There’s no question that the world is built for the able-bodied, and no question that the world simply must change. Until a mere 29 years ago, it was legal in the United States of America to discriminate against people with disabilities, and companies were not required by law to accommodate any non-able-bodied person. In 1990, with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public” became obligated to be accessible. And if they weren’t accessible, there would be a monetary penalty.
That’s why handicapped parking spaces and bathrooms exist. That’s why closed captioning exists and why theatre performances have sign language interpreters. But accessibility goes far beyond that, and even the parking spaces and bathrooms are severely lacking.
As an able-bodied person, it’s so easy to overlook the reality of accommodations for people in wheelchairs or with other special needs. Especially because we’re taught that it’s rude to stare, and so we don’t. But in our swiftness to be polite and politically correct, we are also willfully ignoring an already predominantly invisibile population, thereby increasing stigma and discouraging both conversation and any kind of needed change.
And if we’re not avoiding eye contact passing a disabled person on the street, we are getting all up in their business like we have a right to it. A few years ago, I tore a ligament in my foot and had to spend ten weeks in a walking boot. I was shocked to find the number of strangers who felt entitled to ask why I was in a cast—in stores, in elevators, in bathrooms. After I would begrudgingly tell them what had happened for the sake of being polite, they’d immediately follow it up with, “How’d you do that?” I didn’t want to get into a conversation about why my body had a cast on it, and I only had to put up with that for a few months. People with lifelong disabilities are subjected to these kinds of questions every day.
And that’s assuming we are even aware of a disability, as many disabilities are invisible (knee problems, back pain, chronic health conditions, etc.). Get in any elevator and you will see how quick we are to make assumptions about a person’s laziness, because god forbid anyone take the elevator to go up or down one floor.
But whether we, as a society, are expecting people with disabilities to answer all of our nosy questions, or choosing to act as though they don’t exist, we still aren’t creating basic accommodations beyond the bare minimum. And when you step back and look at the world through the point of view of non-able-bodied people, you’ll be forced to acknowledge the myriad ways we are still failing to build a world that all of us can successfully navigate.
I can’t even tell you how many aisles I’ve walked down that I could barely fit my cart through, let alone a wheelchair. Places like Bed, Bath, and Beyond cram as much merchandise as possible into every square foot of their store, placing sale racks directly in the center of the aisles. Everywhere I go has a handicap bathroom, but not every handicap bathroom has a bar, or even the ability to spin a wheelchair around upon entering. (And don’t even get me started on how many able-bodied people choose to do their business in the bathroom reserved for individuals with disabilities.) I’ve been in bathrooms where there’s a handicap-accessible sink, but the paper towels are way up on the wall, completely out of reach for anyone who cannot stand.
And so, a challenge! Wherever you go, pay attention to the level of accommodations you see. When you enter a building, is there a ramp, and is it easy to access? Or would someone needing the ramp be forced to take a roundabout way to get to it? Does the building have handicap doors? Is the button to open those doors easy to reach (and is it even working)? Ask yourself as you go down store aisles—could a wheelchair really fit? Are elevators working? Gauge how many handicap parking spots there are in relation to the size of the building. Do crosswalks beep to let a seeing-impaired person know when it’s safe to cross? How about if sidewalks are adequately cleared of snow in the winter? When going into a bathroom, picture yourself in a wheelchair and ask whether you could easily use that bathroom.
You will most likely be shocked, as I almost always am, to find that the answer to these questions is often “no.” If that’s the case, speak to a manager, contact corporate, take pictures and share on social media. It’s unacceptable if laws aren’t being followed, and despicable if companies are simply doing the bare minimum to comply. The only way to make change is to recognize where we fall short, and to demand that we all do better.
And on a side note, be sure to call out the places that are accessible. The ones that do comply, or even go above and beyond to accommodate all. It’s important to highlight the successes, as well as call out the failures.
Let us all work together to ensure that the world be accessible for all.
By Kaitlin Konecke
Photo by Camila Falquez for Teen Vogue