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3 Things My Granny Taught Me About Accessibility

My granny is one of my favorite people–always has been; always will be. Our family matriarch is passionate about her children and grandchildren, sewing, crosswords, and craft shows.  As a child of the Great Depression, she insists on getting a good bargain–so much so, that we once drove three hours each way to have lunch at a place that advertised “Meals $1, Pie $1, Drinks Free with Meal.”

Granny’s no-nonsense approach to life, combined with her quick wit, has transformed many strangers into friends.  She has spent her life dancing, laughing, kazoo-ing–and I will be forever grateful for the embarrassing times when she insisted I hum and dance along with her.  Today, arthritis makes Granny’s 50-foot walk to dinner feel like a marathon and cataracts cloud her ability to see details.  But, her personality remains as sassy as ever.  She is the same Granny I have adored all my life.

Last month, my mom and I spent our week-long vacation with Granny, helping care for her during her two-week stay in an assisted living rehabilitation center.  Between visits from occupational therapists and nursing assistants, we giggled about Granny’s life as a single woman during World War II and reminisced about days spent on the Mississippi River during my childhood.  My only goal that week was to soak up everything I could about my granny.  

While there, I couldn’t help but notice, and begin to fixate, on the clock hanging on the wall of Granny’s rehabilitation room.  I should mention again: Granny’s vision is fading.  She often requires a verbal “hello” to know it is me when I enter her room.  The clock that hung in her rehabilitation room was dark and offered very little contrast between the colors of the Roman numerals and the background. The clock didn’t make sound and it was clear that Granny had no ability to tell time on that clock.  At lunch, I noticed another clock hanging in the dining room.  It was different, but had the same dark, low-contrast face. I watched Granny and the other residents at lunch.  I observed that not one of them looked at the clock–not even when a woman seated at Granny’s table asked for the time.  It was then I noticed another clock–the one on my granny’s wrist. She glanced down and informed her hall mate that it was 12:35 PM.  Granny’s small one-inch watch provided enough contrast for her to tell time, more so than any of the large clocks hanging in her living spaces.  I thought this was ironic given that we were in an assisted living rehabilitation center.

Please know, the fashionista in me greatly appreciates the effort put into creating an environment that is aesthetically pleasing for Granny and the other residents.  The clocks are beautiful and well-coordinated with the other décor.  However, Granny and the other residents didn’t even know the items hanging on the walls were clocks.  They were merely dark circles hanging at eye level.  I wondered, aren’t there clocks that can meet BOTH needs?  Clocks that are beautiful AND useful for Granny and her hall mates?  Clocks that are universally-designed?  I thought about the clock I recently purchased at IKEA.  My IKEA clock is not special ordered out of a disability catalog and it is not expensive.  But, it offers brilliant contrast, a 20-inch face, large numbers, AND style.  I thought Granny and her friends would really like my IKEA clock.

Granny, her hall mates, and the clocks reminded me how important accessibility is to all of us.  A few ideas seem especially applicable. 

1) Disability is a natural part of the human experience.  Watching Granny age and change reminds me that all of us have—or will—experience disability in some way.  Disability can happen when you sprain your ankle and are forced to maneuver your environment in new ways.  It can happen when you have a tooth pulled and have to experiment with various soft foods. However, Granny also reminds me that we are surrounded by tools, resources, and supports that help minimize the impact of disability.  Our job is to make sure the supports are available and accessible to those who need them.  

2) Environment matters.  Granny’s experience in her assisted living apartment reiterates that it isn’t solely a “disability” that is disabling; environment also plays a major role. Granny can tell time, even with compromised vision.  However, the clocks in her environment exaggerated her decreased vision and disabled her ability to tell time.  We all have items in our environment that assist–and challenge–us in our daily lives.  The good news is we have the ability to manipulate our environments to better suit our needs.  Considering the impact of small things –like clock design–is a simple, yet powerful tool in reducing the impact of “disability” on daily life activities.

3) Sometimes you don’t have to think too far outside of the box.  The greatest solution to a complex challenge is often the simplest one.  Granny’s visual impairments could be mitigated with intricate, painful, and expensive eye surgeries.  However, my $40 IKEA clock moderates her visual impairments enough to serve her need to tell time.  I know Granny’s visual needs will continue to evolve.  As they do, we can provide her with additional environmental supports, perhaps a digital clock with large numbers, a talking clock, or vibrating watch–all of which are a quick Google search and online order away.  

These lessons provide guidance on supporting students with disabilities in inclusive settings.  Remember, all students have unique needs.  Some students require extensive supports.  It is our job to provide accessible tools and resources to help all students make progress in the general education curriculum.  When considering how best to support your students, consider this question: What is the simplest thing I can do to make the biggest impact?  Ask yourself, “What is my IKEA clock?”

- Jessica Meisenheimer

Jessica Meisenheimer, Ph.D. has worn many hats in her years as an educator … teaching first grade students to graduate students … working in urban to suburban settings … instructing as a general and special educator. Jessica’s current work as a Research Project Coordinator for the Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation (SWIFT) Center applies her knowledge and experience for the benefit of diverse students across the U.S. She is passionate about finding ways to better serve all students by implementing inclusive school reform, examining educational policy, and utilizing multi-tiered systems of support.