I've been struggling with whether to write this post. In one way, it's a response to a comment and I don't want the person who left the comment to feel as if I'm picking a fight. What am I talking about? Well, it’s like this…
A few weeks ago I wrote a post called The Path to Sugar Beach about discovering that there wasn’t an accessible path to a new recreational area in Toronto. I got a comment from someone named Mike who is new to the blog - be gentle with him, please - and lives in my area telling me about an alternate route that I hadn't realized existed (which although terrific, it doesn't negate the point that there were no curb cuts close to the entrance). Based on the existence of this alternate route and the fact that Sugar Beach itself is probably accessible, Mike thought that I and other commenters who expressed frustration about inaccessibility were perhaps "overly sensitive". I respectfully disagree and am going to use this as a jumping off point to discuss discrimination against people with disabilities. And Mike? None of this is particularly directed at you, it's a larger argument about a societal phenomenon.
When you mention the D-word (discrimination) in connection with people with disabilities you get the funniest reactions. People sort of wince, they cringe, they even get angry and \ question your conclusions. It's as if they have accepted the concept of discrimination against other groups like racial minorities, women and aboriginal people, but there's a huge stumbling block when presented with the concept related to disability. Is it because us cripples are usually viewed with pity? Is it that assumption that we are not quite a whole person - or half a person, as Jerry Lewis so charmingly refers to us (thanks to Beth for the link)? Is it that weird tendency to demand gratitude from us when granted a service, a privilege, access, whatever? Is it that we are so firmly wedged into the niche of "pitiful sick people" that the concept of us having equal rights is so difficult to comprehend and therefore it it’s impossible to conceive that we can be discriminated against? I don't know and I don't get it. I especially don't get the anger. However, I do get why those of us who live with disabilities get angry.
- My family and I were checked into a fancy hotel in Europe that had assured us they were wheelchair accessible. The entire time we stayed there, I entered and exited the hotel off the loading dock and used the freight elevator.
- On another trip, we booked tickets with British Airways and were surprised when they required that I produce a doctor’s note allowing me to travel (this was a long time ago, they may have smartened up by now).
- I was part of the wedding party of someone I love a lot and they had had a very specific conversation with the Hall regarding accessibility before reserving a date and handing over money. At the time of booking, the washrooms were not accessible, but they assured the bride-to-be that at the time of her wedding a year and a half later, they would be. They weren't. When I needed to pee, it happened on a commode put in the Manager’s office, which was later emptied by a gentleman in a morning suit who left the door wide open so all the other guests could see what was happening.
- When I applied to graduate school, I was asked to come in for an interview. We discussed what it meant to go to graduate school, and I was asked questions such as how I'd manage lunch, given that there was no cafeteria in the building. When I started classes, I discovered that none of the able-bodied students had been interviewed. Or asked how they were going to manage lunch.
I have this handy test to check whether a situation is Wrong. Substitute another group, such as women or racial minorities instead of disabled and if it would seem reasonable that such a group would have issues with the situation in question, it's also discrimination when applied to people with disabilities. Because we wouldn't expect a woman or someone who is a racial minority to suck up entering a fancy hotel by the freight elevator, be required to ask their doctor if they are allowed to travel - and no, that one isn't reasonable, because a) having a disability does not mean you’re sick; and b) people who have invisible medical conditions are not required to do so - to pee in a pot, to be interviewed for access to graduate school when men aren't or, come to think of it, to take the long route to a recreational area when white people can get there in 30 seconds.
Disability is a protected ground in pretty much all human rights legislation. Our local one, the Ontario Human Rights Code, states that "[e]very person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status or disability." Equality isn't just about getting there, it's also about getting there in a dignified manner. And it's not equal or dignified to pee in a pot, it's not equal or dignified to enter off the loading dock and it is not equal or dignified to have to take the long way when everyone else do not.
I have another little test that I would very much like for most able-bodied people to try. Rent a wheelchair for a weekend and every time you leave your house, do so seated (most residences in North America are not accessible, so you get a pass for when you're at home). Take a walk - a conceptual walk, i.e. move about in the fresh air for enjoyment, not actual walking - in your neighbourhood, go downtown to a large mall, check out a museum, visit some friends (you're not allowed out of the chair in their home), etc. You get the point. Participate in your community. The only times you may leave the wheelchair is when you're in a public bathroom and you have to use the accessible stall. It's an interesting experiment, one that still has a built-in escape hatch, but it starts to give you a sense of what it's like. From people who've tried it, I've heard reports of frustration, a newfound awareness of steps and other barriers and one person told me that nobody has eye contact with you (I never knew that people, strangers, had eye contact with each other in public). If more people tried this test, maybe it wouldn't be such an uphill battle to implement universal design. And maybe the D-word would be more accepted so we could get beyond talking about whether discrimination against people with disabilities exists and start eliminating it.