Can’t Someone Read that to You? Dissolving Stereotypes of Blindness

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This is a post about the privacy rights of people who are blind. Stereotypes about blind people result in bad company policies. Sighted people assume, for example, that blind people are not independent.

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On June 25, 2013, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an agency of the United Nations, reached agreement on an historic document designed to provide access to reading materials for people who are blind or have other print disabilities. The draft WIPO treaty changes copyright law to reflect that blind people need formats other than standard print in order to read. These alternative formats, or accessible formats, include Braille, audio, Large Print, accessible web and mobile content and other accessible electronic documents. The lack of accessible, available formats, and not blindness, is why blind people cannot read huge swaths of information available only in standard print format.

The need for accessible information has been at the core of many of the settlement agreements reached as a result of Structured Negotiations. Many of those negotiations began with stereotypes about blind people and their right, desire, and need to read independently. In removing copyright barriers to reading materials, the WIPO treaty will help eliminate those steretoypes, and serve as another step toward full recognition of the rights of people with disabilities to read all materials independently.

Stereotypes about people with disabilities, no matter how unconscious those stereotypes are, often lead to legal problems. Well-meaning companies can invest in accessible technologies and adopt new policies, but if the staff who interact with the public still holds unsupported, unfair and outmoded views of people who are blind, legal issues will continue to arise. That is why customer service training is an important part of an effective accessibility policy, and often a key component of a Structured Negotiations settlement. There are many aspects of a good training program, but one of the most important is dissolving stereotypes about blind people that all too often lead a company into legal trouble.

What are some of the most pervasive stereotypes? The erroneous assumptions that all blind people live with a sighted person, have constant and continuous access to a sighted person, or just plain need a sighted person to conduct their daily lives. That they don’t want to read independently, and don’t need to because a sighted person is always available. These assumptions lead directly to the insulting and dangerous idea that blind people don’t need, aren’t entitled to, don’t want or simply can’t benefit from privacy.

Privacy is a basic human right regardless of disability. Failing to recognize the privacy rights of people with visual impairments leads to bad policy, bad practice, bad customer service and lack of accessibility. It also results in forced disclosure of sensitive financial and health information that should be confidential.

Here are some comments that blind people have heard from those inside companies large and small:

  • Can’t your mother read you that document?
  • Don’t you have a friend who can read you that material?
  • Can your child’s nanny read you that information?
  • Let me have your PIN, I’ll enter it for you?
  • Can’t your shopping assistant enter your PIN?
  • Can your husband/wife help you with that webpage?

Very often (you could even say most often) the stereotypes underlying these types of comments are unconscious. So deeply embedded and pervasive that the holder of them is unaware of their impact. By avoiding the defensiveness inherent in litigation, Structured Negotiations provides fertile ground for dissolving stereotypes.

Structured Negotiations offers the opportunity for corporate decision makers and customers who are blind to meet at a round table, instead of across a deposition table, encouraging direct communication. One of the best ways to dissolve a stereotype is to meet, work and form a relationship with someone whose life is impacted by the misconceptions at the heart of that stereotype. Structured Negotiations can provide the fertile ground for relationship building in the context of resolving complex legal claims.

The WIPO treaty, once ratified and adopted, will help readers around the world access the information they need and want without having to overcome arcane copyright hurdles. Congratulations to the advocates who worked tirelessly on the treaty. And thanks to blind advocates here in the U.S. who have used Structured Negotiations to break down barriers and dissolve stereotypes to improve access to information.

Read the post on this website about the WIPO Treaty

This is the first in a series of posts about various aspects of Structured Negotiations, a legal advocacy method that focuses on solution and collaboration to resolve issues affecting people with disabilities. Lainey Feingold is currently working on a book on Structured Negotiations and is interested in hearing stories about the subject of this post: how stereotypes about blindness impact the privacy of persons with a visual impairments.

If you are a person with a visual impairment who has heard comments similar to the ones listed here and would like to share them, please use the Contact Page to share your story. Information sent to the Law Office of Lainey Feingold is always treated as confidential.