The Cost of Safety?

I signed up for a free class at my local Braille Institute (BI) and received a letter informing me of a new policy.  I will be required to wear a print name badge with colored lanyard – green for student, blue for staff and red for volunteer.  I loath and typically refuse to use name tags in any form because they grant sighted people a social advantage.  I was indignant that an organization serving blind and visually impaired individuals would require me to do this detestable thing.  Of course I marched into an administrative office and expressed my discontent which began what I hope is a dialogue leading to policy change.

BI has reasonable concerns about security heightened by the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  They want a means to identify who is allowed on campus versus who might be unauthorized in order to prevent tragedy.  Additionally, there are concerns about identifying people in a disaster situation.  By displaying name and status, they can know who should be present which will keep everyone safe.

Another reason given involved promoting social interaction by allowing names to be known.  In fact, some students have been asking for name tags.  (An excellent example of how people with the same disability can have drastically different preferences.)

Indeed, name tags are a great social lubricant.  Aside from the pragmatic benefits to name recall, people can also address each other by name, granting an essence of friendliness and familiarity to conversations.  Not being able to read name tags denies someone all this social ease.

Blind people are already at a social disadvantage because of society’s eye contact and body language heavy communication patterns.  Heaping more disadvantage onto that is suboptimal and unnecessary.  Though we might not be able to make our culture suddenly cease utilizing visual communication, we can at least not bless sighted people with more social advantage while compounding the amount of social disadvantage blind people shoulder.

Furthermore, because a blind person is forced to repeatedly ask for names, their difference is emphasized in a way that highlights an inability.  It becomes yet one more thing I cannot do that I must broadcast each time I ask for a name. Even in a blind and visually impaired population, a division will still be demarcated between those who can see enough to read the name tags and those of us who cannot.  Advantage for some, disadvantage for others.

Some argue that even if I cannot read other’s name tags, their ability to read mine allows them to overcome communication barriers by giving them a name by which to gain my attention.  Unfortunately, when I have capitulated to the demand of labeling myself, I have noticed no increased social engagement.  And I use the word “label” specifically because putting on that piece of paper doesn’t just give my name, it makes my disability larger than it already looms.

This leads to my second objection – color coding people into the categories of staff, volunteer and student.  In and of itself, color coding can be highly useful as evidence by sports teams, hospital I.D. bracelets and summer camps the world over.  We do not, however, put all the kids in need of special reading help in red shirts, require anyone over age 55 to wear a silver armband or demand people with a specific disability wear a sign.

It is an unavoidable truth that in this situation denoting student status inevitably and accurately indicates disability status.  Because people with disabilities are a protected class known to experience discrimination and violence solely based upon that status, we should not be literally marked as such.

Furthermore, in terms of safety, anyone labeled blind by color or the word student becomes that much more vulnerable.  Who better to victimize than a person you know will have trouble seeing you?  Thus, marking me as a student clearly identifies me as the ideal target.

I understand and support the idea of having a means to know who should and should not be on BI’s premises.  I also recognize the unfortunate necessity for people to carry some sort of I.D. in case of medical emergency or body identification.  I believe there are means to address these concerns without utilizing problematic tools.  Insisting all students carry identification is a place to start.  Having badges with our pictures allows face and photo to be matched which is far less able to be forged than a  simple name.  An I.D. number would help in case of emergency.  A print name could be included if the student requests it.

As for color coding and other means of indicating student status?  There is no methodology that would allow for it because student equals person with a visual impairment.  Besides, what security goals are met by sorting people into the three groups?

Others have voiced additional concerns related to this policy.  Campus vulnerabilities exist that will not be addressed, including no means to detect dangerous items on someone’s person, lack of techniques to minimize congregation of students as they are loading and unloading busses and any means for a blind student to know who should and should not be on campus.  Even lanyards represent a safety risk because they can be caught or grabbed tightening around someone’s neck.

Before turning to safety procedures that create social barriers, highlight difference in a negative way and clearly mark a protected class of individuals, I urge BI’s decision makers to look outside the typical security toolbox to solutions that meet the needs of the unique population they serve.  I appreciate being kept safe, but please don’t force me to pay these avoidable costs for that security.

6 thoughts on “The Cost of Safety?

  1. Bit of a story. When playing the game Starcraft 2, I was enamored by the name badges that the human characters wear in the game. They have the same form factor as badges that we have here, but flickered orange showing all sorts of data about the wearer as well as their overall medical status. (In a game fighting two hostile alien species, these things are important)

    I decided I wanted to build one of these in real life. I was able to cobble together the components to replicate the look, and did my first and so far only jaunt into 3D printing to build an outer case that looked like the ones in the game.

    Anyway, my point is that it wouldn’t be too difficult to build name badges that both met security concerns and were sensitive to the requirements of this community. RFID chips are cheap and ubiquitous. Chips that record and playback sounds are also easy to find in greeting cards. I can imagine a system where a badge would consist of an RFID scanner and emitter as well as a general playback chip. If a badge came into range (and wasn’t just passing by), your badge could sense it and speak the “name and rank” associated with it. It would be more expensive than a plain printed badge and colored lanyard, but it could still be cost effective.

    It is indeed important to distinguish security from security theater. I appreciate the points they’re making. RFID chips come with their own concerns. Now, you’re detectable to anyone with a reader and your movement through the building can be recorded. On the other hand, you could be found more quickly under rubble in the event of a bombing.

  2. Glad you are standing up to this. It’s hard to believe that BI would make name tags ignoring the blind community’s needs?? I see this security theater everywhere, it seems it’s become part of US culture for every institution to try to give the impression that they are keeping people secure. They don’t think about what would actually make people secure but rather what would create the image of keeping people secure and well to the extent that I think it’s almost robotic for every company. “Oh yeah, gotta put in some security measures” without even thinking about whether the particular measures they are taking would work or what damage their implementation would cause. Usually, the damage is offending people and creating unnecessary barriers between people. So not only does it not work to create a more secure situation but it creates or fuels animosity, ignorance, and isolation. I don’t see how any of these consequences can lead to more security as these are usually the geneses of violence. In this particular situation it is the pinnacle of an institution following this cultural formula without thought or consideration of real consequences offending the very group they serve.

  3. I completely agree – BI can do much better than this, and they ought to be held to a standard that honors and suits the population they serve. I *love* Steve’s idea about RFID badges that speak the wearer’s identifying information when appropriately activated. It does raise other concerns, but by thinking outside the box, coming up with a solutions that actually fit their mission, and then working through the problems with those solutions, BI could not only address the security concerns they’re hoping to address, but also be a pioneer in tackling such concerns for a population that includes blind and sighted, students and staff, etc. …Instead of simply doing something that gives the appearance of responsiveness to concerns – the security theater that Jess and Steve mentioned – at considerable social expense to their students. Put in the effort and do the right thing, BI.

  4. Oh, I agree. This should be egg on the face of BI. I would really expect something more from them. Bottom line, I think this is such a stupid idea, it makes me laugh in disgust. As mentioned in other posts, there are other ways and BI just copped out and created another obstacle causing isolation and discrimination.


  5. Yeah this is kind of icky. It really reeks of a system designed to make it easier for sighted people to “deal with” blind people so to speak and not a system designed to serve blind folk. And out of the BI. Come on, they should know better.

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