“Did She Seriously Just Say That?!” – Some Thoughts on Disability Awareness Training

This post was written by Disability Studies program graduate and current the Accessibility Coordinator for Ryerson University, Heather Willis.

A person using a manual wheelchair is stopped by the lack of a curb cut.

As leaders are likely aware, under the AODA, Customer Service training is mandatory for all employees. That being said, I am not totally comfortable with training that focuses on “how to interact with “the disabled”, which makes it sound as if we are aliens and promotes otherness. In practice though, customer service training not only provides information about the AODA legislation, it also serves to challenge stereotypical assumptions about persons with disabilities.

I was starkly reminded of the need for this type of training on a recent commute home. This particular day I was meeting my husband at the GO station, and as we got onto the first elevator from the subway, there was a woman commenting that the use of Braille on elevator buttons that lead to parking garages really makes her laugh.

As I listened to her comments, I wanted to tell her that even if someone is visually impaired and does not drive, they still need to know where they are going – but I let it go. As we got on the second elevator she looked at me and said “Atta girl!” – seemingly congratulating me for being able to navigate my wheelchair into an elevator. If your jaw has dropped, be assured, mine did as well. My immediate reaction was to look at my husband as if to ask, “Did she seriously just say that?!”

While I was too aghast to say anything in the moment, my husband, without missing a beat, immediately began asking me about my day at work. Picking up on what he was doing, I proceeded to ask him if he had anything in mind for dinner, together sending a message that I am not just a person with a disability, I am also a person with a job, a contributing member of society, a person with independence and dignity, a person deserving respect.

My daily commute often includes interactions with strangers who want to “help” me by, for example, pushing my wheelchair without asking. But this incident was certainly more shocking than the day-to-day verbal or behavioural indignities I experience from people who think they are being “polite” or “helpful”, and it has forced me to reconsider my ambivalent perspective on awareness training.

Customer Service training provides information about the AODA legislation, but it also serves to challenge stereotypical assumptions about persons with disabilities.

In efforts to continue improving accessibility on campus, Access Ryerson will be kicking off new  training with modules focused on the Integrated Standards Regulation, which combines Employment, Information and Communication, Built Environment and more. I’d like to encourage all leaders to think about how the training can be framed to challenge ingrained assumptions about persons with disabilities and how we can work these lessons into our day-to-day practice to make Ryerson a more accessible and inclusive space.

Stay tuned for more information. If you have any questions about accessibility on campus, feel free to contact me at accessibility@ryerson.ca or 416-979-5000, ext.4144.

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