Impacts of Economy Reopening from COVID-19 on Independence & Accessibility: A Talk with Esubalew Johnston

June 25, 2020
Esubalew standing in front of a scenic lake along a forest of pine trees.

Esubalew Ethan Johnston is a Social Security Administration employee from Aurora, Colorado. He is passionate about immigrant support, team-building, cross-cultural communications, and accessibility. He is also blind.

We recently talked with Esubalew about accessibility, inclusion, and awareness during this time, using this as our starting point:

As the economy reopens, some retailers and establishments are adding new rules and guidelines for social distancing and safe shopping experiences. Some of these guidelines are communicated to the public through purely visual means, like stickers on the floor to show where to stand, printed signs that explain the rules, and so on.

Esubalew wanted us to point out that he is speaking only for himself and sharing his own thoughts and experiences, which shouldn't be interpreted as being on behalf of the entire blind community. Let's get started.

Is this model of relying on visual cues inclusive, and does it allow for everyone to understand and follow the rules, for the safety of themselves and others?

Esubalew:

It's definitely not inclusive, but I don't think it's being done purposely.

When somebody puts up a sign or a sticker on the floor, disability or who might really be affected by it probably doesn't come to mind. We're not the first thing that comes to mind.

Again, I don't think they're doing it on purpose, because they might not interact with blind people — unless you have a relative or friend who is blind, you're probably not going to think about it.

Why do you think that is?

Esubalew:

It's one of the most frustrating parts for me, but I would say most of society thinks we just stay home and have caretakers and we're just hermits. They see the cane and nothing else.

There is a cloud, that stigma, that hangs over us. People think that because we can't see, we don't have a life. That's just crazy to me.

Is the current situation different than normal times?

Esubalew:

It's tough. I think the lack of awareness is the same and the issues are largely the same, but their importance is elevated now.

For example, when I travel to work on public transportation, I always have to reach for a handle or guard rail without seeing who's there or knowing who touched it last. And I always have to hold and fold my cane after not knowing who touched it or maybe who spit on the floor or something else.

Or, if there's a sign on the bathroom saying it's out of order, I don't know that and I might try to go in.

I'm not saying I need to be a special case, but I do need to be informed.

But now when I'm not informed, it can be more dangerous.

Most guidelines say to stay at least six feet apart. Can you do that?

Esubalew:

If I had the information I need to do that, then I could, but that information isn't really being made available.

Some of the strategies that work in normal times don't work as well now.

For example, normally if I go to a grocery store or any store, I'll go to the counter and let them know I need shopper assistance. But, how can we stay six or ten feet apart if they're helping me shop? I might hold one end of the cart, they hold the other, but still, that's not six feet.

Remember, our hands are our eyes. So to tell if fruit is bruised or make other decisions, I have to feel it. And I don't know who else is touching it before me, or after me for that matter. Social distancing is a bigger challenge now.

If shopper assistance could be done from a safer distance, would that be the answer?

Esubalew:

Again, it's tough. You might need one or two things, and waiting for shopper assistance could take ten minutes, forty minutes, an hour, or longer.

Somebody might think I need over-the-top assistance, and they might think 'oh, that's how blind people are,' and that's not even close. But there are no other great options when items in the store have changed since the last time I've been in it, so I memorized where things are and now it's different, and the employees are too busy to help.

Sometimes you will get told, 'We don't have anybody today so you can come back another day.' It's not a pleasant experience. You get disappointed and hurt.

Those are the moments where I wish I could just turn my vision on like a light switch and do it on my own.

So distance isn't the only issue here. As employees are even busier and more distracted, this can't be the only way for providing equal shopping access.

How, specifically, does this model exclude people?

Esubalew:

Everything is so visual, so as a blind person, I don't know if there's a sticker directing me where to stand or a sign on the door that has instructions. If you can't see it, you just don't know.

Some people, when they see you entering a store, will tell you what the sign says or what the rules are, and I always appreciate and thank those people, but you can't rely on someone like that being there.

It's just like everything else, really. A wet floor sign or a construction sign doesn't help me if I have to bump into it to know it's there. Or even with a website, people want it to be beautiful, but they don't think about if anybody can use it with a keyboard.

It's limiting because it's visual.

Have you encountered any establishments that are recognizing these shortcomings and successfully adapting to serve their customers?

Esubalew:

I've been out and about less because I've been working from home and because of some of the issues we're talking about. But the places who know me very well know how to accommodate me, whether it's letting me know the restroom is occupied or where to stand for social distancing.

You know, it's very obvious that I'm blind, but a lot of people are not observant, I guess because they're so involved in what they're doing.

What, specifically, should establishments know about equal access as they begin to reopen?

Esubalew:

They should know that just putting signs or labels does not mean that everyone can see those signs. That’s not accessible to everyone, just to the majority, which is the sighted population. But also the fact that just because we're the minority doesn't mean we don't need access to do the same things.

No matter who you are, at the end of the day you're a human being and you should be accepted and cared about.

What can establishments do to make sure everyone is provided the same information for safe social habits?

Esubalew:

Let me first say that I know it's tough for businesses — I definitely understand that.

I think the most important thing is seriously to be aware of who is coming in and out, and to communicate that to employees and customers as needed.

For example, if an employee discreetly let customers know that someone is in the store who it might be more difficult for to practice social distancing, they'd be better prepared to keep themselves at a safe distance and they'd be more understanding if I accidentally did touch their ankles with my cane.

Even if there was somebody to tell me as I enter a line that there's someone in front of me and when to move forward, that's not an expensive or difficult thing to put in place, but it would keep me and others safer.

Audio cues could be implemented in some way, too.

Or even, ropes like when you're at the airport, except in addition to keeping people in line, you can also clip and unclip the barriers to keep people six feet apart as they move forward.

None of these things would require any permanent structural changes or anything expensive at all.

Something raised or tactile on the floor in addition to the stickers could work as well, but it should be done carefully and with input from a lot of people, so that unintentional trip hazards aren't created.

It isn't easy. I know that. But it isn't impossible. I also don't think what works in one place means it will work in another.

Awareness might be the most important thing.

While this interview is not specific to digital accessibility, the message is too important not to publish. Please share with anyone who might benefit from reading. Awareness might be the most important thing.

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