Friday, February 15, 2013

Temporarily Non-Disabled

Some disability rights activists, understandably objecting to obnoxious terms like "able-bodied", occasionally refer to non-disabled people semi-facetiously as "temporarily non-disabled". Tongue-in-cheek or not, it's factually true. The disability community is often called The Largest Minority, because virtually every human being who doesn't die a sudden and premature death will join it eventually. Of course, there's a big difference between people who are born with a disability or acquired it relatively young and people who become disabled as a consequence of aging. Many older people don't consider themselves part of the disability community. Negotiating a sensory, mobility, or cognitive disability can look very different when someone is settling into sedate retirement, versus when they're trying to navigate employment, education, and relationships, while laying the groundwork for the next several decades in their lives.

Because I work in the accessibility industry, I think about disability a lot. I'm currently the only breadwinner in my household and we might start planning for a kid in the next few years, so I have to anticipate any possible disruptions in income and make contingency plans for them. Any number of things could happen. The student loan crisis could explode, making the number of people receiving higher education very different from what it looks like right now. I might have to transition out of academic CART and start specializing in CART for deaf professionals or public events. A lot of people worry about speech recognition replacing stenographers, but I think that's pretty unlikely, as I've explained in my CART Problem Solving Series. What could happen, though, is a restructuring of case law pertaining to the Americans with Disabilities Act. If a precedent were established that providing captioning accommodations is an unreasonable burden for companies, schools, or event organizers -- or that verbatim captioning is a luxury, and deaf or hard of hearing people are only entitled to non-verbatim notetaking or summarizing services such as C-Print or Typewell -- my job situation would look very different. Even if the amount of work available stays essentially the same, rates could fall, and I might have to settle for taking home less money while doing the same amount of work. The number of CART providers could fall so drastically due to retirement and lack of qualified graduates that CART could be replaced as the gold standard of speech-to-text accommodation simply due to lack of supply for the growing demand. Anything could happen.

By and large (disability advocacy and steno promotion projects like Plover aside), most of that stuff is out of my control. The captioning business will do what it will do, and I'll have to navigate whatever changes are ahead. I'm saving money, establishing good relationships with fellow captioners, building connections with international firms in case the disability access situation in the US gets dicey, and providing the best service I possibly can to my clients while they're in school, knowing that someday soon they'll be successful professionals who will continue to need occasional captioning. But what if I acquired a disability that interfered with my ability to caption? Since my trade involves my ears, eyes, hands, and brain, it leaves me quadruply vulnerable.

Sight loss would be the easiest to adapt to without seriously affecting my career. There are quite a few blind and low vision stenographers out there. I'd probably learn Braille and buy a refreshable Braille display to confirm that my steno strokes are translating correctly. It might take me a while to get back up to speed, but I think I could make it work. Hearing is another story, of course, since it's the fundamental basis of the service I'm providing. So far my hearing is pretty darn good (as I confirmed last weekend when I was able to pick up very quiet questions from the back of the audience during a recent theater talkback; lots of people told me afterwards that they couldn't make out a word without reading the captions), but my dad developed significant early hearing loss, and while in his case there was a specific noise exposure precipitating it, I don't want to get too cocky about my so-far functional ears. As I mentioned in the previous post, a third of people over 65 have some degree of hearing loss, and as a freelancer, I don't have an employer-run pension fund, so I would be a little nervous about finances if I were forced to stop working at 65. While I try to protect my hearing by listening to music at a fairly low volume and keeping out of loud nightclubs, I take the subway every day, and the sound of those trains rattling by is pretty cataclysmic. I've contemplated wearing earplugs during my morning commute, but I'd miss listening to music and podcasts. I might compromise by buying a set of expensive noise-blocking earbuds sometime soon. While there are a few acknowledged hard of hearing court reporters and ASL interpreters out there, I've never spoken to any CART providers who have admitted to having hearing loss. If I did start losing my hearing, it would definitely be a tricky thing to balance being fair to my clients by not providing them substandard service while not counting myself out of the game too early. I'd probably switch from onsite CART to only doing remote CART jobs with excellent quality (i.e. direct line) audio, and I'd have to keep testing myself to make sure that I didn't miss or misinterpret anything that I heard.

And what about my hands? Even though I love it, I've decided not to go downhill skiing anymore. The fun of it wouldn't erase the risk of falling and breaking a wrist or a finger. Even if it healed completely, I'd be out of the game for months, and I'd hate to think how much speed and accuracy (not to mention income) I'd have to make up when I was able to start writing again. While I have long-term disability insurance, I love this job too much to jeopardize it for some cheap thrills. On the other hand, I don't want to wear bubble wrap and wrist guards everywhere I go. I still ride my Razor scooter around town, and I play video games heedless of any potential (really rather small) risk of repetitive strain injury. Trying to guard against every possible contingency is a fool's errand. You do what you can, hope that your luck holds out, and figure out workarounds when it doesn't.

The simple fact is this: Disability can affect anyone, no matter how much they try to avert it. If something happened to me that prevented me from providing CART, I'd have to find an alternative career. The good thing about working within the disability community is that acquiring a disability isn't an instant mark against your prospects the way it is in most of the non-disabled employment sector. It's illegal, unjust, and wrong-headed, but too many companies rely on unfounded prejudices in their hiring decisions, and they assume a disabled employee will be expensive, high-maintenance, incompetent, unreliable, et cetera, ad nauseam. In fact, employees with disabilities demonstrate improved retention and loyalty and are often better workers than their non-disabled peers, due to a high level of ingenuity and technical knowledge, plus a general tendency not to take their jobs for granted.

If I ever do develop a disability that prevents me from providing CART, I have a feeling that the connections I've made within the disability and accessibility communities will be able to give me some solid ideas on searching for new employment. Also, by that point, The Plover Project will hopefully have found its wings, and I might be able to devote my time to spreading the word about the fantastic usefulness of steno both for people who don't use their voices to speak and for anyone who wants to write text swiftly, fluently, and efficiently while minimizing the risk of the repetitive stress injuries commonly seen in frequent qwerty use.

Of course, there's no need to borrow trouble. With any luck, I'll be providing CART for many decades to come. But I'm glad that my job has led me to be more aware of the potential for disability, so that I can plan for the possibility if it should arise. As the saying goes, forewarned is half an octopus.

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