Thursday, May 01, 2008

Just in time for Blogging Against Disablism Day, I had an interesting conversation about accessibility on campus. I was approached randomly by a woman who told me that we'd met during my freshman year here, and that she was one of the operations people in Stata. After some small talk, she asked me how access had been recently. I didn't particularly want to get into the discussion then, so I was honest but brief - the ground floor was fine, but my occasional trips to other floors suggested that there might be problems.

We were in the basement, just around the corner from a door that now has a power operator, thanks to several months of noisemaking on my part a year or two ago. Debi thanked me for my work on that project, and told me that she and her office had been asking Facilities to look at that door "for a while", but it wasn't until I had gotten involved that anyone had bothered responding to them. Similarly, their complaints about the near-continuous malfunctions of power operators and the overly heavy doors on above-ground floors had been ignored until I started prodding people. I can't claim credit for that yet - nothing has changed - but there is at least awareness, and hopefully progress will be made soon.

Initially, my reaction to this conversation was quite upbeat. Someone outside of Disability Services had noticed my crusade, and supported it! The timing was excellent: I had just recently begun yet another push for compliance, and while I had been assured that the necessary changes would be made, I was (and am) not holding my breath, so positive reinforcement was a good thing.

But something occurred to me. A consistent theme was beginning to appear: I contact Facilities with a specific problem that indicates a problem with the way capital projects are planned (note that all the violations in question occurred in post-1990 buildings). Facilities responds somewhat defensively, assuring me that this is the first they've heard of the problem, and if they'd known it was an issue before, of course they would have taken care of it without my prompting. Time passes; after much prodding and reminding, the specific issue in question is rectified, but the larger issues of procedure and planning remain as they always have been.

And now I'm told that some of the issues I've been raising have been raised before. It is possible that Debi's people and I have been talking to different parts of Facilities, but that seems unlikely, since all ADA and accessibility related projects are supposed to go through one person. Yet I keep hearing the refrain: "this is the first I've heard of it." "We don't ignore access concerns - the law is the law, and we take it very seriously." "You're the only one who mentions these things." "I'm not aware of problems unless you bring them to me." It's hard see an alternative to the conclusion that some of the Facilities people I've been working with are not just inefficient, but insincere and disingenuous.

As a side note, I got an email yesterday saying that the problems I've been having with some newly installed power operators are because they forgot to factor in seasonal pressure changes caused by heating vs. air conditioning. Way to go, guys.)

A friend compared it to a differential equation (Yay engineers! Also, 2nd order diffeqs can describe door closing behavior ... hmm ...): "At first, they ignore you. You poke them about it, they respond nicely but half-assed. You remind them some more. They do nothing. You keep talking. They get pissed off. For a time they ignore you. Then, at some critical point, they can't any more." It's an interesting idea, and I think there's a very good chance it applies here. I'd guess we're in the "nicely but half-assed" stage, moving towards the pissed-off stage. I've been hesitant to push things to that stage of annoyance, fearing repercussions or even a loss of political capital (as if I had any to begin with!) but I wonder if maybe that hesitancy is itself a problem - if only continuous pressure will result in the needed change, and perhaps only continuous pressure to the point of genuine irritation.

Something needs to change; at this point, I'm not sure if I just need to stay on message, trust that I'm talking to the right people about the right things, and wait for people to come around, or if I need to escalate to another set of authority figures - perhaps the ombudspeople. (Ombuds. Hehe!) Perhaps staying on campus this summer will let me keep the conversation going even over the summer - and if I'm really lucky (and persistent), maybe we'll actually see some real changes. Either way, in writing this, I came across an excerpt from a letter written by Martin Luther King Jr. that seems to hit the critical point: that the goal is "to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue ... to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored."

And what the heck, one more for the road:


Blogger pete said...

After reading this and seeing those grafix, I haz a happy;-)


4:55 AM  
Blogger Mary said...

best of luck for the ongoing...

also applause of appropriate lolcats usage.

5:40 AM  
Blogger Ruth said...

The cat pix really are great. I've heard so many times that I was the first to say anything about a situation - variations of the theme being: your wheelchair must be wider than normal (it's not); you must have different needs (Yeah, access!), etc. and then after a bit of research have discovered that I was not the only one to complain. So great that you're hanging in and making it accessible for the next person.

7:55 AM  
Blogger narrator said...

At some point it becomes obvious that this is neither ignorance nor laziness but intentional behavior. Is it really the university's desire to help everyone succeed? I keep asking this -

10:00 AM  
Blogger Photon said...

Ian, I love you. I'm so glad you're living at pika.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Cygnet said...

I'm still hung up on the differential equation idea. It's a driven harmonic oscillator. You've just got to hit resonance and this thing will take off.

It'll happen!

*opens MATLAB* Now let's see, what's the right drive frequency?

And *snap* to photon.

11:52 AM  
Blogger ismith said...

Narrator: I don't know that I'm ready to accept that. I can - and do - believe that what is happening is wrong; that it's a violation of my and others' civil rights; and that it's inexcusable. That the people involved should know better.

But I'm not willing to view this oppression as intentional and premeditated. Hanlon's Razor (Do not attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.) and all that.

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, call me naïve, but MIT is the last place I'd expect to hear about problems like this. I keep hoping it's some paradise of technology, adaptive inventiveness and inclusiveness. Uh, guess not, at least not on this practical, quotidian level. (sigh)

Love the applied LOLcats, though. :)

6:29 PM  
Blogger ismith said...

Saraarts: if it's any consolation, the Disability Services Office here has been great, and the community as a whole is very much into inclusiveness and adaptive inventiveness (to use your words). The only problems I've run into are with Facilities. (And the city, which keeps ripping up curb cuts without putting up any cones or warnings. Grr.)

12:05 AM  
Blogger ismith said...

As an example of my last comment ... this February, I moved into a coop of students. Prior to my deciding to move in, there was no flat-path to the ground floor. In the space of three weeks in January, we (and I do mean we - no 'professionals' involved) built a 70 foot ramp. Cygnet and Spang both blogged about it.

12:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, thank you for telling me that. That's more like what I think of when I think of MIT. :)

6:36 AM  
Blogger Kay Olson said...

Maybe not intentional or premeditated prejudice, but I believe it's willful ignorance. After all, if they really listen and believe you beyond any one specific issue, than they have to rethink the way they do things from the beginning.

Love the LOLcats.

5:13 AM  
Blogger ismith said...

Kay: agreed. I'm still having a hard time adjusting to that idea, but I think you're right.

4:03 PM  

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