I’ve long said that the word “disabled” is not an adjective, but a past tense verb. I am “disabled” often because the environment I’m surrounded by, rather than because of any defect of my brain. In the disability community, there is a tendency to separate terms such as “difference,” “disability” and “impairment.” These are fluid terms that can overlap but they also can make an important point about where, precisely a disability comes from and what makes something a disability. The prevailing approach to disability in broader society is known as the medical model of disability, which essentially states that the cause of one’s disability is their differences or impairments in and of themselves, that it is their medical issues that “gives” them a disability. This reductionist view contrasts with the emerging social model of disability, which states essentially that differences and impairments are exasperated by inhospitable settings that essentially “disable” a person from reaching their full potential or being able to thrive. In such untenable settings, a difference or impairment may become a disability, but, under the social model, one’s medical condition is not itself the basis of disability. It is this approach that can actually be used to mitigate the ill effects of disability without dehumanizing or pathologizing disabled people. Unfortunately, governments, the “business community” and civic society as a whole, despite their posturing and the gains that have thus far been made, do not seem overly interested in our liberation.
I was born right after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and I’m grateful for the progress that’s been made. However, to be quite honest, a lot more needs to be done, and a lot of things that are purported to be solved are in fact not yet solved.
In terms of employment, accessibility is also a challenge. An office may not be accessible to me. The employer may, on the job application, ask if I am able to lift 25 pounds, even if it has nothing to do with the functions of the job itself. Ever since I graduated college, I have been largely relegated to remote work, which is incredibly isolating. It certainly would have helped if my peers were made aware from an early age that disabled people exist and are worthy of inclusion. Things as simple as parents and teachers having honest and frank discussions with their kids, and authentic media representation of disabled people by disabled creators would have gone a long way. Socialization is a vital part of emotional development. I could not toddle when I was a toddler. I could not run around and play when I was a child. I cannot reliably interact in person with coworkers. Living in a suburb, very few things are pedestrian-friendly. Ironically, one important accessibility characteristic for a wheelchair user is to live in a “walkable” neighborhood. There’s always a catch, though. Some of the most densely populated cities are not well-designed for wheelchair use. The curbs may be too steep. There may not be enough ramps everywhere. The problems of accessibility have been pressing for my entire life, and despite their intractability, these problems are solvable.
When I was growing up, it was a common experience for my family to call a restaurant and confirm whether it was accessible before making a reservation. On multiple occasions, we were simply told no. On other occasions, we were told that the entrance was accessible but the bathrooms were not. We were told they had booths but not tables. We were told that we would have to go through the kitchen to get to a suitable space. Perhaps most egregiously, we were told, “yeah, there’s only about three steps.” In all those cases, they could have said just no. But they are places of public accommodation. They’re not supposed to be able to say no. Same for office buildings. Same for any other retail establishment. A business might as well put up a sign that says “no wheelchairs allowed.” It has the same effect. Who could imagine the owners of a retail establishment struggling to enforce racial equity standards 30 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act? But one crucial difference is that, much like the economic agenda of some prominent civil rights activists of the era, it would take massive reallocation of resources. That’s what we need. First, disabled people need to be consulted on a mass scale for any updates and alterations to accessibility accommodations on a regular basis, both in the US and internationally. A huge public project needs to be undertaken in as many communities as humanly possible to update any infrastructure which does not sufficiently incorporate the principles of universal design, which needs to be implanted for aspects of life such as technology, architecture, and city planning. There comes a point where the profits of the owners of capital clashes with the human rights of disabled people and the freedom of movement and access. Where they clash, the latter is obviously more important. The ability of people like me to enter a shop trumps the pride that an owner has in saying that their little shop hasn’t needed renovations since the 1940s.
Of course, wherever the ADA is currently being violated needs to be corrected as quickly as possible, and non-disabled people can certainly assist in that effort, but things need to go further. There are loopholes, like if a building exists before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or if it can be said that making a space accessible simply creates an “undue burden” on the business. It would cost too much money or it would take too much work and time. Sometimes, historical preservation is invoked.
The point is, no matter how much progress is said to have been made, how much the government and the “business community” are said to care about the plight of “the disabled,” they actually cannot and do not. It would upend the way society functions, a society which they control, and do not want to change. A society which places the supposed value of property over the needs and comforts of people, is a society which disables people like me. Making society accessible is a massive community project. We need to start.