Ariane Zurcher Headshot

When Impairments Are Accommodated

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Ariane Zurcher Headshot

When Impairments Are Accommodated

Posted: Updated:

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Neil Harbisson's TEDTalk, "I Listen to Color", reminded me of a post I wrote on my blog about synesthesia where I quoted Synesthete.org: "Synesthesia is a perceptual condition of mixed sensations: a stimulus in one sensory modality (e.g., hearing) involuntarily elicits a sensation/experience in another modality (e.g., vision). Likewise, perception of a form (e.g., a letter) may induce an unusual perception in the same modality (e.g., color)."

The comments on that post, almost all from autistic people, were far more riveting than the original post. What was particularly interesting was that while synesthesia and autism are not scientifically linked, many autistic people talk about being highly sensitive to sound, movement, light, other people's feelings, so much so that in order to cope with the constant bombardment, many do things that are calming, but that society, schools, psychologists and specialists perceive as "behaviors" or actions that must be eliminated or trained away.

Intensity of the senses is not the same as senses that overlap and mix, but the result may sometimes be the same. So for example, if looking into another person's eyes is physically painful because the information received is overwhelming or as one autistic person I know said, "it's like seeing into the depths of another's soul" or others describe it as akin to an act of aggression and so they look away, or if a particular sound frequency is too intense, the person has to cover their ears and hum or rocks their body to regulate themselves, but no one else can hear the sound or do not perceive it as intense or even loud, those actions are often criticized. The person might be told to "look at me when I'm speaking to you" or "stop humming" or admonished, "Why do you have to move your body like that?"

Did people respond to him with curiosity or even ridicule when they realized he could not discern color? If one were to take away his charisma and ability to articulate what he sees and now is able to hear, would he be treated with fear? -- Ariane Zurcher

When Neil Harbisson says, "Someone might look very beautiful, but sound terrible," the audience laughs. But it made me wonder, does Neil feel compelled to look away when he sees someone who "sounds terrible?" He describes how he can arrange food in such a way as to create a symphony. Does he move his body in accordance to music only he can hear? Was he treated differently as a child? Did people respond to him with curiosity or even ridicule when they realized he could not discern color? If one were to take away his charisma and ability to articulate what he sees and now is able to hear, would he be treated with fear?

Neil had to fight the passport office, "I insisted to the passport office that what they were seeing was actually a new part of my body, an extension of my brain and they finally accepted me to appear with a passport photo." He successfully argued that the metal device that allows him to hear color is a part of him and not an accessory. If we are to accommodate others and provide people with the devices they need to have basic needs met, such as communication devices for those who cannot speak, but who type, this is very good news indeed. An autistic teenager, Carly Fleischmann made headline news when an airline refused her access to her communication device during takeoff and landing. Carly protested, "My iPad to me is like a voice."

Shouldn't we accommodate all people whether the devices they use are to communicate -- eyeglasses to see, wheelchairs to move, hearing aids to hear, service animals to guide or calm or, as is the case with Neil Harbisson, the device he created to hear color?

Neil Harbisson's TEDTalk gives us a great deal to consider. The medical model of disability states that a person is made disabled by their impairments, which negatively impact one's quality of life. The social model of disability asserts that impairment, when not accommodated, becomes a disability, but when appropriate accommodations are in place the "disability" will no longer exist.

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