Thursday, March 5, 2015

Desperately Seeking Accessibility

I’ve written extensively about living a version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, waking up in a brand new body one day. Yet, I also woke up to a new world, a world that looks the same but is nothing like the world I used to live in.

I’ve spent most of my life as an able-bodied individual who rarely considered the challenges of the disabled. 5 flights of stairs? Easy. 4 mile hike to the top of a mountain? Done. One available parking spot that’s a block away from where I want to go? No problem. It wasn’t that I didn’t care or was uninterested. The concerns and challenges of the disabled often weren’t part of my day to day life. As I’ve become increasingly more and more disabled over the last few years, those challenges have become part of my life and have given me a completely different perspective on the challenges of those who have been disabled most or all of their lives.

The US passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which protected the disabled from discrimination and required that public and private facilities be accessible. It was a transformative piece of legislation that gave the disabled the same protections the Civil Rights Act of 1964 afforded to populations that were historically marginalized. I also live in a state that is considered one of the most accessible in the nation. I am fully aware that I enjoy the fruits of many hard-fought battles to give the disabled this level of accessibility. Yet, as with every law and especially civil rights laws, the battle doesn’t end after passage.

Leaving the house when you are disabled requires careful planning, logistics, and execution, something I never had to worry about when I was able-bodied. Going out almost always means I’ll need my wheelchair now. Places my husband and I have been going to for much our lives present complex challenges now. Before we go anywhere, especially some place new, we have to consider whether there will be steps, will there be an elevator, will my wheelchair fit in the space, how close can we park, what do we do if all the handicapped spaces are taken, will there be a ramp? Although businesses are required to conform to ADA standards, you will find that those standards are not always met or are met haphazardly. An important question is if the business doesn’t meet the ADA standards or is inaccessible despite meeting standards, what do you do?

I read an article about a year ago about a local woman who was suing multiple local, small businesses because they were not ADA compliant. My first response was horror. The article did not paint her in a positive light and I worried about the public image of the disabled and whether actions like this would threaten the profitability of small businesses.

Normative attitudes and media representations of the disabled are fraught with ableism and ambivalence. A disabled person can be held up as a one-dimensional source of inspiration for the able-bodied and then in the same breath disparaged as a “leech” on society to justify drastic, inhumane cuts to disability benefits and other social services. As with all stereotypes, these images can be damaging and rarely reveal the entire picture of what it means to live with a disability.

Disability advocates have worked to challenge these images. Stella Young gave a TED Talk titled “I am Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much” that has over 1 million views on the TED website (click here for her talk). She gave a humorous and enlightening challenge to this inspiration stereotype. Slate recently posted an article deconstructing some of the commercials that aired during the Super Bowl that also used this stereotype. We all love inspirational stories, but the disabled are often used as a prop to remind the able-bodied “if they can do it, you can do it.” The contrast is the myth that the disabled and ill exploit systems for personal gain. Stereotypes breed silence and dismissal. 

When the disabled sue these businesses, there may be compensation but action is also taken. Yet, is this the only means to achieve these ends? 

When I shared my horror about the story of the local woman, one of my good friends directed me to a story from NPR’s This American Life titled “Crybabies,” which discusses one man in particular who has made a huge profit from suing non-ADA compliant businesses. It’s a great listen if you are interested in this issue. Important moral questions are raised and they highlight that there is no regulating body that visits businesses to ensure they are ADA compliant. As history has taught us, we cannot rely on others to fight our battles, and some have taken matters into their own hands.

Here is the section of the podcast that discusses this:

The question I think we should be asking is what can we do as a society to ensure everyone has access and protection under the law. The fact that these individuals are suing companies is a symptom of a larger problem.

I've only been a "crybaby" once. I've experienced limited accessibility many times, but one in particular irked me especially. Seven months ago when I could still leave the house regularly and drive, I took my mother to Target to help her find some clothes. My mother cannot drive and needs help with basic tasks. She couldn't do it on her own. 

This was my first time using the electric cart at Target. Before this, I would usually tell my husband “I got this. I can walk around the store on my own. Easy” which inevitably led to me standing on the cart and my husband pushing me to a seat in the store. It would have been fun if I wasn't in such bad shape from forcing myself to walk. If you have ever been in most clothing stores, you have probably noticed how tightly-packed each section is. Just getting a shopping cart around can be challenging. I realized very quickly that the electric cart the store provided did not fit in about 40% of the store. I could not help my mother find items, and she could not do it on her own. It became a steaming pile of failure.

I eventually got trapped in one of the sections, and I became so aggravated I went full Hulk. I started slamming into things to get out, drawing onlookers and stares. I couldn’t get out of the store without riding that cart so I didn’t care if I knocked everything over so I could leave the store. Like any red-blooded American, I like shopping and I really love Target, but I haven’t returned since. I emailed Target right after this to express my disappointment. Their response made me more angry.

It took them months to respond and when they finally did, they told me to “find a customer service representative” to help me be able to look at things in these sections. One: I was trapped so how I was going to find someone to help me? Two: I don’t want to ask for help just to look at a pair of jeans! 

Should I bring a radio and learn Morse code so I can send out distress signals throughout the store?  

Handicapped lady trapped in the sock section. Coordinates unknown. Send help. Now.

I combed through the ADA to see if businesses were required to have aisles the disabled could navigate in all parts of their store. They do not. As long as the disabled can ask for help, then it’s legal for parts of a store to be inaccessible. I'm not done with Target. I still want to communicate to them I don't think this is enough. 

I learned a valuable lesson from this experience: the disabled do not want to have to ask for help, especially for something simple many of us take for granted. This is something I had never realized in my able-bodied life. I started to empathize with these individuals who sue businesses who are not ADA compliant—though I doubt I could go that far. There often can be easy, straight-forward fixes that could assure accessibility. I think most often businesses don't realize they are inaccessible so being a "crybaby" may be the only way for them to know this.

Some advocates are creating other solutions. A disabled man with MS created a website and crowd-sourcing app called AXS Map that allows users to rate businesses based on accessibility, at This makes the difficulty of leaving the house, especially going to new places, simpler. Here is the video that outlines how the app works.

I don’t often get to leave the house, but when I do I will use this app to rate each business. There aren’t any ratings for businesses in my town so I hope I can get the ball rolling. I hope you also find the app useful too.

Disabled and chronically ill individuals are also consumers. We have the power to make decisions about where we spend our money and my studies in consumerism have taught me that those decisions can have social and political ramifications. Handicapped parking spaces, ramps, elevators, hearing or visual aids, handle bars, and accessible aisles may present challenges or inconvenience to the non-disabled, yet these things can be lifelines in an ocean that is designed for the able-bodied. I never fully grasped this until I became disabled.

Creating a more accessible world and some accountability for accessibility will continue to require effort. An accessible world is a world we can all partake in, and that is truly something worth fighting for.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are much appreciated!