Is Awareness Enough?

I started doing these Thursday Thoughts posts for several reasons. I want to share some of the values, traits and lessons that have shaped me into the person I am today. I want to give people a glimpse into how I think, what motivates me, and some of the stuff that goes on in my head. The next two weeks, maybe three, I want to give you some of my musings on some topics and issues that have been circulating in my head.

I recently perused an article titled “Changing People’s Behavior: Awareness Alone Is Not Enough.” The article was Tweeted by one of my friends and fellow Visually Impaired sub 11 hour Ironman, Erich Manser. Erich is a major advocate for accessibility and inclusion. So I clicked on the article thinking it would be an article relating to disability. The article actually discussed the usefulness of “Screen Time.” You know that little report that pops up on your phone saying how much time you spent on your phone, computer or tablet this past week?

I quickly skimmed through the article which discussed the pros and cons of screen time and whether or not making people “aware” was enough to make them change the amount of time they actually spend on their various screens. In short, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. Awareness is critical, but if you really want to change your behavior then awareness has to be backed up with action.

The reason this article triggered this post is because October was “National Disability Employment Awareness Month,” and “Blindness Awareness Month.” So often people in the disability community say “If we just make people aware of the capabilities of people with disabilities then we will eventually whittle down the obscenely high joblessness rate that exists in the disability community.” I myself have often subscribed to this line of thinking. “People just dn’t know,” I’ve often said. I do think that there are a large number of people out there that aren’t aware of our capabilities, but I wonder if “awareness” is enough anymore.

In 1990, The Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law. This Act attempted to even the playing field and give people with disabilities a more fair chance in a wide range of the American way of life. The ADA has opened many doors and for the most part discourages blatant discrimination based on disability. Like it or not though, discrimination on disability still exists. There is a large segment of the population that sees a person with a disability and unknowingly down grades them in their mind thinking them less capable. It is by no means malicious, but it happens. We certainly see this in the blind and visually impaired community. For the past 30 or so years there have been claims by numerous organizations that 70 percent of the blind and visually impaired population is out of work. Are these numbers accurate, it’s hard to say for sure. We do know that there are numerous cases of highly qualified individuals who are blind or visually impaired that wind up either not working or working in jobs that are far below their qualifications. I’ve seen numbers suggesting upwards of 60 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired have a post secondary degree. When I worked for Lighthouse Works in 2014 and 2015 I wore numerous hats—inbound/outbound call center agent, quality assurance specialist, front desk manager, and Advocacy Coordinator. I had numerous colleagues who were also blind or visually impaired. One co-worker had a PHD in Marine Biology, another had multiple degrees in Psychology, other colleagues had tremendous experience in computer software development, construction management, etc. And we were all working as call center agents for an organization that specifically employed people who were blind or visually impaired. We worked there because we believed in the mission, but more often than not we worked there because we couldn’t get jobs anywhere else.

One of my duties as the Advocacy Coordinator was to lead tours of our facilities to members of government and high level community organizations to make them aware of what we were doing at Lighthouse. Some of this awareness generated business leads, some generated grant, State or Federal funding for certain programs. And sometimes I struggled because I felt like I was almost showing zoo animals. I felt very strongly that we were doing great things at Lighthouse though. So I busted my butt doing the best job I could and I encouraged my fellow blind and visually impaired colleagues to think outside the box, to find ways of becoming more valuable as employees and work their way up the ladder. I was hopeful that I myself might eventually work my way into a senior management position.

Eventually I was offered an opportunity to make more money and have a possible long term career with the Department of the Navy as a civilian. That job was much less glamorous but paid nearly twice as much as my job with Lighthouse. But I struggled in this job for a variety of reasons. One reason was because I couldn’t shake the thought that I was just hired to fill a quota or that I was a token hire. From my perspective I didn’t see the point of my position. The people I was supposed to be assisting didn’t need me. There were many more factors that led to my leaving that job, but I largely left because I didn’t feel it was where I was supposed to be.

In early 2017, a Facebook ad popped up on my news feed. A couple of blind and visually impaired businessmen were putting together a team of cyclists to participate in the Race Across America to raise awareness of the 70 percent joblessness rate in the blind and visually impaired community. I submitted my application to be considered as a cyclist, but wound up being invited onto the team as a Communication Coordinator and alternate cyclist. Later on I was elevated to the starting line up when one of the original stokers had to step away due to some family obligations. I of course was stoked about participating in the iconic Race Across America, but I was more excited about the potential awareness we could raise. Our team had three incredibly successful blind and visually impaired individuals that we could use as role models and examples of what you could do as a person who is blind or visually impaired. I really look up to my RAAM teammates for their success in business, life and athletics. In my duties as the Communication Coordinator for Team Sea to See, I eagerly pushed their stories out to the media attempting to drum up as much coverage of the team doing the race as possible. We got some decent publicity and I’m hopeful that we can continue to raise awareness once the documentary of our crosscountry race is finished—but that’s still probably a year or two away.

In 2019, we live in the digital age where we can drum up awareness easier than ever before through outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, blogs, etc. And yet I still wonder if the awareness we are drumming up is enough. A recent decision by the US Supreme Court to not hear a case regarding whether Dominos Pizza should have an accessible website and mobile application certainly brought discussions about digital accessibility and inclusion to the forefront of many people’s minds. The “Let us play us” campaign which champions Hollywood hiring more disabled actors to play the roles of disabled individuals in movies and TV shows has also been gaining traction as well. So yes, I think awareness has been critical and has worked overall but I’m curious to see what companies, individuals, and organizations that aren’t necessarily related to promoting people with disabilities is going to take action and show that the disabled and able bodied worlds can not just live side-by-side, or co-exist, but thrive together.

Personally, I think the wider circles that I run in—triathlon and the Olympics/Paralympics—have a golden opportunity to show ultimate inclusion. It’s just a question of who is willing to find a way of making it happen rather than finding ways it wouldn’t be possible… Whoa Kyle, what are some of these ideas you have? Well, I’ll cover those in next week’s Thursday Thoughts.

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