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Disability, Disenfranchisement, and Disbelief: An Interview with SB Morgaine

By Courtney Caldwell. Originally posted at Skepchick Events.

I recently sat down with SB Morgaine to talk about how event organizers (and the community as a whole!) can be more inviting to disabled people. SB works at a non-profit in Virginia that helps the deaf community, and has done work with secular groups to create awareness for those with disabilities. Event organizers and lay-people alike can learn from her advice, so thanks again to SB for her insight!

Courtney: Thank you for setting some time aside today, it’s very much appreciated! To start off, just give us a little bit about yourself. You’re the program manager for interpreting and transliteration at the North Virginia Research Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, right? Did I get that?

SB: Close. The Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing persons. It’s a stupid name.

Courtney: Man, I was so close! What does that job title entail?

SB: I’m the go-to person for scheduling interpreters for this nonprofit in Virginia. We have a very small client base, we’re basically the only nonprofit interpreting provider who offers the software to manage interpreter services in the northern Virginia area or the DC metro area. We do a lot of jobs that others aren’t willing to take. They come to us because we’re cheap.

Courtney: The Northern Virginia Resource Center isn’t an atheist organization – but you have done related work within the secular community. Some people are probably familiar with your work at Reason Rally 

, you did ASL interpretation there, most memorably for Tim Minchin! Are there other things you’ve done with atheist organizations or groups?

SB: My partner and I interpreted for American Atheists conference, the 50-year anniversary conference in Austin. There weren’t any deaf people there, but we volunteered to do it because we feel like by having people see interpreters at events, they start to get used to the idea of there being deaf people there even if there actually aren’t any deaf people there. And it starts a conversation about accessibility because people will come up and go “Oh I have a deaf friend, if I had realized there were interpreters I would have invited them!” We feel strongly that it’s worth our time to volunteer, to provide services, so that people get used to there being services, and when there aren’t services there, when there aren’t interpreters, they go “Why aren’t there interpreters here?” It’s just sort of a ‘provide the service to get people used to the service, so then they start requesting it’

Courtney: It’s bringing the expectation that those services should be there. So if it’s not, THEN there’s a problem.

SB: And, it’s not so much about the services being there. I say often, people with disabilities don’t go to events if they don’t advertise that they are accessible. Because, imagine if you wanted to go to something and you knew you were going to have to have a debate with someone about whether or not they have to provide an interpreter. And so you just don’t go.

The church has interpreters for most major events - why don't we?
The church has interpreters for most major events – why don’t we?
Photo Courtesy of Scott Schram

Courtney: The topic of accessibility got more notice several months ago after Women in Secular 2; however, you have been talking about these things for a while. You mentioned in your 2012 SSA talk that churches have a really good pulse on how to help those with disabilities. Deaf, hard of hearing, blind… You name it there’s probably a religious support group out there for it. And obviously there are tons of differences between the atheist groups and churches but do you think there are some things we can learn from religious groups and kind of carry some of those over?

SB: I read a book recently, and at the end of it, the author talks about how the secular community needs to sort of bind together like the religious community has, so that we work towards a sense of the greater good. The religious community has god – they’re doing it because they want their place in heaven. We need to do it because we want to. Because we want people who are feeling disenfranchised to reach out to the secular community so they don’t get stuck in the religious communities. So I think that what the secular community could do is start advertising to the people that we’re here, but also that if there’s a local deaf school, offer to come in and do a tutoring session. I worked at the Missouri school for the deaf for a year and a half and it was part of our job was to chaperone them to Bible classes and so that is what they’re being offered. So if the secular community goes, “Alright, we’re going to figure out how to sign, or we’re going to find someone who knows how to sign and we’re going to go to the deaf school and do science experiments,” that is the simple way to get the deaf community to even know we’re there. And you can go have a major impact on someone’s life by just visiting them. Because the biggest thing that people with disabilities complain about is how isolated they are, because people don’t talk to them. People ignore them. People don’t shake hands with them. You’re invisible. So reaching out is really the biggest thing we can do.

Courtney: I want to ask about one of the things you mentioned, which was that it’s often the churches going to those schools and I don’t want to say they’re forcing religion onto these people, but I have heard complaints from disabled people regarding religious groups that it feels like their “allies” perceive the disability as a weakness and they use that as a conversion point. I wouldn’t imagine that would be a huge problem in the secular community; however, there’s definitely the chance that we could make the same kind of mistakes. We talked about the positive takeaways from religion but what are the negative ones, things you would like to see people avoid?

SB: Well, it’s mostly on the individual level. Like I have a friend who’s deaf who says that one of the biggest things that one of the most humiliating moments of her childhood was when she was brought to an evangelical church and then the pastor brought her to the front – no interpreter, no idea what is going on – all of a sudden she’s out in front of this group and they’re all praying for her so that this “affliction of hearing loss” would be taken away. And there’s no getting her hearing back, she’s deaf. And so it was humiliating because all of a sudden she realized that everybody was focused on her, and they were looking at her as weak, and so really that’s the biggest thing is: Religions tend to look at any disability as a mistake.

But there’s two models of disability. The social model and medical model. The medical model looks at disability as something that needs to be fixed, the social model looks at it as something that is there, it is part of your life just like your hair color, or your eyes, or anything else. It’s just part of your existence. Religions tend to look at the medical model, as ‘this is a problem that needs to be fixed” and so that’s the biggest take away that we can take from religion is, “don’t do that.” We tend in the Secular community to have more of a Science focus. Saying to a deaf person “Oh you should get a cochlear implant because that will fix your hearing” is really offensive. So we need to be careful with the scientific focus sometimes, with the understanding that not all people with disabilities think that they have something that they need to fix

Courtney: And I think that’s kind of where the cross-section of the social aspect of atheism, and the scientific aspect, they kind of come together in a sort-of middle ground. I’m a firm believer that intersectionality is really important in the atheist community and helps us be aware of our privilege even when we are part of one or more underprivileged groups. One example I think of how this kind of manifests itself is asking deaf individuals, “Do you need an ASL interpreter,” as opposed to “Do you need some sort of accommodation?” I think as non-disabled people, we often just assume that all deaf people know ASL! What are some of the frequent privilege-exposing generalities like that, that coordinators could make?

SB: That all deaf people need ASL interpreters. Or I’ve had people say to me in the past, “Oh I’ve got the disability angled covered because the pool has a lift, so I don’t have to worry about accessibility for this conference because that’s the hotel’s job and the pool is accessible.” So, not understanding that disability is a wide range and thinking that you have the answer to the disability because you have ramps, or you have this and that. Not taking the time to say, that the simplest thing that the conference coordinator can do to is to add accessibility language to their conference advertisement. If you need accommodations, please contact so and so. Because with that, it allows the person with the disability to contact and say this is the accommodation I need. And it’s also more person centered. We are not going to get blanket accommodations. We are actually going to look at what you are specifically requesting and then do our best to accommodate you in that way. So that you don’t end up with someone who’s hard of hearing (like a late deaf or senior citizen) that says “I’m deaf,” so the coordinator goes “I know what to do” and ends up with interpreters. Because then the person is like, “I don’t know this, I need CART.” And so you’ve spent money and time and energy on something that’s worthless.

Courtney: Speaking of CART, that’s something that I actually heard about from you when I listened to your 2012 SSA talk, and I hadn’t heard of it before. I forget the acronym, but can you tell us more about it?

SB: It stands for Computer Aided Real-Time Transcription. It’s like a court reporter basically. In fact that is exactly what it is. And so it’s someone with a little transcriber machine, transcribing everything that goes on in the room. What’s great about it, why I’m a huge proponent of CART, is because it gives access to people who are hard of hearing and don’t want to admit it, to people who process visually much better than they do auditorially. It allows for people to request a transcription of what was said, and so in a meeting, if you have a cognitive processing delay, you’re a little bit slower to process auditory information in a room, to be able to have the ability to read back at what was said and at often this is non-disability. It can also solve misunderstandings sometimes because you have a transcription of what was said. And it’s a little spendy, honestly, because you have a person there, but it’s a way for people with different disabilities to have access, and it’s just a good thing all the way around.

Courtney: Like we talked about earlier, I’m guessing there are religious groups that help find CART volunteers – but I don’t know of any large secularly-affiliated associations that are focused specifically on disability outreach. It could be that I’m just missing them. Either way, it’s important that smaller organizations are taking steps to start incorporating disability outreach into what they’re doing since there really aren’t a lot of, or perhaps any, large groups that are doing it in the atheist community. Are there groups that have made good strides on this front that we can learn from?

SB: Within the atheist community? To be honest, not so much. I know that there is a real willingness and want to provide accessibility but it’s one of those things that until someone is impacted by it, they don’t think about it. And it’s one of my reasons me and my big mouth took the opportunity from being at the Reason Rally to transition into talking to people about this. The Reason Rally has given me a lot of ability to talk to people about this. And the Reason Rally was a very good attempt to provide accessibility to people at their rally, but it was not done very well, and I’ve said this to them. I think that what the organizations need to do is find people who are within the organization that are willing to take it on as their cause. I do this for a living and there are still tons of things that I don’t think about when I’m planning a meeting, and so it’s really just starting to do the research and starting to get the experience and starting to see it that will help the organization do it. Churches that do it awesome. They always have interpreters at their events, they always have CART, they always have a van that’s willing to come and pick people up, you know it’s that kind of stuff that we’re far behind and we don’t have that same focus. Christians are focused because they’re like “We have a mission, we’re going to reach out and evangelize people.” And we don’t do that, so it’s hard to have that underlying foundation when you don’t have mission-forward movements, if that makes sense.

Courtney: So, all that said I want to focus a little bit more on groups and conventions. I know one mistake organizations may make is only asking disabled people to come and speak at their convention about disabilities.

SB: Absolutely.

Courtney: I feel that it’s really othering in that it becomes their identity. And while yes, that can be part of your identity and you can own that, that shouldn’t be completely what you are to someone. Do you have any favorite speakers, writers, personalities who are frequently asked to talk on this kind of thing but maybe have other insight as well?

SB: You know, there are so many people who talk about disability. And within the secular community I don’t know very many. I do know people who are disabled and speak about other topics. Like there’s a guy in San Francisco. He’s a trans deaf man and he does a lot of deaf events. He has great things to talk about that are more queer related than disability related – although talking about it in a sense of queer and disabled is always a good thing. But I think that the best way to find disabled people to give presentations is by getting disabled people to the groups, because that’s where you find the ones that aren’t just talking about disability. There are a lot of people out there that make their living talking about disability. And it’s great, but there’s no real golden ticket for finding disabled people to come and talk about things other than disability.

There’s also a tendency for people with disabilities to come into an event and then everybody goes, “Oh my god a guy in a wheelchair, what do we do with the guy in the wheelchair?!” And they avoid him or her because they don’t want to say the wrong thing.  People will say all the time to a deaf person while I’m interpreting, “Did you hear about?” And then instantaneously you see the look on their face like “Ahhhh!” Deaf people know you can hear. They are aware people hear. And so my long diatribe is here basically summing up, “Hey, just fucking talk to people with disabilities.”

C: Chris Hofstader, who is blind, talks about how people won’t address him, they won’t ask his name, but they’ll come and pet his service dog and ask, “What’s the dog’s name?” But they’ll never actually address him as a person. And then of course on the opposite end of the spectrum you’ve got the people who treat him like he’s stupid and he can’t do anything for himself. What do you think the middle of the road is between those two extremes?

We’re cute… but making people with disabilities feel like outcasts ISN’T.
Photo Courtesy of Beverly & Pack

This is going to sound really simplistic. But remember that the person is a human and talk to them like they are just a human, because there is this tendency to be like, “I can talk to the dog because the dog isn’t scary, the dog can see me.” So we treat disability with sort of a fear that, like we were talking about, there would be offense. But a lot of it is also just, “I don’t know what to do.” So, at a convention if you see someone who is blind with a service dog, standing in the middle of the shopping area, walking up to them and going “Hey, have you had an opportunity to check out the booths?” That opens up an opportunity for them to go, “Yeah I saw this really great stuff,” or as Chris mentioned in his blog, where he didn’t even know that stuff was there. It gives him an opportunity to go, “No, what’s out there, would you mind telling me what’s at this table?” And then a conversation begins. Just think about how would you feel in the middle group of people that you can’t see or can’t hear. Imagine how freaky it is to stand in a place you can’t see. It’s something we all take for granted. Picture yourself in that position and then do what you would want someone to do for you, it’s really that simple. Making ourselves aware that people with disabilities are human that have the same sort of wants and needs that we have is really the easiest way to make things accessible.

Courtney: We’ve talked about things that conference organizers can do as well as what individuals can do. So my last question to you is this: As a secular community we tend to be a pretty grassroots group. Large organizations are doing really great work on this front, but some of that progress is coming from the ground up. So do you think that the top level change is going to start on a personal level and work its way up, or do you think that eventually the change is going to come from the top down?

SB: I think that it will actually be a nice combination of both. I think that people in the top levels are being made aware with blogs like Chris’ and sometimes it takes Chris’ experience to make change happen. I think that those kinds of things will happen from the top down. People will go, “Oh crap, what the hell” and they will start making changes.  From the individual level, as we as individual secular people start making our everyday lives more accessible, start reaching out to the community, and start taking opportunities to interact more with people with disabilities, and reach out to them and bring them in to the secular community, then the individuals will start moving towards the top. It’ll be this nice move together, where the people at the top know they need to do it, but when the ground level starts agitating for it also, it becomes a priority and that’s really what it has to be where we want deaf people there, we want blind people there. We want to make an effort to include people who are cognitively disabled, people who are physically disabled. All of the groups of people with disabilities are out there. And I think that one place where we do a decent job as a secular community is with people who have mental illness. People in the secular community seem to have thought about mental illness and know how to address it. It seems we all have as mental illness or know someone who has a mental illness, or we’ve done study on it. In the end, it just needs to be the same thing, we just need to become more aware of people with disabilities within our community!

Thanks again to SB for taking the time to share her knowledge on this incredibly important issue! If you’d like to reach out to her with your own questions about accessibility, check her out on Twitter!

Title Photo Courtesy of Ellen Lundgren

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.

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  1. Great interview! SB, are you still interested in doing some kind of internet contest/search for an ASL sign for “atheist” ? We talked about this when we at at American Atheists con in March.

  2. I’m happy to see this conversation on accessibility in the skeptical community. I am a Deaf interpreter user and would be interested in many of the skeptical events, but just the thought of starting the process of setting up interpreters for them is tiring. It usually involves educating a host of people about how it works, dealing with their sticker shock (no, cheaper is NOT better), guiding them to specific interpreters or agencies, and then hoping the interpreters who show up are good. Often, the cycle has to be repeated for the next conference because someone else is responsible for that aspect of the planning. NECSS did provide interpreters at one meeting two years ago which was great and the process was smooth (I wasn’t able to attend last year’s or this year’s, though). The other thing that prevents me from requesting interpreters is that I am aware of the high costs involved that can be difficult for small organizations to cover. I don’t know of other interpreter users who want to (or can) attend the same events and so I often feel loath to ask an organization to foot a bill like that for one attendee. Please do advertise if you can or will have either interpreters or CART at your events!

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