A Look Back at the Words and Wisdom of the Rooted in Rights Blog in 2019

A Look Back at the Words and Wisdom of the Rooted in Rights Blog in 2019. (background is a faded image of multicolored English letters in random patterns)

At the end of 2016, I was entrusted with the privilege of being Editor in Chief of the Rooted in Rights Blog. It’s truly amazing that as the New Year is upon us, the blog is still going strong. This is all thanks to the writers who share their words and wisdom on the disability issues we need to be talking about. My goal for 2020 is to continue to amplify the perspectives of disabled people, especially of multi-marginalized identities, on the topics that matter most. I welcome you to join me in this by pitching me your ideas. Let’s continue to show the power of telling our own stories.

In celebration of the year that’s passed, here’s a look back at just some of the poignant, varied writing we’ve shared:

Rooted in Rights exists to amplify the perspectives of the disability community. Blog posts and storyteller videos that we publish and content we re-share on social media do not necessarily reflect the opinions or values of Rooted in Rights nor indicate an endorsement of a program or service by Rooted in Rights. We respect and aim to reflect the diversity of opinions and experiences of the disability community. Rooted in Rights seeks to highlight discussions, not direct them. Learn more about Rooted In Rights

Click here to pitch a blog post to Rooted in Rights.

“Essential Functions” on Job Listings Create Barriers for Employees and Employers Alike

A person sitting at their desk using a laptop to search for a job.

Recently, my partner and I sent out a quote to a medical device company that wanted to make sure their product was accessible to people with disabilities. We test websites and apps and make recommendations to developers so that they build their apps in a way that people who are deaf, blind, or have other disabilities can access them.

In this particular bid, we had a routine line item that said we would test the app for Braille users. The bid was accepted, but with the Braille line item crossed out. On a conference call, we inquired as to why they didn’t want us to test for Braille.

“No one uses Braille with our device! Why would we test for Braille? It just seemed unnecessary,” explained the woman on the call in a skeptical voice.

My partner said that people did, in fact, use their product with Braille. I started thinking of who I could produce to validate this claim. I was sure that I could find a few people in about 3 phone calls. But we were misunderstanding the misunderstanding.

“How? I mean, the monitor is just…flat. There is no Braille on the internet,” she said, sounding like she thought we were a little foolish or maybe even trying to scam her.

Oh! Now we understood the problem. My partner turned to me and I handed him my Braille display to demonstrate to her how the internet actually does include Braille. My partner is hearing but blind. He uses the computer by listening to speech reading software. My Deafblindness makes hearing a speech reader really difficult. I supplement my computer usage with a Braille display. This is a device that connects to a computer via Bluetooth and uses mechanical pins to turn the computer’s speech into Braille words that I can feel.

It’s not surprising that many people have never seen or heard of a Braille display or a Braille computer. It is part of our job to explain these things to our clients that seek out our expertise to help them learn about accessibility and inclusiveness. However, what does surprise me is how often decisions are made based on a lack of knowledge about these things. Asking what we meant by Braille testing was perfectly understandable. But our client had made an assumption before asking anything and had based a decision on what she didn’t know.

This is one of the most perplexing things about ableism. I don’t think anyone with a disability expects everyone to know everything about how we adapt and use alternative methods, technology and supports to do what we do. But rather than ask us, who are the experts in our own disabilities, they simply assume it can’t be done. This happens to us almost daily.

Often, blind people use a mobile phone with either a magnified screen or voice output, and deal with people telling them that their phone is not turned on or that they can’t use a smartphone. Sometimes, people ask me who did my hair that morning or who brought me to a location and when I answer, “I did,” I get a “yeah, right” of disbelief. I have had people tell me that my children can’t be mine because disabled people can’t have children. Many disabled people go through life knowing all kinds of disabled people doing all kinds of things that the mainstream society does not think is possible.

My friend Kory is a blind mechanic who is a whiz at all things vehicle-related. My friend John, a wheelchair user, is a black belt in martial arts. My friend Haben is a Deafblind salsa dancer, My friend Mark is a blind carpenter. My friend James is a national disability rights leader with a cognitive disability. I could go on and on. Yet, I still get on the train to go to work and people ask me where my caregiver is and if I’m lost?

Yet, when it comes to job openings, it is these same people who don’t know about how we use digital Braille or iPhones or curling irons who write the “essential functions” of the job. Essential functions are often used as way of legally discriminating against disabled people; a workaround to avoid the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Recently, I saw one of the most blatant uses of “essential functions” in a job listing for the City of Mesquite, Texas. There was actually a table that listed hearing and vision. The table required that a checkmark be made in one of three columns: average, low, or N/A. I looked in all the recent job openings in the City of Mesquite. All jobs required that an applicant have average hearing and vision. All of them. All of them also required that the applicant have a valid driver’s license.

An emergency dispatch operator required hearing and vision and a driver’s license. I know of probably hundreds of blind people who work as phone agents in various roles. They handle medical information and charting, banking and finance records, all kinds of complex information in multiple screens while talking to a member of the public. I wondered why average vision was required for that job. Could it be because the person who wrote the listing had no knowledge of how a blind person can use a computer with voice or braille? Even a Deaf person might be able to do a text-based dispatcher job (more and more common these days.) And I have no understanding of how a dispatcher utilizes driving in their job.

The original listing that got my attention was for an animal control officer. Now this job is obviously very physical and may actually require transporting oneself from place to place. But I wondered if hearing was really necessary. Or, if someone had a motor disability, but had some workarounds that would allow them to lift and transport animals, would they still be barred from applying. I mean, I know quadriplegics that have come up with all kinds of contraptions to lift and haul their own children around. The truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know enough about the job or how different people with disabilities–who likely have far more experiences that I do handling animals–may have come up with ways to do these tasks.

And the people who write up job listings don’t know either. If you asked me how a blind person fixes a car, I would have to say I don’t know either. But I would direct you to Kory, my blind mechanic friend and he could tell you. He knows because he is the expert on ways to fix cars nonvisually; the average auto shop looking for a mechanic is not. What the HR person is an expert on is the job itself. What are the essential functions of the job? For the animal control officer, one must be able to transport sometimes sick and dangerous animals by moving them from often inaccessible settings to a vehicle.

An essential function of the dispatch job might be to communicate effectively with a wide range of people on the phone while at the same time looking up information and passing it on to emergency responders. An essential function is not “average vision.” An essential function for a nurse might be to “be alerted to and respond appropriately to emergencies.” It is not necessarily an essential function to “be able to hear alarms and sirens.” There are Deaf nurses, and through technology such as vibrating and light pulsing alert systems, they are able to be alerted to and respond appropriately to emergencies.”

A pizza delivery person does need to have a valid driver’s license. An administrative assistant probably does not need one, nor do they likely need average vision or hearing (and often, they don’t really need to squat and lift 50 pounds). Sure, there are some gray areas. If a social worker occasionally needs to transport a client, can she use a ride service, hire someone, or trade jobs with someone else temporarily? Employers do themselves a favor by being open to different types of solutions to different types of jobs. The asset of diversity is all about getting fresh ideas injected into the workplace. Disabled people are resourceful by necessity, and chock full of fresh ideas. It depends on the situation, of course, but if highly qualified workers can’t even get in the door because of being screened out by an ill-thought out essential function, everyone loses.

Essential functions should not list physical characteristics or requirements of the applicants at all. Doing so is about as blatant as putting up a “people of color need not apply” sign. Essential functions should be, essential functions of the job, not the person. The average HR person or manager making out a job listing is just not well-enough informed to make such determinations as what physical characteristics are required for the job, nor what technology and strategies people use to accommodate disabilities. They should focus on the tasks of the job, and let the applicant explain how they would accomplish those tasks.

Rooted in Rights exists to amplify the perspectives of the disability community. Blog posts and storyteller videos that we publish and content we re-share on social media do not necessarily reflect the opinions or values of Rooted in Rights nor indicate an endorsement of a program or service by Rooted in Rights. We respect and aim to reflect the diversity of opinions and experiences of the disability community. Rooted in Rights seeks to highlight discussions, not direct them. Learn more about Rooted In Rights

Click here to pitch a blog post to Rooted in Rights.

How Do You Figure Out Who You Are When You’re the Only Disabled Person in Your Family?

Lisa Ferris in a graduation gown. Her mother is helping her adjust her cap. They are standing outside in front of a red vehicle.

Your glasses scare people,” said my mother, matter-of-factly.

The comment stung, but I knew she was correct. We were discussing why, at 16 years-old, I could not get very many babysitting jobs in my suburban neighborhood. My sister had just left for college and I had hoped that her jobs would come to me, but they hadn’t.

My glasses were ridiculous looking. I was severely vision-impaired. My glasses were not only very thick, but they had a concave inset that made my eyes appear tiny in the center, then huge around the edges. Not only that, but I had behind-the-ear hearing aids that I didn’t bother to hide under my hair. When I wore my hair down, all I heard was my hair going “swish-swish” in my ears. Add this to my somewhat weird mannerisms of holding everything close to my face and looking down a lot when I walked…I knew I basically looked like a dork.

“Do they scare you?” I asked her. This was the far more important question to me. I knew strangers did not understand why I wore funny glasses. But my mom knew me and knew what I could do. Did she believe in me?

“Of course not,” she said. “But you look so much prettier when you wear your contacts!”

The contacts vs. ugly glasses battle had gone on between my mother and I for years. I had contact lenses, but I also had to wear two pairs of glasses interchangeably with them in order for them to significantly improve my vision as much as my ugly glasses did. These glasses, one for near vision and one for far vision, were within the realm of normal-looking glasses. When I wore my contacts with these two pairs of glasses, I did look significantly more normal and less scary.

But to me, they were an unworkable, impractical solution. Although my ophthalmologist insisted that they would help me see better, it was a nightmare to pull off. Due to several eye surgeries, my eyes did not lubricate appropriately and wearing contacts constantly hurt my eyes. I would have red rings around my pupils when I wore them. My teacher of the vision impaired (TVI) would try to work with me to flip between them in class. One pair goes on to see the board, the other pair for my math book. Back and forth, back and forth. It was dizzying.

My mother would hide my ugly glasses to get me to wear contacts. Without corrective lenses, I could only see light and dark and a small amount of color. Rather than put on the contacts, I developed a habit of skipping school. It was a source of contention throughout my high school years.  When I moved away, I never wore contact lenses again. Even today, just the mention of contact lenses (even writing this now) makes my eyes blink and wince in the memory of the pain.

Growing up as the only disabled person in a non-disabled family is confusing. My mother was awesome. She was hard working, immaculately put-together, and smart. She had worked her way up from poverty and went from being a mailroom clerk to a Vice President of a mutual fund company. When we had school conferences, my mother came in her business suit and her briefcase, high heels clicking down the hall with confidence. She had a friendly manner but was all business. There was no other mother like her. She had a killer work ethic and rarely missed a day of work or an obligation. She was stable and responsible. She seemed to never make a mistake.

My dad also came from humble beginnings. He was a railroad carman. Although he did not advance in his career in the same way my mother did, he diligently went to the rail yard for 40 years without complaint. He was also very stable. Even my older sister was near perfect. She studied hard and got good grades. She was never in trouble. In my family, the expectations were always clear. Work hard, follow the rules, do what you are told, be presentable, don’t cause trouble.

When you are disabled, those rules don’t always work. You can work twice as hard as others, but if you can’t see the board or hear your teacher explain algebra, it won’t produce results. If being presentable and conforming to the norm means that you will be in constant eye pain that makes you unable to concentrate, it won’t work either. Following the rules gets challenging when the rules assume vision and hearing. To advocate for yourself to get what you need as a disabled person is often viewed as causing trouble in the eyes of the rule makers. In my family, to be disabled felt a lot like being the family f*%&-up.

My mother tried to do everything right when dealing with her disabled child. She went to the IEP meetings, she took me to the doctor and did what they said, even when it didn’t work for me. She tried to treat me just like everyone else. Her unwavering expectations and work ethic are an essential part of my success today.

But what she had a very difficult time with was the fact that she was just uncomfortable with disability. This is not surprising really, and I think it happens in a lot of families. Children with disabilities are often born into families where they are the only minority and it’s common for family members to have ableist ideas about people like them. Like racism and sexism, in our society we swim in the water of ableism, ignorance and misinformation about disability. That does not magically go away when a child with a disability is born.

All of the interventions I used as a child were designed to make me appear and function as able-bodied as possible. The contact lenses, the magnification and large print, the attempts to get me to understand and interpret the blobs I did see without the use of a white cane, the surgeries to improve my eyesight—these were all to get me to be able to pass as non-disabled as much as possible. The logic behind this was that if I could pass as sighted or almost sighted and hearing, I would have an easier time and be more accepted into society. But there was always an underlying sense that if I looked and functioned too much like a Deafblind/disabled person, I was unacceptable to others.

When I got older and moved out of my house, I explored my disability in a way I was discouraged from doing before. I met more and more disabled people and ended up discovering that many people who were totally blind were more independent and confident than I was. Why? Because they did what worked, not what looked more normal. They also had a level of innate comfort with themselves as disabled people that I did not have. I always felt like I was doing it wrong if I did what actually worked for me, instead of doing what made others feel more comfortable with me.  These disabled role models gave me the permission—the relief— of doing things my way and being proud of who I was even if I did not pull off passing as non-disabled.

Although my mother did improve over the years, she was often very uncomfortable with my disabled friends. They sometimes had deformed eyes or unusual mannerisms. When she was with us in public and we got the inevitable attention that comes with using a cane or a guide dog, that made her uncomfortable. For a long time, she tried to shield me (and herself) from associating with “people like them.” She didn’t quite get that I WAS “people like them.”

When I’m asked what I would want to tell parents that have a disabled child, I have many ideas and practical advice. But first and foremost, it’s this: You are probably unintentionally ableist. It’s understandable that you are because almost everyone is. You are probably uncomfortable around disabled people because of it. Your child will figure this out and it will hurt them and your relationship. Working on this and shifting your paradigm about what it means to be disabled will bring untold gifts to both you and your child. Don’t be defensive, just recognize it and set forth to learn.

There are people who are ready to help you. One of the best resources you have, not only for practical information but for increasing your comfort and understanding of disability issues are adults with disabilities. Go to self-advocacy group events and conferences. Find some adult role models for yourself and your child. You will get more comfortable with disability and your focus will change from trying to get your child to be ‘normal’ to finding out what works for your child. Listen to the real experts on disability, people who live with disability. Most importantly, recognize that your own child is the best expert of all.


Rooted in Rights exists to amplify the perspectives of the disability community. Blog posts and storyteller videos that we publish and content we re-share on social media do not necessarily reflect the opinions or values of Rooted in Rights nor indicate an endorsement of a program or service by Rooted in Rights. We respect and aim to reflect the diversity of opinions and experiences of the disability community. Rooted in Rights seeks to highlight discussions, not direct them. Learn more about Rooted In Rights

Click here to pitch a blog post to Rooted in Rights.