Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Coffee for Crips!

I Like My Caffeine

Ok, I need my caffeine. A triple latte seems like an ideal way to start the day, to me. Especially while in transit to a job I might not be thrilled about.

For the past year and a half, I have been commuting by public transit, which involves light rail and transfer to a commuter rail system. At the station where I make that transfer, there used to be a coffee stand, which I loved. Sadly, it is gone, as of a couple of months ago. Now, I must forage for coffee.

I am in downtown Mountain View, CA, and the Starbucks outlet is really too far from the train station for a quick run, even using my 5 mph power Quickie.

The Locals

There are 2 independent coffee places within 4 blocks of the station, and a third is under renovation, so one would think that I should hardly need to pine for Starbucks...

Both of the independents have moderate to severe access problems:

  • no code compliant entrance
  • no lowered counters
  • no accessible stand for lids, sugar, etc.

I'm not sure about whether the restrooms are code compliant, but it would be a significant surprise to me if they are.

It should be mentioned that the employees in both of these stores are very nice, and helpful. Yes, I get my coffee. Yes, they will hand me a lid or even put it on. That is not the point.

Hail, Starbucks!

Back in the '90s, when I lived in San Francisco, Starbucks opened a store in the 24th Street shopping district, much to the dismay of the locals. They decried the advent of another chain store moving into the neighborhood, killing the local businesses.

In reality, that Starbucks moved into a space that had been empty for quite a long time. Both of the other coffee places, within 6 blocks continued to thrive. The reason I would usually go to the Starbucks is that they were completely accessible.

Their entrance was accessible. Their bathroom was accessible. They had a lowered counter where you ordered -- although, unfortunately, most Starbucks have the high pickup counters. The condiment/lids station is accessible and you can reach everything.

The feature that most impressed me was that it was clear that you could get a wheelchair behind the counter, if you wanted to. If you had a store where someone just ran the cash register, or took the drive-thru orders, you could have a person in a wheelchair perform that job.

About four years ago, I stayed a couple of nights in a Best Western in Agate Beach, Oregon. Their in-hotel sundries store, which contained an espresso counter, was run by a man in a wheelchair. He had arranged everything in sort of a U shape around him so that everything was the perfect height and well within reach. He split the shifts with his wife, who rolled in an office chair on her shifts.

The Larger Issue

These inaccessible (to one degree or another) independent coffee shops point up some relevant points for retailers everywhere. To wit:

  • more and more of your customers are going to have mobility impairments (because of the aging of the baby boomers)
  • in contrast to the past, more and more of these disabled customers are going to have money to spend in your stores
  • persons with acquired disabilities are probably going to be even less inclined than I am to frequent stores that are inaccessible, if there are accessible options available
  • having clean, accessible restrooms is going to be a big draw -- trust me on this one
  • Legal, compliance issues aside, it is good business to make your store as accessible as possible

Like many Americans, I spend too much money on coffee drinks and snacks -- think of it as self-medication. I will spend those dollars in the stores I find most pleasant to use. Being able to enter, exit and use the restroom independently are all hallmarks of venues in which I am likely to vote with a dollar.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Political Crip Art -- "Helping the Handicapped"

Check out

A friend sent me this link today. It is a photo-essay on the different models of disability. At the end, there is a link to a 2003 speech by the creator of the piece, Dr. Ju Gosling. Together and separately, both the speech and the photo-essay are eloquent on the subject of living with disabilities in the 21st Century.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Crip Bloggers Unite, post script

Blogging Against Disablism Day

was a huge success. I've had more traffic to my site, per day, than ever before. Which is not to say that this is the mark of success -- but rather if more people are reading Crip Chronicles, they are also reading other blogs about disabilities.

If you haven't checked it out yet, or like me, want to browse the crip blogs a few at a time, the link is I haven't read them all yet; it is a question of time, and also, I think, on reading about all the shit the crips of the world still have to juggle, shovel and stow.

Monday, May 01, 2006

How Disabled Are You? Is That Your Final Answer?

After a conversation the other evening with a friend who is exploring his options in terms of asking for accommodations at work, working until age 65, SSDI and other permutations of life, I was reminded of the often experienced mixed societal messages you get if you have a severe disability: sometimes you have to prove that you're sooooooooooooo disabled, and other times, it's, "Oh, the power wheelchair? I was just feeling a little tired today..."

The Essentials

If you are disabled and are working or want to work, as a threshold matter you've got to show that you're "otherwise qualified". This means that you meet whatever the pre-determined set of criteria is for the job, and that you are able to do the "essential functions" of the job. It is up to the employer to determine what the essential functions of the job are. This is why more and more official job postings of essential tasks will include minutiae such as "must occasionally be able to lift up to 50 lb", "this job is sedentary; must be able to sit for 6-8 hours a day", etc.

In an utopian world where we could be sure that such "occasional" lifting of 50 lbs. wasn't put in the job description to exclude anyone with a severe physical disability, we could interpret this careful sifting of job tasks as a thoughtful employer informing potential applicants of all of the tasks that might arise...

In the real world, if you're hired for an office job, unless you're in charge of moving around and installing computer equipment, nobody is going to make you lift 50 lbs. Elmer Employee says, "sorry guys, I've got a bad back," and somebody else gets the move the supplies around assignment.

But, if you show up to the interview on crutches or in a wheelchair, and they've got the lifting requirement down already in the "essential functions", then they have an easy way to exclude you from the job without getting busted for discrimination. And, if you don't think this is happening every day... Well, let me know what meds you're taking.

Hidden Disability? Don't Ask, Don't Tell!

The question I get asked most often by people with hidden disabilities is whether or not they should tell any prospective employers about their disability. First of all, I say, you have no legal obligation to disclose a disability, unless and until you need to ask for an accommodation at work. Secondly, if you know you will need an accommodation/s if you get the job, don't disclose and don't ask for them until you have a firm job offer, preferably in writing. The reason for this second rule of thumb is simple -- they can't discriminate against you because you have a disability if they don't know you have one.

Some young people, who may not have ever been looking seriously for a job before, raise a question of whether or not this is dishonest. My question to them is, "do you honestly believe you can do the job?" If the answer is yes, then I don't think one is any more obligated to disclose a disability than you are your marital status or religion -- another 2 things a prospective employer can't ask you.

I Use a Wheelchair, But I Can Juggle...

So you're trying to get or keep a job and you are mitigating your visible disability like mad. Unless and until an issue arises that calls into question your ability to do the job, even if you use a wheelchair they shouldn't be asking you about your disability. If you are blind, for example, and the job involves using a computer, an interviewer may ask you how you will perform the essential functions of the job. This is your opportunity to describe your use of various assistive technology, including software such as screen readers and voice recognition software. Even though it is legally your employer's responsibility to accommodate your disability, if you can't tell them the accommodations you will need at this stage of the interview, you will most likely be dead in the water.

If you do need to request an accommodation, you will need to submit your medical documentation of your disability. The letter should give your diagnosis and then describe any functional limitations you might have, and how they might be accommodated. Be prepared to submit this letter even if you're dealing with a supervisor or an employer who seems to be nice and doesn't seem to have any kind of official process.

Quite often, the employee is put in an untenable position when dealing with the "nice" boss, because they may get offended if you try to be really businesslike about the process. However, if nothing is in writing anywhere, that nice boss can turn on a dime and say you are performing your job inadequately later. Yes, this has happened to me, and it was the worst year of my entire working life.

In addition, you might have the idea that employers who work in disability services, human services or medical services would be better about disability accommodations and about discrimination in general. You would be dead wrong. If you doubt me, ask yourself how many medical offices, doctor's offices you've been to that were less than optimally accessible. [FYI, doctors' and dentists' offices are considered "public accommodations" under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and thus are required to be accessible.]

You Become More Disabled

So you've managed to negotiate the shark infested waters, and you've gotten a job, and kept it for a while -- maybe a long while. Except that now, you, like many of us with severe disabilities, are becoming more disabled with age, or with progression of your condition.

As discussed in a prior posting, it is disadvantageous to you, in terms of how your benefits are calculated, to gradually phase yourself out of working. This is because most types of benefits are calculated on the most recent quarters worked; if you decrease your income in order to work longer, part-time, your most recent quarters may well be significantly lower than your pre-phase out income.

If you're applying for a disability retirement, SSDI and the like, you now have to prove the opposite case to the one that got you the job. You have to show that you're sooooooooooooooo disabled you can't possibly hold down any job at all. Also, the more education you have, the harder this may be to do. Because Social Security especially wants to know if you can do any job, not just the one you've been doing.

If you have a disability that is on Social Security's lists, such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis, it might be easier to make your case. Think of these lists as disabilities that they have vetted and found to be scientifically proven.

Prepare yourself for a drawn out process and multiple appeals. This may or may not happen to you, but chances are it won't be easy. You should also be as sure as is humanly possible on what you want -- i.e., to not work, to work full-time, to work part-time. Consider all of the issues, particularly quality of life, how much income you need, and whether you will have health care coverage of some kind, regardless of what choice you make.

In Sum...

Arguably, the civil rights laws of the last 30 years that have attempted to open up access to people with disabilities to all aspects of society -- education and employment most importantly -- have worked to a limited extent. However, the stigma and discriminatory behaviors of employers and bureauacracies are alive and well.

The civil rights movement for people with disabilities is, I believe, where the racial civil rights movement was in the 1950s and '60s. We have a very long way to go.