Sensitive to the D-word

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 who lives in my area. He told me about an alternate route that I hadn't realized existed (which although terrific, 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, such as racial minorities, women and aboriginal people, but there's a huge stumbling block when presented with the concept in connection to disability. Is it because us cripples are usually viewed with pity? Is it the assumption that we are not quite a whole person - or half a person, as Jerry Lewis so charmingly calls 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’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 ablebodied anger.

However, I do understand 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. This 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 seems 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 washroom 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 and a newfound awareness of steps and other barriers. One person told me that no one 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 and we could get beyond talking about whether discrimination against people with disabilities exists and start eliminating it.


Allison said…
You're right--it makes me angry.  Hearing your stories and thinking of my own makes me furious.  

I'd really love to put the administration at my university in wheelchairs for a week or two and have them find their way around campus.  It's rediculous.  The campus is built on a hill that I cursed almost every day I was there as I came to know the elevators better than I ever wanted to.  I think I see a photo-tour of my campus blogpost in my future...
AlisonH said…
For all your struggles in how and whether to post that, you did an exquisitely good job and I am so glad you wrote that. People have no idea.

I only have to do a chair for long days out, but it's quite the education. I told the Monterey Bay Aquarium staff several years ago (it may be fixed by now) that there was a button to push to get IN the bathroom, with its tall heavy door, but once in, there was no way out but to wait for some kind soul to happen to come along and be willing to help.
Kitten said…
Post #178903457109 about why you should be in government, m'dear.
Liz Miller said…
I am temporarily able-bodied. Your blog, and Dave Hingsburger's, have made a huge difference in how I view the world. Thank you for calling attention.
Lucia said…
The last time the four of us traveled by plane, after deplaning in Boston we were required to exit the gate area through a door that led out to the security area. There one had the choice of walking along the outer edge of the security maze or going up three steps and walking along a corridor on the other side of a wall maybe three feet high. At the time the entire security maze was crammed with departing passengers, so we hoisted Taz's stroller up the steps with him in it and went on our way. An unaccompanied wheelchair-bound person would have had to "excuse me" her way through that mob, moving against the tide and no doubt incurring stares and clucks and annoyed muttering.

I think a lot of it is as simple as that people with visible physical disabilities aren't expected to be able to manage on their own, or to want to. And if they do demonstrably want to, they're obviously flouting the normal order of things, so they have to expect to do things the hard way.
Anonymous said…
Hmmmm, wonder if it's because those who discriminate against other minorities do it, at some level, on purpose....or at least, they used to. The physical disability discrimination is sometimes inadvertent, careless, or inconsiderate, rather than on purpose....and sometimes is actually a whole bunch of those well meaning stones on the way to hell....

Perhaps that explains some of the odd reactions.

But, really, good design is good design, and it's not that hard to either put your brain in gear to fix accessibility, or ask what would help, and do it!
Trevor said…
You know what's funny?
For about a week, I've been meaning to mention something to you, and your most recent posts make me wish I had mentioned earlier, if only to prove I had thought of it before you mentioned these topics.
As happens from time to time, the local news showed a story where young people (I can't remember if it was high school or college) are supposed to understand what it's like to use a wheelchair by using one.  But, as is almost always the case, they have them do unnatural things like race each other, or go through pylons, or play basketball.  Now I'm sure this will get them to think about how difficult it is to use a wheelchair, I've never understood how it's supposed to get them to think about living life with one.
I know it's easier to get a few wheelchairs and set-up some pylons and have people use them for a few minutes, but I think people have to sit in the chair all day and actually do normal things like go grocery shopping or to work or to school to fully appreciate things.
Having said that, I have never done any of this.  The only time I've used a wheelchair has been for the few minutes it takes to be discharged from hospital and they insist on having me sit in it, just to take me down in the elevator.  Of course, once they puch me to the front door, I'm back on my feet.  Never understood that.
Anyways, despite never using a wheelchair, I'm sure it doesn't surprise you to know that I almost always take note of how accessible a place is.
Kristine said…
I know it's not the same, but the first time I took my daughter out for a walk this spring in her stroller, something I hardly ever use, I had a hell of a wake up call. There are no access points for the sidewalk across from my street (cut outs? Is that what they're called?), and since the sidewalks were unplowed, once we could get ON the sidewalk (half a mile later), pushing her stroller through the mess was a nightmare. But I was just a pregnant lady pushing her daughter in a stroller. It made me think, though; I'm not sure what the next step would be, past thinking.
Diana said…
Here here!
Very well stated, as always.
I share the anger, and have even had people inform me i had no reason to be angry that I should just count my blessings that I don't have it worse.
I DO count my blessings, but it has nothing whatever to do with fair treatment.
WarmSocks said…
In the early '70s, (before ADA), our state governor spent two days in a wheelchair as the type of experiment you propose.  He discovered how incredibly inaccessible our state offices were. Many places he simply couldn't get to.  Changes were made, including cut-outs put in all the curbs around the cap.campus.

In college I took a course titled Exceptional Children, which looked not just at high IQ kids, but other things that set kids apart. One of the profs was in a wheelchair and he made sure that we got a good exposure to different kinds of disabilities. One assignment was to pick a building and evaluate it's accessibility - curb cutouts, whether the doors were possible to open, hall/doorway width, ease of elevator use... Until that assignment, I hadn't realized there's an issue with drinking fountains.  Everyone could benefit from a little more awareness.
Marie said…
Every time I read one of your posts like this one, I feel that my consciousness has been raised a little more.  There seem to be only a few people in wheelchairs in our community and your lessons have prompted me to try to treat them like regular people.  We have one student at our small college with cerebral palsy who labors to walk but people don't ignore him.  He and I had a discussion about his disability (something you taught me).  He looked a little surprised when I asked him why he walked like that, but he was very forthcoming when the surprise passed.  (He likes scary movies, the scarier the better.  I found him a few in the library, even though "scary movie" is not usually a keyword in the online catalog.)
Stella said…
I was touched by your tremendous attitude.  Reading this post, I feel expressing anger is vital to minority's life. Making our voice heard is kind of mission, thereby contributing to improvement of community life for a lot more residents as well, I believe.
euroinclusion said…
shared on
Gaina said…
#1 Ah yes, the back door.  I just with that one by pretending I'm a rock star and I'm being ushered in the back door so's not to be mobbed by my adoring fans :D

You'll be pleased to know I've taken several trips with British Airways on my own and my experience was very positive :) .

I think it's hard for able-bodied people get their heads around descrimination or thoughtlessness when it comes to planning community facilites because they can take most things for granted - that they will find a parking space, that the toilets are accessible, that they can negotiate steps etc.

When society as a whole realises that it's REASONABLE for disabled people expect to be able to go anywhere we like and to use the facilities in the same way as everyone else without having to make phonecalls and provide doctors notes first (and before anyone says it, I know there are some leisure activites were able bodied people even have to do that) then that's when real equality starts.
Laura said…
I had surgery and was in a wheelchair for three months a few years ago.  You're right, it's an eye-opener.  We were living in New Orleans then, of which parts are so old there's simply no way to retrofit them for people with disabilities even with the mandates of our ADA -- which has been a HUGE benefit in an awful lot of circumstances.  There was an awful lot of my husband hauling me up and down over curbs, riding freight elevators, etc.

It really alerted me to accessibility issues in a way I hadn't before, although I was already sensitive to height issues -- my daughter is a dwarf, and so I've been aware for years of height problems.  I ALWAYS find a store manager and comment when, for example, a credit card swiping machine is at a height where a dwarf or a person in a chair can't use it independently (i.e. not have to have someone else do it for them or tell them what it's saying).  And that's just the tip of the iceberg for accessibility issues for a little person, too.

You definitely should be in government!  Or writing articles for public forums in your community to raise more awareness locally!  Your blog readers are scattered far and wide; it's your own local government you need to pound over the head with the awareness stick!
H marie said…
<span>Lene, My chest literally aches - with anger, and sadness reading your experience at the wedding location.  I grew up around my great aunt who had cerebral palsy and was in a wheelchair.  I got used to people staring, pointing, even whispering whenever we went out with her (we took her EVERYWHERE - my grandma, who was her sister was just fearless about going places with her and my great grandma who had a walker).  My mom just recently told me the story of a group of us going to a regular restaurant - nothing fancy and being told by the manager that we could not enter because the baby (me) had no shoes on.  Really!?</span>
Gaina said…
As coincindence would have it, I went clothes shopping today and one of the shops has totally inaccessable changing rooms so they lost a customer.  I have just emailed their head office asking them if they are aware of the access issues at this particular branch and offered to advise them on ways that they could improve it.  We shall see if I get a reply :) .
Bonnie said…
Years ago I read "The Engineering of Everyday Objects". That was the first thing that opened my eyes to the fact that things should work for everybody. After reading you blog for a while I started to look around and wonder, "Could Lene get where she needs to be if she were here?" Sadly most often the answer if no. Keep writing and reminding us to look around us.
laura said…
rock on.
Gaina said…
I got a reply back from the shop today (less that 24 hours after I sent the email!) thanking me for my comments and reassuring me that the branch manager had been made aware of the problem and wheelchair access will be taken into account when the shop receives a re-fit later in the year.  RESULT! <img></img>
anonymous said…
It's a matter of perception. I think people prefer to think of discrimination as something active, like refusing someone entry because of their [insert perceived difference here]. People don't want to be accused of discrimination when the failure is passive. They didn't deliberately refuse someone entry; they just didn't consider the needs of everyone. To the person on the receiving end, the end result is the same, so it feels like the same thing.
I suppose it's like the difference between murder and manslaughter - it isn't as bad if you didn't do it on purpose. But the victim can't tell the difference.
Anonymous said…
Breast Augmentation Toronto - Nice post and good information for us.
Really very nice post and its very valuable for all peoples.
RS2Sale provide you Runescape Gold up to 35% off to celebrate London Olympics Games!

This activity will end on August 13, 2012 (GMT).

Don't miss this big promotion to buy rs gold !
Unknown said…
Worst, being the tech person in a wheelchair shopping for equipment with an assistant. Sales person refuses to look at me, answer questions, directs any comments to assistant who would know firewire from fireworks or a flashdrive from fondue.

Don't even get me started on a city that plants TREES in the middle of sidewalks.

Popular posts from this blog

Weight Gain and Biologics: The Battle of the Pudge

Real RA: It's Not Just About the Jar

10 Things about What It Is Like To Be On a Ventilator