When most people think about the accessibility of the world, what do they think of? Transportation? Weather, maybe, if you live in a particular climate? These are all very important things that also have easily solvable solutions. In other words, your accessibility to the world is unlimited. Except that, for many people, it isn’t.
If you're disabled, like I am, there are plenty of physical systemic barriers to getting around—and no, I don't just mean curb cuts and stairs. We have to think about things that no able-bodied person has to consider, and it's tiring. But it's not just that: as a disabled person I am charged with being so many things—not to myself, but to able-bodied people—that I don’t want to have to be. Disabled people are expected to inspire you, to make you grateful. We are charged with so much emotional and inspirational labor that we should be on someone's payroll.
If we're going discuss the way society uses us, we have to also discuss the way they first attempt to shut us out: systemic ableism is a huge part of society. Ableism is discrimination in favor of able-bodied people and can involve anything from words to actions to structures. Most of us are guilty of ableism through words—think about the last time you called someone a name, either in jest or seriousness (ie: stupid)—but systemic ableism goes far beyond that.
Most of the buildings I encounter are accessible in one way or another: ramps, accessible entrances, elevators, and so on. But every once in awhile, I come across one that isn't accessible at all. The building is typically pretty old, and most occupants believe that if their building is old enough, they're protected by a grandfather clause—a provision that exempts them from having to comply with regulations and laws. Here's the only problem with that belief: this loophole doesn't exist. There is no such thing as a grandfather clause in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Current ADA law states the following:
28 CFR 36.304 : "A public accommodation shall remove architectural barriers in existing facilities...where such removal is readily achievable, i.e., easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense."
Ideally, this means that there is no reason why a building should not be accessible to a person with a disability, but unfortunately that's not the case. Remember that December 2016 60 minutes segment on "drive-by lawsuits"? Businessowners felt they were being picked on and unfairly targeted because they were being sued for being in violation of ADA laws. They made it sound as if lawyers and disabled people just went around hoping to find a place in violation of the ADA so we could sue our little hearts out. In fact, the first store owner they talked to said he was sure the person suing him wasn't even a customer in the store. Now, the store had a ramp and a designated parking space for people with disabilities, but—as the store owner’s own lawyer pointed out—the ramp and parking space were still in violation of ADA regulations. The store felt as if what he did was enough and he should be left alone, but that means we disabled people are stuck dealing with the consequences. Why should we have to suffer because of your inability to meet the bare minimum?
Another person interviewed in the 60 Minutes segment was a motel owner who was sued for not having a pool lift. He says in the segment that, prior to the lawsuit, no one had ever come and asked him about the accessibility of the pool. He also states that he wasn't aware he had to have a pool lift to help disabled people in and out of pools. But it shouldn’t be someone else’s job to come and ask you if you are following the law correctly. And you shouldn’t open a business without knowing the ADA-related rules and making sure you won't be in violation.
If a plant produces food, they are checked and monitored for quality assessments so that consumers don't bring home bags of chicken with feathers still attached. The ADA doesn't have that: no one checks and that co-signs the bare minimum, which is a problem. Businesses are expected to hold themselves accountable, but they don't, and then they complain when a consumer decides to do it for them. Do lawsuits suck? Yes, but why should someone have to sue you in the first place in order to make you follow the law? No person with a disability wants to spend their entire life suing people: lawsuits cost everybody money, and life is entirely too short for that.
And that’s not even the half of it. In a video uploaded last December, shortly after the 60 Minutes segment aired, disabled YouTuber Annie Segarra goes into how 60 Minutes missed their shot to tell a story that could have actually helped disabled people instead of encouraging the world to continue infantilizing us and looking at us like burdensome children.
In terms of inspiration labor, let's talk inspiration porn. Inspiration porn is the concept of comparing your circumstances to that of a person with disability and saying, "Whew, I'm glad that's not me!" or "It's so inspiring to see you go to college/pursue a modeling career/breathe oxygen, despite your difficult circumstances." Here's the thing, though: it isn't. I'm a regular person, guys! The problem is that able-bodied people expect so little of people with disabilities that we are condescendingly praised just for being “brave” enough to live our lives. Then, when we call people out for this type of behavior, they almost always catch an attitude—as if we're supposed to just accept any and all compliments, no matter how insulting.
But here’s what happens when you do insist on seeing a person with a disability as an inspiration only because of their disability. In addition to showing your ignorance, you're robbing that disabled person of their humanity. No one is perfect, and we all fall down from time to time—but disabled people don’t get to be imperfect because we are too busy “inspiring” you. In school, people always told me how kind I was, and how inspirational it was that I was so kind. When I was diagnosed with depression and stopped being the "shining gleam of hope" they were used to, people couldn’t stand what they saw. They didn't understand what I was going through; instead of recognizing that I was exhausted, they were just upset that "old Angel" was gone. This stereotype believing disabled people can do anything without being touched by adversity, that we exist above the limits of human emotion and reaction, is referred to as the "supercrip" stereotype. “Supercrip” stereotyping promotes the idea that we can do anything—including, for example, learn to walk and never need your assistive device. But that is also ableist. If “fixing” our disability was a matter of just “learning to overcome” it, it wouldn't be a disability.
Society is strange for us. As a disabled person, your entire childhood is typically filled with cries of: "You can do anything! don't let your limitations stop you!" But when you grow up and do things that no one expected of you or thought you wanted to do, you hear things like, "But you're disabled—why would you want that? Isn't it hard?” Why, yes, Virginia, it is hard—whether “it” means building a freelance writing career or finding true love or graduating from college. But it's hard for everyone, abled and disabled alike.
We have to start having these conversations about the ignorances that people hold. We talk about and march for race and gender equality, but it is very rare that any of those marches will also include signs that represent disability. We want to think of the world as this place where equality and equity are happening and things are changing, but if we really looked around, we’d see that that’s not always the case. Disabled people are left out all the time. And when we get sick of your shit and snatch the mic, you snatch it back like you know us better than we know ourselves and you're only trying to help. According to the U.S. Census, 1 in 5 people have a disability, which makes people with disabilities the largest group of marginalized people in the U.S. except for women. We’re more than capable of speaking for ourselves. So, you say you want to help me and the rest of the disabled population? Don't say another word, sit down, stop assuming you're helping, and let 20% of the population tell you the truth about what you think you know.