By John M. Williams Most Americans know Alex Trebek as the witty, urbane host of the popular television game show Jeopardy. But few know that Trebek has played an influential role in making the show accommodating for people with disabilities. On Mar. 16, the American Foundation for the Blind presented Trebek with one of six 2001 Access Awards in Washington, D.C. He received the honor for helping Eddie Timanus, a blind sportswriter with the national newspaper USA Today to compete on the show. After the ceremony, Trebek sat down with me to discuss his views on assistive technology, the disability community, and the media. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
Q: The country is growing more accepting of differences in people, and TV is leading the way. For example, gays and lesbians, people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, are now mainstays on television. Yet people with disabilities aren't totally accepted. You rarely see them on game shows or any other shows. When do you think this situation will change?
A: I think you're seeing attitudes about disabled people changing in the media. But I think it's a slow change, and it has to be done in incremental steps. Let me give you some examples. ABC's [family drama] Life Goes On with Christopher Burke was a step forward in showing the abilities and frailties of people with Down's syndrome. We've seen TV shows with deaf people signing and blind people working. Becker is an example of a show with a blind person with a sense of humor. These are positive steps toward changing attitudes. And a recurring character on The West Wing is deaf, and she's a high-powered political operative. That's progress.
But remember, as long as mankind has made distinctions between disabled and nondisabled populations -- and that goes back forever -- disabled people have been seen as outcasts. Now they're demanding their rights, and they should. But, you can't change thousands and thousands of years of discriminatory cultural attitudes regarding disabled people in a decade or two.
That said, I think TV can and will do more to promote the abilities of disabled people. And yes, there need to be more disabled people on TV game shows and in TV series. But let me add that disabled people need to make themselves more visible. Eddie Timanus did. He showed me and others that blind people with the right accommodations can compete with sighted people. And remember, Jeopardy is geared toward the sighted audience.
Q: Why are you doing this? Do you or any member of your family have a disability?
A: I don't have a physical or hidden disability. There is no one I can think of in my immediate family with a physical disability. Your next question, I'm sure, will focus on my awareness of disability issues and providing reasonable accommodations to Jeopardy contestants.
Q: That's right. What have you learned about issues regarding disabled people in this country?
A: I wasn't aware of the 70% unemployment rate among disabled people in the country. That's a real eye-opener. I think the country needs to commit itself to employing more disabled people. But I don't have a specific jobs program in mind.
But I don't think that accessibility and accommodation issues can be separated from making disabled people more competitive. Eddie Timanus, who appeared on my show, is a perfect example of how easy it is to provide accommodations to a blind person so the person can compete equally.
Q: How did you accommodate Timanus?
A: We did two simple things. Before the show started and in front of the audience and his fellow contestants, we provided Eddie with the answers in each category in Braille. And so when I called out the category, Eddie found it and could read the answer in Braille. Secondly, at the end, when we asked the final question to determine the championship, we let Eddie type the answer on a typewriter. He was not at an advantage in either situation.
Q: Has there been an increase in the numbers of people with disabilities applying to be contestants since Timanus appeared?
A: No. But we invite them to apply.
Q: How about the role of assistive technology?
A: It has a big impact. I don't have figures to support this statement, but I'm positive that closed- captioning adds to the number of people with hearing disabilities who watch Jeopardy. More viewers means more revenues to the broadcast industry. This is just one example of how assistive technology is good business.
At tonight's event, I saw many others. A software company called Cakewalk won an award for making it easier for blind people to be musicians. I watched representatives from the advocacy group California for the Blind accept their award for convincing banks to install talking ATMs throughout the state. Bill Sahlberg from JetForm took home an award for developing accessible online forms for blind and visually impaired individuals. And Sun Microsystems won for installing accessibility features in the Java platform.
These winners are electronic pioneers. They aren't asking the impossible. They aren't asking the companies to develop the technology. They're asking them to include technology into their products so they can be fully integrated into society. Society has a responsibility to be inclusive of everyone. It's economically beneficial to include everyone. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.
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