Using Technology to Promote Disability Awareness
This episode of Our Voices focuses on Gavin, a man who has dedicated himself to promoting disability awareness and changing attitudes towards disability.
The importance of fairness
Fairness is something which has been a crucial principle for Gavin since childhood. He grew up as a middle child and the siblings would often squabble. “My mum would always have to separate us and try and balance things out evenly and make sure that we all got something when something was being given out.”
Illustrating how far Gavin’s mother would go to ensure fairness was maintained, Gavin describes how the rare treat of a chocolate bar would be evenly distributed.
“Instead of just breaking it in half and giving a bit to one and a bit to the other… she would pass the Mars bar to one of us and give us a knife and say, one of you cut it, and the other one, choose which half you want… You’ve never seen two boys measuring a Mars bar as efficiently as we did back then.”
Gavin picked up on his mother’s appreciation for fairness and he has channelled this into his own life. He also happens to be a Libra, a star sign which is renowned for its appreciation of balance.
First experiences of working with those with disabilities
After finishing school, Gavin joined the RAF, did his basic training and then became a police dog handler. He left the forces at the age of 27 and wanted to focus on doing something which would give back to the community.
Consequently, he started working as a guide dog mobility instructor. Although Gavin was comfortable working with the dogs, he was nervous about interacting with those who were blind or partially sighted due to his lack of disability awareness. “I felt myself avoiding words like ‘Do you see what I mean?’ Or, or trying not to say things like ‘it’s over there’. And everything about my natural normal conversation just disappeared because I realised I was just anxious.”
Interacting with people with disabilities
Fortunately, an older colleague, called Linda, helped Gavin to raise his level of disability awareness. Linda had visually impairment but it wasn’t this aspect of her which struck Gavin the most.
“She was gregarious and friendly, and charismatic, and smiley…just really, really friendly.”
His experiences with Linda helped to put him at ease and reduce his feelings of anxiety relating to his new role. Gavin realised that the best way to interact with the people he was working with was to treat them with friendship. He could then discover the best way to provide for his clients’ needs.
Gavin ended up working with hundreds of people who had visual impairments. He describes the best part of the job as being the moment when his client was ready to leave the centre with their new guide dog.
Seeing discrimination firsthand
Gavin was particularly affected by his experiences with a client named John, a man who had visible facial differences due to a fireworks incident.
“John was a great guy, and he was actually a professor, very intelligent and cerebral. I was able to have fantastic conversations with him when we were training or when we were just having a cup of tea.”
But while Gavin was grabbing a coffee with John after one of their training sessions, he noticed something that made him feel uncomfortable. John had paid for the coffees and handed over his credit card. The sales assistant then, rather strangely, attempted to pass the card back to Gavin. Trying to understand the logic of this, Gavin says
“Now, John, being blind, they might go, well, how does he know where my hand is? Do I have to touch his hand? They would feel a bit nervous or anxious about making contact… it’s ignorance with a small “i” on their part, they probably don’t mean to offend, but they just don’t know what to do.
After this, another incident occurred which Gavin found even more disturbing. The two men sat down to drink their coffee and Gavin noticed that passersby were staring at John and then whispering to each other. “Even though he couldn’t see them staring and he couldn’t see their facial expressions, I could. And it upset me that they didn’t just see John.”
Focusing on disability awareness
Due to Gavin’s instincts regarding fairness and equality, these incidents could easily have led to him losing his temper. But he realised that anger would not help to solve the situation. In fact it would only serve to give people “a negative association with disabled people.”
Thus, Gavin has dedicated himself to changing how society treats the disabled by making the situation positive. He has done this by increasing disability awareness. “When it comes to an interaction by a receptionist, or a shopkeeper or customer service representative, it’s got to come down to their awareness of disability.”
Gavin has done this by developing an App called “Welcome” which is designed to improve customer service approaches when interacting with people with disabilities. Explaining how the App works, Gavin says:
“we’ll just imagine Linda with her guide dog walking into a shop. Linda’s using that application. And because of that the person in the shop goes “Right this is Linda, Linda is a guide dog owner. Make sure you introduce yourself. Don’t talk to Linda’s guide dog, offer Linda your arm, don’t take Linda’s arm if you’re giving a sighted guide. When you’re walking away from Linda, make sure you say goodbye and say you’re going.”
Now, if you know that an hour before you meet Linda, when you meet Linda, you put all this into practice.”
“Welcome” uses information from a range of charities so that people are informed and prepared for when a person with a disability is going to use their service. People with disabilities can let staff members know which product they wish to purchase, what size, how they want to pay and many other things so that the customer service person is able to have everything fully-prepared.
As well as helping people with disabilities get better customer service. Gavin believes that ‘Welcome’ will change interactions more generally by raising society’s consciousness on disability awareness and, thereby, foster disability inclusion.
“What we are doing when we make sure everybody in our society has access to information is we are changing the way society interacts. Now, this is such a big idea. It’s massive.”