by Ron Brooks
In September of 2009, my employer established an internal committee called the North American Diversity Council, whose mission is to develop and implement programs that promote a culture which welcomes and fosters diversity and that helps us to increase the diversity of our suppliers and executive and managerial employees.
I think it's fair to say that most companies view diversity as one that applies to gender, race and ethnicity, so when my employer appointed me to the Diversity Council, I was very happy because this was a clear indication of my company's willingness to embrace a much more inclusive definition of diversity and role for our fledgling Diversity Council. Needless to say, I accepted the invitation to serve on the council, and today, I consider this fairly small work assignment as one of my most important and treasured duties.
As a fairly assertive and relentless advocate, I have spent a lot of time educating our Diversity Council on disability issues and on ensuring that any programs developed by the council include a focus on people with disabilities. As a result, I've earned a bit of a reputation for being passionate, outspoken and perhaps a bit heavy-handed with my efforts to promote the needs of the disability community.
Still, there are some lessons which we advocates just can't teach without help from the unknowing public, and recently, the Diversity Council and I were given a perfect lesson about how far our society's attitudes about blindness have come and about the long journey that yet remains. Our council was holding a face-to-face meeting outside of Chicago, and at the end of a long day of theoretical discussions about growing the diversity of our executive team, we set out for dinner at a nearby restaurant.
The restaurant we chose is a well-known and respected regional chain, and we were all made welcome. In fact, the hostess offered to bring me the braille menu before I had time to ask. When she returned, she gave me the menu and apologized for the fact that the menu was about a year out of date. She went on to apologize for the inconvenience, and she offered to answer any questions I had about the current availability or price of anything on the outdated menu. I thanked her and explained that I would go through the menu and let her know.
Shortly after this encounter, the restaurant manager came by to add his greeting to our fairly large and professionally dressed party. (We had "out of town" and "big tippers" written all over us.) The manager also apologized for the old menu. He put the menu's age at a year and a half out of date, and he went as far as to say that the restaurant's menu production company was having trouble with the braille — a statement that I sincerely doubted since under the absolute worst of circumstances, a year and a half is longer than it takes for production of a braille menu.
Now at this point, I had a tough decision to make. Should I show appreciation for what the restaurant had done? After all, they were very welcoming to me and very apologetic for their lack of an accessible menu. Or should I confront them on their inability to provide true accessibility? After all, they were more than a year without an accessible braille menu, and no amount of courtesy could change this fact.
The decision about how to respond was made more difficult by the presence of my company's entire diversity council — all of whom were watching quietly while I managed this exchange.
Had I been alone, with Lisa or with a group of blind friends, I might have elected to thank them for their consideration and just leave well enough alone. However, with the entire Diversity Council looking on, I felt that I had an obligation to "walk the talk." After all, we had just spent an entire day discussing the need to create a workplace that promotes diversity, and I had spent the same day demanding that people with disabilities be part of the company's diverse work force and supplier network. Thus, not challenging the restaurant for its inaccessibility would be little more than cowardice on my part.
Stuck between the rock that was the restaurant's positive attitude and open admission of inaccessibility and the hard place that was the collective opinion of my company's Diversity Council about the need to promote diversity while challenging barriers to inclusion, I had no choice but to speak up.
I thanked the restaurant manager for what he and his staff had done and tried to do regarding accessibility, but I went on to point out that without access to the restaurant's menu, true accessibility did not exist. I then asked the restaurant manager to think about how he would feel if he were in my shoes and if he had just learned that the restaurant either could not or would not spend the small amount of time and resources needed to produce a menu for him to read on his own. I asked the manager to think about what the restaurant's actions would be saying about his value to them as a person or as a customer. Basically, I tried to get the manager to recognize that the restaurant's efforts, while partial, tended to communicate a total lack of caring for those customers who need braille menus to independently enjoy a night out.
I realize that my approach was heavy-handed, and sure enough, the manager's demeanor was sad as he left our table to return to his other duties. I can imagine that he was probably trying to justify himself by counting up all of the little things that his staff did right — things like welcoming me and my service animal, offering to read the menu and answer questions, and their willingness to apologize for the inaccessibility of their menu.
Still, I ended up with an opportunity to drive home a very important lesson for my employer's diversity council — namely that the true inclusion of people with disabilities has both attitudinal and practical components. Being open to people with disabilities and their dogs is important, but providing the physical and programmatic access that people need to participate on an equal footing is just as important, if not more so. I also got a chance to acknowledge the intentions of a business without having to endorse its actions or the results of its efforts, which fell short of full access.
Aside from telling a story about me, my company's diversity council, and of my experience in that well-respected but less than accessible Chicago-area restaurant, I have a reason for sharing this story. Each day, at least one, or perhaps many, of us encounter a business or agency that has good intentions about complying with the ADA and/or about meeting our access needs, but which falls short on one or both counts. In these situations, what do we do, and what should we do? Should we show appreciation for the business or agency's good intentions, or should we demand full compliance with the law or the full accommodation of our access needs? This is a hard question, but in my opinion, we can and should strive to do both. After all, if we can take the time to notice and acknowledge the good which has been done or at least which society has striven to do, then perhaps we can encourage those critical next steps. On the other hand, if we opt for gratitude without a corresponding demand for true access, we will be giving up without a fight, and we will be leaving the struggle for the future generations of our movement.
In subsequent discussions with members of the diversity council who witnessed this episode, I got unanimous agreement that my approach was the right one to take. That felt good, but I got something else that was even more important. I gained a table full of people who have a new appreciation for what businesses can and should do in order to create access for people with disabilities, and I trust that each and every one of these people will take this lesson to our current employer and to all of their future employers and places of business. As a result, my momentary discomfort and confusion will be avoided for dozens of future blind and visually impaired people who just want a good steak and a nice glass of wine with their co-workers and friends.