Thoughts on Accessibility and Remembering

This past week I've heard more stories of problems with accessibility that I have in a while and it got me thinking how sad it is that after 20 years, most Americans still do not understand what it means to be accessible or how the concept of reasonable accommodations in the ADA works.

My own experience in Vegas now that my scooter is working well has been mixed. I've run into dead ends and been jolted around more than a lot as I've navigated sidewalks and entrances into stores and public washrooms. Heavy doors are the worst. I can often get into a building but not into any room in a building without help. I still have pretty good upper body strength and ultimately can stand up and open a door if I need to do so. Not all people are able to do that.

I've heard stories about stores that have ramps they throw out when they know someone is coming. So basically if you are disabled and want to visit their store you have to call ahead of time so they can meet you and put out the special ramp. This is NOT accessibility. It is an attempt at accommodation, but it requires so much more of the person with a disability to make it happen that it really is a barrier. The fact that it is NOT accessible in the truest meaning of that word was underlined by a story I heard last week where a new employee that didn't know about the portable ramp at their store turned away a customer who called by announcing it was not accessible.

Accessibility means barrier free. It means that someone with a disability can enter just like someone without a disability. Back-doors, temporary ramps, being carried over a curb, being jolted by the two-inch lip in the doorway or having to make special arrangements to enter is NOT ACCESSIBLE.

Encountering such barriers are time-consuming and stressful. It is why many people with mobility disabilities are staying at home and hiding, even when they have assistive devices that could make them mobile and able to travel freely.

Another barrier that is becoming more common is the use of handicapped parking by people who "just will be a minute." I cannot tell you how many times I've parked in a handicapped space and returned to have someone slip into the little zone between cars as if that were temporary parking. At the moment, I don't require that zone as much as others do -- my scooter is hauled in the trunk. But when I was carrying the scooter in my van, it was through the side door and someone parked in that zone made it impossible for me to get back into my vehicle. People parking in spaces and in the zones around spaces are becoming more frequent and it doesn't help that law enforcement officers and government officials are starting to get caught breaking the laws by parking in those places, instead of enforcing the laws. (I've seen several media reports and online photos of this thing happening and I've seen it myself in and around Vegas.)

The flip side of the accessibility problem, however, is the overkill. I've heard about a casino restaurant here in Vegas that is going through this huge project that most likely was inspired by a lawsuit or settlement thereof. Instead of providing reasonable accommodations, which would be barrier free access, the management has decided that every person who identifies as disabled will have to be given exactly the same accommodations as able-bodied persons. This sounds like it is helping but it is not. The goal isn't sameness, it is equal access. So, for example, even though there are plenty of low-top, accessible tables in the bar, the company is spending money lowering a significant portion of the bar. This is not necessarily reasonable accommodations. Access to the restaurant and all its services is sufficient and, in fact, preferable to what becomes "special treatment." Pushing the limits to the extreme does not help persons with disabilities in the end because it looks like what they are after is something special and costly. The education that the company is giving to the employees is not creating sensitivity, but resentment. It would be different if the company were employing universal design, but they are not. They are going overboard to provide special accommodations that in the end reinforce the stigma.

I've written elsewhere that reasonable accommodations would not be that difficult if people understood it in the context of marketing and customer service. Of course, customer service is harder to find for anyone these days. Reasonable accommodations, like all accommodations, is a process and it requires sensitivity and cooperation. It is not something that one party does for another party. It is negotiated and that means something that I think is left out of almost every business and personal attempts to make accommodations for persons with disabilities -- it means if you want to know how to design a space that works for PWDs, ASK PWDs! If PWDs were more involved in the process, the process would work a lot better.

Vine Deloria wrote in Custer Died for Your Sins, regarding all the white people who have ever tried to "help" Native Americans: "We need fewer and fewer experts on Indians." I think this is true of most stigmatized groups. There is a built-in paternalism in reasonable accommodations right now that needs to go. Persons with Disabilities are people. They are not asking for anything other than to be treated like people and that means they should have a say over issues that affect their lives. It's not a difficult or unusual concept. But the way to do it is to INCLUDE PWDs, not try to think of how to help them.

Today is Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember people who have died in wars. I'm not a big fan of war, killing or nationalism, but I do know that one of the stated reasons that people in the United States go to war (both as a country and on a personal level) is to protect freedom. How sad it is that a substantial number of Persons with Disabilities are Disabled Veterans and the freedom they have fought for and given a part of their bodies for is systematically limited by the barriers that exist to their mobility in our society.

On this Memorial Day, remember that all reasonable accommodations are about is the freedom to be human. This should not be special. In a society that says it honors the freedom of individuals, it should be mundane.

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