When access is denied

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Por Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis
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Twenty-nine-year-old Rania Python knows what it's like to live in a world of barriers. Visually impaired from birth, Rania sits down with us to share her challenges, struggles, and how standards have the potential to improve the quality of life – for her and everyone else.

Getting around in the physical world is something most of us may take for granted. For those of us with disabilities or restricted mobility, however, a curb or a few stairs can be large obstacles. In other words, features that ordinary able-bodied people don’t think twice about can present serious problems for people with “different” abilities, mostly because their needs haven’t been considered in designing those features.

Photo: Rania Python

Twenty-nine-year-old Rania Python knows this only too well. Visually impaired from birth, she still manages to live an active life as a freelance translator for Italian, English and German into French from her base in Chavannes, Switzerland. And this year, she took on a new challenge by running for “Miss Handicap”, a beauty contest held annually in Switzerland for people with disabilities. By making herself a contestant, Rania hopes to serve as an ambassador dedicated to empowering people with disabilities. But, above all, she aspires to change public perception by ensuring that people with disabilities are given the opportunity to succeed and become full members of society.

We met with Rania to discuss her challenges, her struggles, and how standards can help remove these everyday barriers and improve quality of life.

ISOfocus: As a person with a visual disability, what does accessibility mean to you? What do you find the most frustrating when places and things are not accessible?

Rania: Accessibility to me spells freedom. The most frustrating when access is denied is that I cannot do things or go places on my own. I often have to ask family or friends to come with me or, even worse, beg for help from a complete stranger, which is really challenging. When I’m out and about by myself, it can be hard to find an obliging person who is willing to assist and I end up wasting a lot of time. It’s very dispiriting as time is so precious!

Which areas of society do you consider the most advanced in terms of accessibility? How do you benefit?

Computing and multimedia, definitely. Thanks to specialized technologies, I was able to follow mainstream education and I can write, read and access the Internet. In fact, the Internet provides lots of valuable information. For instance, no need to scan recipe books, I can find a lot of ideas online allowing me to cook delicious meals.

Accessibility to me spells freedom.

The mobile phone industry has wised up enormously to accessibility, particularly when it comes to smartphones. A voice synthesizer cleverly concealed in my iPhone (Apple’s VoiceOver feature for the visually impaired) helps me access many useful applications such as train timetables, maps and GPS data.

On the flip side, in terms of work integration, society offers little access, and more’s the pity! With equal qualifications, everyone should be able to find a job and put their skills to good use.

People are often oblivious to the trials and tribulations of persons with disabilities. How can we educate them to be more tolerant?

First of all, behave naturally when interacting with a disabled person. Some people desperately avoid using the words “you see” when talking to me, which just makes me laugh! Of course I see things my way, but at the end of the day, I still see them.

Some people feel the need to be told how to interact with a disabled person, otherwise they feel lost. What we need is more awareness campaigns. There should be more discussion groups in schools and the workplace so that people can ask questions and find out about our “different” way of life. Asking questions is the best way to be informed; that’s why I don’t mind when people are inquisitive about the way I live, as long as they are polite and don’t treat me like a child.

True, people with a visual handicap cannot see, but they can still lead a normal, fulfilling life. The most difficult is finding our way around in a foreign environment. Luckily, I’ve had a guide-dog since I was 17, which helps tremendously. But life would be a lot easier if people were more forthcoming. Please don’t hesitate to help – it usually is much appreciated.

Are there any standards you would like to see developed to improve the quality of life for the visually impaired?

Click to zoom
My computer and braille display that help me read and write, just like everyone else.
Photo: Rania Python

I would say IT standards. I often find I cannot use a Website, online shopping or online banking because it is not accessible with my voice synthesizer and braille display system. Since the aim of technology is to make people more independent, I think it’s important to make it accessible to everybody, without exception.

Another field would be GPS applications to help the visually impaired move around more easily. For example, voice guidance in large shopping malls and railway stations would enable us to get around safely by ourselves. Conquering such hurdles on your own is hugely rewarding, but without a helping hand, these kinds of spaces are very hard to get to know. This is especially true of shops where items are moved around all the time. Progress is being made, however, and some iPhone apps now give you the content of certain products simply by scanning the bar code.

Why did you decide to take part in the Miss Handicap beauty contest? As someone with a visual disability, what does “beauty” mean to you?

This contest was a fabulous opportunity for me to act in favour of better integration at work. I completed my master’s in translation in June 2011 but I struggle to find a job. I would jump at the chance to work in my field because I really love translating and don’t want to lose my skills. With this contest, my hope was to be able to change mentalities and give disabled people better working opportunities.

Life would be a lot easier if people were more forthcoming.

Miss Handicap is not about beauty per se, it’s about the candidates and their motivation to make things better for people with disabilities. It is a communication vehicle to show society that, despite our handicap, we are as fashion-conscious and concerned about our appearance as the rest. Personally, I don’t attach much importance to physical beauty. Scents, voices, behaviour and ideas hold much more appeal to me. A beautiful person is someone respectful, pleasant and willing to help others. And that makes most people beautiful, doesn’t it?

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Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis

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