Image of a blank menu on a table.

A Braille Menu Please

I think we live in a society that does not value diversity, difference or disability. If anything, our society sees anything other than sameness as a burden, bother or threat, unless it is temporarily convenient to view it as otherwise to meet an ableist objective. We don’t seem to realise that it is our cultural, community and communication values, as well as the systems and structures we continue to put in place that are the real problem. We continue to overlook the untapped potential and unused resources of our vast and creative population. But for what purpose?

It is our intricacies that necessitate the drive for innovation, and it is our need to belong that brings us together and pulls humanity into the future. But what happens when we continue to create barriers to participation? Not only does it hold people with disability to ransom, and ensures they remain beholden to a society that is intent on punishing them for it, but it also keeps the majority captive. For if people with disability are not free to explore, find and function to their fullest capacities, then neither is the rest of society, because it is too busy oscillating between caring and complaining about the hostages of its own insistence.

The fact is, many of history’s greatest inventions, and our most used modern essentials have stemmed from difference, diversity and disability. The qwerty keyboard, automatic doors, elevators, curb ramps, audible traffic signals, closed captions and voice input/output are just a few items that come to mind when thinking of disability driven product placement. Not to mention countless other gadgets and technologies that the greater able-bodied collective either take for granted, or shamelessly hijack as their own, with little to no regard for how or why they were introduced in the beginning.

A Braille Menu

When it comes to the hospitality industry, braille menus are likely to be the last priority of an institution, operator or owner, if considered at all. The push for braille menus has gone on for decades, with varied levels of success. However, nothing substantial has ever come from it, apart from the occasional cafe providing them as an act of good faith or accommodation for an individual usually known or connected to the business in some way, and the odd chain of restaurants, which although may be sincere in their approach to accessibility, sometimes run the risk of it coming across as yet another ableist, feel good gimmick invented by a big company for their own ends.

In my experience, the blind and low vision community is all too often ignored, invalidated or exploited by the market. When it comes to inclusion, although we ask, argue and advocate for it, I can’t help but be a little sceptical and suspicious of the motive when it is actually offered, actioned and implemented. Individuals, organisations and industry have a history of using, abusing and refusing the needs, wants and rights of people with disability, so I can’t say I’m surprised by the lack of braille menus offered by venues.

However, this is not a one sided affair. When it comes to the advocacy of braille menus throughout cafes, restaurants, fast food outlets, bars, pubs and coffee carts, we as a blind and low vision community cannot seem to present a united front. This only leaves the decision makers confused, bewildered and overwhelmed by our internal bickering, power playing and contradictory demands. Therefore, is it any wonder our calls for a more equitable stake in society remain unharvested?

The fact is, not every person who is blind or has low vision can read braille, but this is no excuse for not providing it for those who can. It’s not simply because braille is too hard to read. Indeed, it is a totally different way of thinking if you’re used to a world of twenty-six simple letters lined up like pretty little ducks in a row. Its Morse code like dots, and extreme reliance on context and combination can seem like an impossible mystery never to be revealed to the newcomer. However, like anything, once you understand the rules, and can see the logic and patterns, it all begins to make sense, and a girl wonders how she ever lived without its magical powers of translation.

However, for some, learning braille is simply not possible. Legitimate medical conditions that strip the feeling from people’s fingers or snatch the comprehension from their brains can render the option of braille out of reach. Therefore, in these cases, the cries for more technology based alternatives are completely valid, viable and justifiable, and as so often is the case when designing for a minority, the majority will pick it up and use it in ways it was never intended, so why not offer a choice of mediums and let the customer decide?

It’s not that I take issue with electronic options or specific artificial intelligence technologies over a simple, hard copy braille or large print format. Are you kidding? I love the digital realm. I take issue with the assumption that these smart paths to least resistance are the answer for everything, when really they are an illusion of inclusion and equity invented to shut us up like a court jester who is tossed a bone, while others sit at the table gorging themselves on a veritable feast.

I understand that learning braille can be a heavily weighted chore, full of unspoken implications, inferences and emotions, rather than the path to empowerment the way I experienced it. Some people may completely reject braille as a viable modality for them, which is absolutely fine. However, there are those who actively choose not to read braille, then defend their lack of literacy loudly and proudly, wearing it like a badge of honourable victimhood. They try to take braille from the rest of us under a cloak of discrimination and unfairness. They can’t read it, so why should anyone else benefit?

So with this mixed message being sent into an already ableist ether looking for an escape route, intent on ignorance, eager to keep people with disability locked into a charitable model, it is all too easy for progress to halt. The too hard basket is brought in filled with accusations of there’s not enough of you to bother, promises of we’ll get to it, and placations of look how far we’ve come, when really we haven’t come that far at all.

This is evident in the current trend of putting one or another derivative of inclusion, accessible and ability in front of almost every slogan. But if we really were an inclusive society, the way we often like to believe, we wouldn’t need such terms to be wheeled out from side-show alley to illustrate the fact. They would be redundant, and seen for the frivolousness that they are.

Goodwill Hunting

When dealing with the various forms of professional hospitality on offer in our society, as a person who is blind or has low vision, I should not be railroaded into relying on an overworked and underpaid staff member to maybe run through the specials board if I’m lucky, and then make my choice in a timely manner, which in my experience is somewhere between ten and maybe fifteen seconds.

After all, they’re busy, and I should be grateful for their generosity in even acknowledging me at all, let alone providing me the rather limited, and now thanks to their impatience or condescending tone, the somewhat humiliating opportunity to frequent an establishment. Because yes, I asked for this, I think as they tap their pen, look away, clatter the dishes, mouth to a co-worker, or any number of indications of their unhappiness and my inconvenience.

They don’t seem to realise that I’m just as put out as they are at my forced illiteracy. Reading to someone is an extremely intimate gesture, and it’s a lot to ask or expect from a total stranger. It forces each of us to expose a vulnerability and discomfort that we would prefer to keep to ourselves. The reality is, many people are not comfortable in dealing with people with disability in the first place, let alone confident reading aloud.

To be put on the spot like that not only reveals their own shame and inadequacy to the world, and let’s be honest, nobody wants to be seen as anything but competent, purposeful and in control, but it also opens up a whole host of potential innate judgements, feelings and fears that wouldn’t otherwise surface for them if only I wasn’t dependent on their goodwill or obligation. But it’s my fault for exposing them to such unwanted self-reflection and potential reproach, right?

I understand why people react the way they do, and why in turn I’ll do almost anything to spare us from the exchange where possible. If I can see they’re struggling, in a rush or on edge, I’ll often choose the first thing they suggest, even if it’s the last thing I want, just to end the social contract as quickly and painlessly as possible. Their awkwardness, discomfort, resentment or frustration at having to go above and beyond is unpleasant, when all I want is to have a nice meal or a quiet drink with friends. This display of hostility, no matter how carefully hidden, always shines through and leaves me feeling like shit.

So why would I want to push the envelope, or insist on equity and polite treatment? Why make things any worse than they already are in the immediate? My default position in such situations is not to eat anything. I allow myself to breezily gloss over the question mark all together with a justification of oh, I’m not hungry anyway, and other such feeble accommodations, ensuring society can feel better about itself.

As a woman with disability, that’s how I’m conditioned. It may be subtle, but it is there. I’ll instead opt for a cup of coffee in a cafe, a lemonade at a roadside cart, or a gin and tonic in a bar. Those are staples I know will be readily available, requiring minimal conversation between me and a staff member. After all, I don’t want to be a bother, just as they don’t want me to be one either.

I try not to examine the situation too deeply in all that it means, be it for me, or the establishment in question, because it only makes me frustrated. It’s frustrating that a simple solution such as a single braille menu is easily obtained, and could save us all so much heartache. And not just me and the staff, but my friends, or whomever I happen to be with or without in any given hospitality situation.

It’s fine, you say. It’s their job, you say. It’s just a small thing, you say with a well-meaning smile and the wave of your hand, as though my right to read a menu in my own way, in my own time, in any order I please is not a basic human right. You’re worried about nothing, you say again when I try to express that it is important to me, because access to information is essentially access to equity, and without that, I have nothing. I’ve nothing but the guilt and shame of my inability to contribute to society in a way which you take for granted, but I assign much credence to because of its glaring absence in my reality.

For most, advocacy is a luxury, not a lifestyle. It’s something you can walk away from if it gets too much, too mundane or too meaningless. But I don’t get that kind of indulgence. If I don’t advocate, I don’t get. I’m surrounded by signs, signals and sights I’m unable to interact with, because somebody who doesn’t even realise how much they rely on reading to function in the community gets to make the decision for me. Unfortunately, the decision is mostly to inadvertently exclude me from the situation entirely. This creates more work for all of us as we attempt to bridge an unnecessary but often awkward and overwhelming chasm of misunderstanding, mistrust and misidentification.

The fact is, I shouldn’t have to rely on building a relationship or a good rapport with someone in order to get some semblance of service, especially when there’s another easy alternative available, such as the provision of a braille menu. Surely investing what little it costs in arranging an alternatively formatted menu would be returned immeasurably.

Firstly, it reduces the workload of staff who would no longer be obliged to take time away from their tasks to read to me like I’m a child. Additionally, staff tend to take the liberty of cherry picking what they think may or may not be of interest or logic to me in a bid to be efficient, but in fact achieve the opposite. It only leads me to ask more questions as the gaps in the information being imparted become more obvious, and I need further clarification or detail to make a decision.

Providing a braille menu as a matter of course, no questions, no excuses, no matter the establishment, would increase not only my goodwill, but the goodwill and potential repeat patronage of my family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. I may be only one person, but I know many, and those many know many more, and those many know many more. So to underestimate my influence as a person with a disability, who is traditionally discounted, devalued and divorced from the demographic of consideration, is potentially a lost gold mine of patronage, publicity and profit. I may be invisible, but this does not make me ineffective.

There’s An App For That

But what about technology, you say, whipping out your smart phone, or pointing at mine as though it solves everything. Here is what you fail to acknowledge. Inferring there’s an app for that, or a technology, is again putting the onus on me as the person with a disability to solve the problem. As a society, we are notorious for continually shifting the burden of equality back onto people with disability, suggesting they deal with a compromise that is not ideal, but surely will do. After all, the rest of the community can manage, so why can’t you?

Adaptive technology can be broken into two distinct strands. Firstly, there is the artificial intelligence based products such as print scanners, facial recognition, text to speech output, object identification and all sorts of specific programmable software. They can range from something as simple as a colour clarification or currency identifier application, to something as highly sophisticated as an autonomous car.

Secondly, there are the remote assistance programs. These involve either taking a photo or video using a traditional smart device or wearable technology, uploading it into a cloud based platform, and having someone in a different location give feedback on the product, service or resource the user is trying to access. This family includes Skype and Facetime. In the case of someone who is blind or has low vision, an entire industry is emerging based on this trend of human to human based interaction.

Although it sounds good on the surface, there are many unanswered questions regarding the ethicality of these mediums, including personal privacy, data protection, legal context, fraud and accuracy of information. To my mind, it is all too easy to take advantage of the user’s vulnerability if someone so wanted to for whatever reason, and it’s only a matter of time before such abuses hit the headlines.

In more practical, down to earth terms, relying on a smart phone or device is a high-cost exercise in time, energy, cognition and concentration that I cannot always afford, or is not always appropriate. First I have to search for and hopefully access a particular website, then ascertain whether it’s accessible to my text to speech technology. Chances are it won’t be, as the digital gap is an impossible crater that continues to grow, despite what popular opinion would have us believe.

If it is accessible, I then need to become totally absorbed in trying to navigate and listen to the options being spoken. All this takes me away from engaging with my physical surroundings properly. Therefore, providing only a digital alternative for a menu, be it in the form of an app or website, may seem like a gift of equity, but it comes at a price. I have to decide what part of the context I’m going to rob in order to pay off the other.

For example, when using a smart phone or device, particularly when text to speech is activated, I need two hands. One hand is required to hold the phone, and the other to double tap, three-finger swipe, twist or scroll. This not only takes physical effort and attention, but having to absorb or supply the auditory information over other noise means that my capacity for paying attention to multiple stimuli is significantly lowered.

So what do I give up? Do I release my child’s hand, the cane or guide dog I use as a mobility device, or the extra bags I might be carrying? At least with braille, it’s a one-handed operation. Place it on a counter, table top or even a wall. I can still listen and interact with my environment and the people around me while reading, with minimal interruption to my multi-tasking.

A digital menu, and the way I have to access it, takes me away from focusing on the specific and often time-poor interaction with the person taking my order, as I double check my options. It takes me away, or excludes me altogether from the conversation with my companions. If the technology fails, someone is forced to read the menu to me, which takes from their enjoyment of the situation.

Worst of all, it takes from my capacity to look after my daughter, and for what? To find a menu that I may or may not be able to access. It hardly seems worth it. The fact is, when a braille menu is not provided, it isn’t just me who suffers. It’s my family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and even strangers who also have to wear the repercussions of my entrapment.

What happens when it’s just me and my daughter? At worst, we don’t go out at all. At best, she sees her mummy struggle through a negotiation that wouldn’t occur if a braille menu was offered in the first place. I miss out on the joy of reading her the items and discussing the choices on offer. She misses out on a powerful learning experience, not only in social etiquette, but in discovering new food combinations, ingredients and vocabulary. How is that fair? Not only does it set me up to fail at teaching her the ways of the world, but it strips me of an opportunity for intimacy and engagement with my three-year-old that I would otherwise have if a braille menu was available.

The relief and sense of empowerment in being able to read something for myself is invaluable, not only for me and countless others, but for the little person I’m raising. She is not my carer, she’s my child, and like any child, she deserves to be one. Her job is to be enchanted, distracted, fascinated and fun-loving. My job is to encourage and enable her to grow, flourish and be herself. Sure, we can work as a team, but that should be a choice, not a chore. She shouldn’t have to learn to read out of necessity because the infrastructure isn’t in place for her mummy to do so. How is that fair for anyone?

When I’m alone, providing the stars align, the service is good, connectivity is active, the site accessible, and my smart phone or device has enough charge and credit, then an electronic menu is a doable option. But you have to admit, there are a lot of factors in this scenario, and it only takes one to be out of place for the precariousness and unreliability of the resource to be realised.

I’m not against digitality itself, but view it as a companion to print and braille. I don’t believe it’s robust enough to be relied upon as a stand alone component of accessible business. A lot of detail goes into creating an accessible app or website, but despite all the guidelines, articles, case studies and good news stories about why, how and when it works, the message doesn’t seem to translate into real life.

I understand the increasing reliance on smart devices and wireless technologies to provide an alternative menu reading experience, but these should not and cannot be considered the only option. Sure, they may seem progressive, streamlined and suitable, but nothing will ever replace the sense of certainty, safety and security of being able to identify and understand a physical menu.

If anything, digital menus, or specific blind or low vision apps, are more complex, more difficult to maintain and more of an overload than anything. Calling something accessible doesn’t make it so, and this is certainly true in the hospitality industry. Simply put, there can be no replacement for the instantaneous feedback of vision, and often these menu reading apps, websites and technologies don’t deliver on what they promise. They should not be seen as the easy, lazy way out in a highly competitive industry with high turnover and a high failure rate.

With the advent of smart, wearable technology, the world of hospitality is certainly opening up. However, these adaptive devices are hideously expensive, and again shift the burden of accessibility away from the hospitality industry and back onto the person with a disability. I’m required to provide my own resource. But if I were sighted, the resource would be provided for me by the venue or establishment as a matter of business.

It ever so cleverly implies that once more, I need to bend to the restrictive but widely accepted and rarely questioned model of society in place, rather than the model itself being inclusive and inviting for everyone. If there were ever a model based on making people feel welcome, it is the hospitality industry, so why it continues to ignore the needs of people with disability is beyond me.

A Braille Menu Makes Cents

Providing a braille menu is not the same as providing a menu in another language. It does not create a precedent for second languages in and of itself. Braille, as with a digital presence, is simply the same information presented in another form other than traditional print.

The fact is, no amount of studying is going to make those printed words miraculously appear on the page in front of me, no matter how diligent I am. This isn’t me stubbornly refusing to assimilate, adjust or adhere to a dominant culture or communication style. This is a simple matter of disability. Physically, I am unable to read print, and it’s no more complex than that.

I don’t ask for a braille menu as a matter of principle, to prove a point, or for personal gain, although it obviously involves all these things. I ask because it’s practical. It’s as practical, as easily produced, and often fairly comparable in price to a print menu, so there really is no excuse for not providing it.

I don’t suggest punching braille into every menu in every establishment. That would be unnecessary and ineffective. Plus, there’s the cost of maintenance to consider. Let’s face it, it seems that flattening braille dots just because they are there, located within easy reach of the public sphere is almost as irresistible as popping bubble-wrap found inside a parcel.

The difference being that although there is something satisfying about squashing a textured surface into submission, unlike the inconsequential bubble-wrap, the erasing of one or more braille cells will change a word, a meaning or an entire context, thereby potentially rendering the whole document, and by extension, the reason for it being there in the first place, completely useless. Therefore, I’m merely suggesting the provision of one, two, or a few braille menus per venue depending on the size and scope of the establishment. It’s a small change that can make a big difference.

But reading a menu is no big deal, you say. We’re here to help, you say. All you have to do is ask, you say. Sure, that’s fine for you. You only see it as an isolated incident, and not something I have to go through every single occasion I want to eat, drink, revisit or mull over something on a menu.

How many times have you silently perused a menu only to discuss it further with your friends? How many times have you glanced at a menu only to make sure that you didn’t want dessert after all? How many times have you poured over a menu to decide which cocktail you were going to try next? How many times have you looked at a menu and simply walked away? How many times have you wondered what it would be like if you couldn’t read a menu of your own accord?

Oh, how proud, accomplished and valued I would be if I could simply run my finger down the page, just as you do with your eyes, to make my own decisions. How freeing and liberating it would be to actually actively read and comprehend the text for myself in any situation, because that’s what equity looks like. It’s not a special accommodation, it’s not a compromise, it’s not a simulation, it is the provision of an equivalent experience that allows me to mind my own business, and you to mind yours.

Braille is nothing more and nothing less than an equivalent to print on a page for those of us who can read it. All I’m asking for is to be freed from this cycle of dependency when it comes to the simple dignity that accompanies reading a menu. By freeing me, you are freeing yourself from the shackles of sociology that bind us, so that we can find a new way of creating a better, more inclusive society for everyone.

A simple solution to a simple problem is not that hard to implement. Providing a braille menu is worth more than you think, because if a braille menu can empower me and you, then how many other people will it empower? The possibilities are endless, so let’s do it. Let’s get braille menus into the hospitality industry as a matter of course, and they can thank us later.

Start by having the conversation about braille menus with your local politicians, business owners, heads of industry, social media influences, journalists, podcasters, disc jockeys and everyone in your sphere. Start speaking to your cafes, bars, pubs, night clubs, local clubs, tea houses, coffee carts, restaurants, hotel chains, food franchises and anywhere else that dishes up great hospitality.

Changing the social landscape has to start somewhere, right? You are only one person, but you know many, and those many know many more, and those many know many more. So let it start here, and see what we can accomplish, because together we can make a meaningful difference. Inclusion gives far more than it takes. Aren’t you at least a little bit curious about what it can do?

Posted in The Business Of Accessibility and tagged , , , , , , .