Friday, April 23, 2010

Where the Disabled are not Welcome

image Due to my fibromyalgia, I spend much of the winter months in the house.  I find it difficult to bear the pain that cold weather causes.  Now that it is officially spring (32 days till the start of beer season), I have been out and about, enjoying participating in the world again.  On Wednesday evening after the boys had finished with karate, the unhusband and I decided that we would all go out for Chinese food.   I had this unbelievable hankering for Chinese beef and broccoli, and so we strolled to a little restaurant downtown Niagara Falls not far from my home.

At first I was excited that there were no steps, you see, many business are inaccessible due to this downtown.  I then tried to manoeuvre my scooter through the small doorway only to discover that I could not enter the business.  The owner came over and asked if we were planning on eating in.  You see, the solution was that I should just park my scooter outside and walk into the restaurant.  I have the ability to walk but there are certainly others using mobility devices that cannot and so these people are permanently barred from the restaurant.   Also, if I were to leave my scooter outside unattended, I would be risking its theft, for the sake of beef and steamed broccoli.  We decided not to enable the business and left and went somewhere else.

This is not something that rarely happens, in fact, it is part of my everyday life as a disabled person.  These little indignities sting because they signal that I am not welcome to participate in society, though my money is the same as everyone else’s. The businesses that are not accessible might as well put up signs that say no disabled people welcome, because our inability to enter conveys that message quite clearly. 

The sign would cause people to be more aware and some might even complain about this injustice in so-called equality driven Canada; however, if you are an able-bodied person entering through a small doorway or walking up two or three stairs, the thought of who these actions exclude does not readily come to mind.   You don’t have to think about these things because walking up two steps or navigating a narrow doorway comes so easily.

I would love it if you would spend a day looking at the various buildings that you enter and consider how easy they are to enter or exit.  If there are no barriers to entrance, how wide is the walk way?  Is it easy to negotiate without pulling things off of the racks or shelves?  Are items set down low so that they are easy to reach?  If someone is using a mobility devise, is the isle wide enough to go down with another person, or will the mobility device completely block the way?  Is staff easily visible to help with items?   Are the bathrooms completely accessible?  Is the change room completely accessible?

These are the questions I have to ask before I can enter any public building.   Many times the answers to the above questions are no.  The inability to move freely is not some minor inconvenience; it is out right discrimination. The various times that I have pointed this out, I have been answered with a complaint that making a business accessible would cost too much money.  There is always a reason why we can choose to marginalize people and these excuses are easy to accept and internalize, because they maintain the hierarchy that we have become accustomed to.  

When people hold the door for me so that I may enter, or get the attention of sales clerk for me because I need help, I greatly appreciate it; however, I would much prefer for them to ally with me so that I am not dependent upon them.  I don’t want to play supercrip, and I don’t want to be dependent on the kindness of strangers, I simply want to go about my day like everyone else.  Disabled people are not helpless, we simply need the proper tools to function, and as long as this world continues to be designed for a certain body types, it enables the construction of us as dysfunctional bodies.  I would like to point out this:  Society is aging and able bodied status is a temporary thing. If changes are not made, one day it will also affect you. Ignoring these issues ensures that one day you will understand on a very personal level what it means to be considered an inconvenience.

If  you are tempted to  complain that I am too sensitive or not trying hard enough, (that has become the standard response whenever a marginalized body dares to stand to be counted) please give it a rest, because I have heard enough justification of bigotry to last a lifetime and I have only been disabled for three years.

For those of you that feel even slightly moved by what I have said, I would like you think about things that ‘other’ beyond places being physically inaccessible.  You see, disableism is about more than banning access, it is also about the language that we use that sets this up as normal.  When you use words like lame, blind, dumb or idiot as a descriptor, you are also attacking the differently abled.   I no longer read Broadsheet because it seems that the writers there are incapable of writing a story without calling someone lame.   On television, the radio, the internet, or in everyday conversation, language that is harmful to the disabled is easily uttered with few recriminations.

If you are not going to say anything about these words or use them yourself, you might as well erect a physical barrier baring me from entrance, because your language indicates that I am not welcome. You don’t have to actively build something that is inaccessible to be part of the system that renders differently abled people as less than, you simply need to participate in the discourse that reduces our worth.   Accessibility is not always about the things that you can see, it is often about creating a space that is unsafe and therefore unwelcoming.

The next time you hold the door for a differently abled person or reach something that is on a high shelf, ask yourself if there is more that you can be doing because I can guarantee you that there is.   Simple everyday acts should never be discounted   Are you teaching your children about disableism?  Have you rid your vocabulary of words that ableist?  Have you considered boycotting businesses that refuse to make changes so that all may participate?  Have you written a formal complaint, or written a letter to the editor of your local newspaper?  Have you talked to your friends, church, or social clubs about small changes that they could make?   The more we actively push for change, the greater chance that this will happen.  Bringing and end to disabelism is not something that the differently abled can do by themselves and your work as an ally will mean a lot more than holding the door open.