Q&A: Anais Keenon (part 2)
This is our second in a two-part interview with Disability Rights Oregon staff member Anais Keenon.
In our first interview, Anais explained her role in the Plan for Work program, and shared what launched her involvement in the disability rights movement.
Here, she describes some of her experiences and insights gleaned from her past international work to advance disability rights.
Q: You had an up-close look at what life is like for people with disabilities in an emerging democracy. Did that make you look at challenges and opportunities in the U.S. for people with disabilities any differently?
It did, but perhaps not quite the way you’d expect!
A lot of people are used to thinking of the United States, Europe and Australia/New Zealand as the world leaders in inclusion.
However, there’s also many other countries that are blazing paths in the inclusion of men and women with disabilities.
Ecuador just elected its first president with a disability. Myanmar’s election commission includes the needs of voters with disabilities as part of their strategic plan.
Uganda promotes affirmative action for politicians with disabilities. Mexico was the first to propose a U.N. Convention on Disability Rights (which, ten years later, the United States has yet to ratify).
Working internationally also helped me realize that some barriers are universal. The old schools, religious houses, and gathering places of Europe, Asia and Africa were not built with access in mind – yet these are often where polling places are held.
In many states in America, people with developmental or intellectual disabilities are prevented from voting (other countries don’t have this ban, including Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom).
It is a constant struggle to ensure that election information is available in accessible media formats, especially materials made by candidates and political parties.
American citizens do have a lot of advantages that other countries don’t. For example, as a deaf woman I can feel confident that there will be closed captioning for the evening news.
Curb cuts, ramps and elevators have become commonplace. People recognize what a service dog is and know that it means its owner is likely blind or has low vision.
Yet even with this leg-up, there is still a long way to go before Americans with of all types of disabilities are fully embraced as equal citizens in society.
Q: You’ve spoken about some of the difference in philosophies between the deaf and hard of hearing communities, and how you see yourself as an intermediary between the two. Can you tell us a little about that.
When talking about the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, I’ve come to realize that many people believe that there are clearly defined rules as who’s deaf and who’s hard-of-hearing.
That hasn’t been my experience.
I suggest it may be more accurate to think of it as a spectrum, with most people falling at one end or another, but with a handful of folks in between.
For example, I have friends who wear cochlear implants and benefit from sign language, but who identify strongly as hard-of-hearing.
I use hearing aids and grew up mainstreamed in an English-speaking school and community, but I strongly prefer sign language and identify as deaf.
There are certainly times where deaf and hard-of-hearing groups will work together to achieve a goal, but there is also often tension between the two communities.
It might be helpful to think of it as two cultures that live next to each other and are kind of similar, but that ultimately have different values and priorities, like Scotland and England.
As someone who is in that blurry area between the communities, along with a few other friends, it’s given me a lot of empathy for people who are trying to navigate their way through these identities and decide where they belong. There have been times where my hard-of-hearing friends will ask me to help explain what deaf communities might be thinking, and vice versa.
I find myself in similar “ambassadorial” roles when talking with about the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities with other disability groups, or with able-bodied groups.
It’s a role that I’m honored to have, and it I think it does help ease some of the confusion between the different groups.
If you missed Anais’ video in American Sign Language (ASL) from the first post, you can watch it here: