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Margaret Weigers Vitullo, ASA Academic and Professional Affairs Program, and Allison C. Carey, former Chair of the Status Committee on Persons with Disabilities
On neighborhood street corners in the United States one regularly sees walkers of all ages, children with bikes, parents pushing strollers, and teenagers with skateboards taking advantage of curb cuts. The “curb-cut principle” refers to the idea that while curb cuts were originally intended for persons who use wheelchairs they are also convenient for all.
As of its February meeting, ASA Council has now approved all 15 recommendations included in the most recent report from the Status Committee on Persons with Disabilities in Sociology. Many of those recommendations can be thought of as professional association “curb cuts,” establishing practices that will make ASA meetings and services more accessible and welcoming to all members.
Accessibility and disability are complex and contested concepts, and are defined in numerous ways depending on the purposes of identification and who is doing the identifying. Recent scholarship has focused increasingly on the fluidity of disability, namely that specific environments, social roles, relationships, and other factors affect the degree to which a person is disabled. Disability, therefore, is a result of body-environment interaction rather than a fixed, biological state (Barnartt 2010). Related to the concept of fluidity are the shifts over time in people’s abilities and disabilities. With the graying of America, more people will benefit from accessibility features, whether or not they identify or are identified as disabled.
For example, Recommendation 10 in the report calls for the ASA to provide captioning at all plenary sessions as standard practice, not just upon request. In keeping with that recommendation, at the upcoming 2012 Annual Meeting, for the first time in ASA history, all plenary sessions will be simultaneously webcast with open captions. Anyone in the plenary hall —or anywhere else in the world—will be able to access the webcast and captions from their computer, smartphone, or tablet. This will make the plenaries accessible for audience members who identify as having a hearing impairment, but it will also improve conditions for individuals who have difficulty hearing because of room acoustics or age-related hearing loss.
In addition, anyone can submit a question during the plenary through the webcasting interface. All submitted questions will appear on a computer screen visible to the plenary presider. This means that anyone who is not comfortable making their way to a microphone in a crowded plenary hall—whether due to an issue of mobility, vision, hearing, or speech impairment, or because of age or location in the middle of a fully occupied row of chairs—will nonetheless be able to participate in the discussion portion of the plenary. This exciting change reflects not only the Status Committee’s recommendation, but also the ASA’s ongoing commitment to using universal design principles to make ASA events truly welcoming to all members.
The ASA Committee on the Status of Persons with Disabilities was established in 1981 as an ad hoc committee, charged with ascertaining if and how the ASA meetings met the accessibility needs of members with disabilities and recommending changes, as needed, to enhance accessibility. In 1987, it was made a standing committee. In 1999, Council set for the following two charges for the committee: to ensure the full participation of sociologists with disabilities in the life of the Association and to encourage sociological scholarship on disability issues (Howery 2007).
For more than 25 years, ASA has provided special services and oversight arrangements to facilitate attendance at the Annual Meeting. In 1994, the need for additional curb cuts in downtown Los Angeles was outlined as part of the accessibility assessment of the route between the two primary hotels. ASA even hired a special consultant to join Meetings staff on their site visit of the properties (see “ASA Increases Attention on Accessibility Issues” in the January 1994 Footnotes, page 4).
In 2008, the ASA Section in Formation on Disability and Society was established and in 2010 the Section-in-Formation had reached the necessary 300 members to become a permanent section. The section now fulfills the major responsibility of encouraging sociological scholarship on disability issues, and its success is reflected by the increased number of sessions at the ASA Annual Meetings. For example, in the 2003 Annual Meeting program there were four papers listed in the index under “disabilities” all from one session, and by 2010 there were 20 entries listed in the index under “disabilities” including thematic sessions, regular paper sessions, and roundtable sessions.
In the words of the current Chair of the Status Committee on Persons with Disabilities, Albert Herzog, “these are exciting days as ASA takes these significant steps forward in responding to the needs of members with disabilities and creating a more welcoming space for sociological scholarship in the field of disability and society.”
To read the full report of the Status Committee on Persons with Disabilities go to the ASA website www.asanet.org and click on “About ASA,” then “Governance” and then “Reports Accepted by Council.”
Howery, Carla B. 2007. “Committee and Executive Office Collaborate to Make Meeting Accessible.” Footnotes. American Sociological Association. Washington D.C.
Barnartt, Sharon, Ed. 2010. “Disability as a Fluid State.” Research in Social Science and Disability Volume 5, Bingley UK: Emerald.