo another evolution in the way we advocate. We have fallen into the trap that ensnares many in inward-facing, homogenous, and hide-bound coalition, which is that we fail to reach the escape velocity necessary to break the bonds of the gravity well of agreement.

This is not to say, certainly, that we all always agree. Anyone who has been witness to one of our Twitter based, flame-throwing, epic wars in 140 characters knows that. The blind community seems to be neatly divided on a few key issues, and one of those issues is what I am writing about now: How to teach the non-disabled community the most effective and respectful way to interact with a person who is blind. In general disability circles, the term ‘ablism” is used to characterize that state of ignorance achieved by the non-disabled who never spend a single second considering the day-to-day plight of people with disabilities. Whether that ablism is innocent or openly hostile, one of the frustrations I hear retold, and echoed throughout the land, pertains to the ongoing complaints as to how we are treated. Typically, that treatment is lacking in cognizance or consideration, and the result is a strongly worded blog post, and subsequent tweets and retweets, either in fervent agreement with, or else indignant opposition to, the person doing the complaining.

If our collective destination is equal opportunity and acceptance in the non-disabled world, then I wonder if it is time to consider taking a different route.

In marketing terms, the most successful campaigns utilize, among other things, two key components: Message consistency, and repetition. One of the most challenging aspects of marketing, is crafting a message, and then communicating that message in a particular voice that defines the company brand. No matter the means used…a tag line, musical jingle, famous face or clever campaign, if done right, a company or product can be easily identified without ever seeing the relevant name. Untold millions of dollars are spent in the communication of that message, which is why so many great corporations can seem omniscient. They’re everywhere…and we respond in the expected manner, in accordance with the ask. We buy, we consume, we try, we use, and we spread the word.

The message would fall back to Earth, though, if the only people who drank Coca-cola were on the corporate payroll, or if the only users of the iPhone were Apple employees. Presumably, they are all in agreement that their products are the best, of course, but the point of marketing is to launch the messaging beyond the company parking lot.

On the other hand, is it possible that the general public has had enough of awareness messages, and that ours has become lost in the white noise of political correctness? There has certainly been some backlash, thanks to the prevailing perception that “political correctness” has run amuck, and that it has ultimately failed to serve its purpose — that of fostering an environment of tolerance and respect, where all ideas are heard, and all people are accepted.

Is it time, then, for our message to be more than one of words? Is it time for our message to be one of achievement?

Years ago, I was privileged to hear an advocate give a presentation on disability awareness, and, at the end, he said a few words that have stayed with me, and have formulated the basis upon which I experience the non-disabled world. He said, “People with disabilities are my heroes. Not because they are disabled, but because they fly in the face of a society that holds them in contempt, simply by living their lives.”

Whether or not you agree with the contention that society holds people with disabilities in contempt is not the point. What these powerful words meant to me was that I can hardly expect a non-disabled society to believe a person who has a disability could live a full life, if I were not actually living one. thereafter, I resolved to live my life as an example to others, to take responsibility for my own happiness, to achieve to the best of my ability, and to never allow my disability to be used as an excuse for anything. As it turned out, I discovered that my attitude was the exception, not the rule, and as the age of social media gave rise to the plethora of bloggers and tweeters and online chatters, it soon became obvious that it was far easier for some to complain rather than to achieve.

It is by no means my intention to trivialize those who find themselves in a precarious situation, where achieving anything beyond surviving the day is unthinkable. Also, I have done my share of complaining, so I make no pretense there. Further, one of the many wonderful things to be said about belonging to a community is just that…belonging. It can be affirming and comforting to know that when we need a place to go to commiserate with like-minded others, there is such a place, where we are heard and acknowledged. Of course, one downside of membership in a larger group is feeling excluded, or when you do not subscribe to the ideas of the thought leaders. Additionally, there are apologists and naysayers in every group, which, in our community, can be found in abundance. This can dilute our message and reduce our ability to be effective as advocates, if our interest is only one of self-interest. What I am suggesting is that we explore a new way to advocate for what we need from those outside the community…in a manner that is better understood by those who are not disabled…a message consisting not only of the language of awareness, but one of bridge-building and commonality.

One of the best examples of this type of advocacy is that which was used by the LGBTQ community that resulted in the sweeping legislation to legalize gay marriage. Watching the unabashed joy experienced by the beneficiaries of legal gay marriage, as the barriers toppled like dominoes around the country, made me realize just how much we are all alike. Theirs was a message that transcended the bitter and strident complaint of the victim, and instead built upon our commonalities. We all want the same things out of life, and the LGBTQ community did the best job I’ve seen of getting the “love is love” message across in a way that made me cheer for their success.

I am reminded of a quote by Simon Sinek: Fight against something and we focus on the thing we hate. Fight for something and we focus on the thing we love. While the content of our appeals need not change, perhaps the tone should. I cannot think of a single problem that has ever been fixed only by complaining about it. Too many blog writers have adopted a tone of entitlement, where post after post seems to consist of little more than the gripe of the day. There are many examples of bitter diatribes on a number of blog’s where I am left to conclude that there is one…common…denominator. Perhaps the repetitive volume of angry, derisive or demanding lectures is, in and of itself, indicative of the real problem…for some, there is scant satisfaction to be had. They seem to be saying that until the world gives them their due, there can truly be no equality. You know what they say about the definition of insanity…right? Is it fair to expect a different result if the only tools wielded are those of complaint, entitlement, and expectation?

What if we expanded the scope of our message to include achievement? What if we took responsibility for our own state of affairs and let our lives be the example about which we speak? What if we quit complaining about how we are being treated, and earn the right to a place at the table? Respect is commanded, not demanded. What if we invent a new kind of advocacy, where achievement speaks for itself? Where our messaging is that of the empowered, where we invite the non-disabled world to raise their game? A message that changes from, “don’t do this, and give me that,” to, “been there, done that, and you’re invited along for the ride?” In other words, instead of asking everyone else to be a hero, be the hero…simply by living your life…more than just a life of resigned malaise, or stubborn maladaption, but a life of self-determination and achievement. Instead of resenting those in the community who have achieved success, become one.

It is a gross mischaracterization to claim that successful people are somehow extraordinary. Maybe a few of them are, but there have been plenty of geniuses who have died penniless and unrecognized.

This quote makes my point better. It is generally credited to U. S. President Calvin Coolidge, although this is a matter of some dispute:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; un rewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

What I am suggesting is that we persist in our message, but also transform the words into demonstrable acts of consequence that serve as an example to the non-disabled community as to why they have it all wrong about people who are blind. We are resourceful. We are problem-solvers, we think differently because we have to. We have everything it takes to be the achievers, the leaders, and the agents of change who earn the place at the table, and have everything we want out of life. Let’s transform the advocacy of words into the advocacy of achievement.

LL