Header image description: A subway car with its doors open frames two people sitting inside wearing winter coats and accessories. Outside the car, a flurry of snow is coming down. On the outside wall of the train is a small, bright blue accessibility symbol to the lower right of the open doors.
As I write this, Minnesota continues to deliver its hallmark snowy winter–seemingly having forgotten it’s now March–with several inches still expected after a full day of constant snowing. My street near the capitol building is only plowed during official snow emergencies, and since we’re tough motherfuckers up here, it likely won’t be cleared before tomorrow. While my body can’t regulate its temperature, I still like to think of myself as a Midwesterner who can handle a little powder. But even as I shrug off the flurries, I know this latest batch of snow means more days cooped up in my house, unable to navigate the snowy world outside when I need a cane or wheelchair to move freely. My pride betrays my need for access.
When we talk about accessibility, disabled people are often stuck in a bind–we need allies to ask questions, listen, and respond accordingly, but we also fight off exhaustion from the expectation of being constant teachers. This can lead to situatiokons where abled-bodied allies, trying to alleviate that exhaustion, make decisions concerning access and accommodations without consulting disabled people. While well intended, this creates a new hurdle: when disabled folks then point out the solutions devised may actually generate more or new problems, they are often met with dismissal, defensiveness, and frustration. Now we must be conscientious of the feelings of abled people in order to create access. If we don’t, that access can be subpar or disappear entirely as we are painted as ungrateful, difficult, or impossible to please.
We need abled allies to suspend their anxiety of making mistakes. We need them to acknowledge that they don’t know everything about accessibility, even if they have some knowledge of the subject– just like disabled people don’t know everything about each other’s specific needs. I as a mobility-impaired person don’t intrinsically know all about the access needs of someone who’s D/deaf or Hard of Hearing just because I’ve had to advocate for my own accessibility and accommodations. We all–abled and disabled–are capable of wrongly extrapolating that access in one case looks like access for all. It doesn’t. We have to take the time to learn, make mistakes, try again and fail better. And in this process we must do our best to set aside our egos so time may be spent on the solution at hand, rather than comforting our bruises when we inevitably bump up against the limits of our own knowledge.
There’s no neat answer to what access looks like. But I think we’re stuck in this phase of Disabled Person As Constant Teacher because of a central failure in framing. We are often only consulted after an event, structure, rally, etc is well underway in its planning process. What we must do is be present from the very beginning– whether in direct leadership, as consultants, or represented by dedicated allies who will advocate and communicate with and for us. This starts to move the frame off of us being the only ones responsible for decent accessibility and acknowledges instead the group effort needed to create spaces and content that can foster disabled people’s social wellbeing.
But having a place at the table doesn’t mean there is food to eat. Resources are scarce in late stage capitalism whether you’re an activist, artist, or small business owner. (Unless you’re a billionaire hoarding said resources, in which case–hi, can you plow my city’s sidewalks so I can safely leave my home? I’ll pay you in excellent exposure!) What we do have, though, has to be used responsibly towards our ends–including our moral ends. It’s not enough to create a figurative space for disabled people to show up; so many of us can’t access that space anyway because we don’t have the resources to get there. A disabled sensitivity reader isn’t going to do much if most disabled people don’t have the financial or social resources to access higher education–let alone breach the exclusive publishing industry. Our moral ends, if they claim to be allied with the needs of all disabled people, must then be to incorporate those needs into our resource allocations. Whether it’s the resources needed to create access or those needed to sustain disabled lives, we must make sharing our collective resources part of the bedrock of our values.
If we can afford, for example, the medication we need to survive because our community uses its resources with us in mind, we can afford to spend time combating ableism and teaching others if we wish. It’s no longer a burden, because we are not fighting constantly to survive. We can begin to build our communities from the ground up with disabled people’s input and devoted resources to access and disabled needs.
So if differences of impairment were considered at the root of any social project, how would access manifest? What would this kind of access look like?
I think it would look the same as the access afforded to abled people everyday–invisible. Drawn into the very blueprints of the architecture and landscape, routed through the parade or protest march path, programmed into the game’s core mechanics, it wouldn’t be noticed. The design would work seamlessly for anyone interacting with it. No side entrances or expensive add-ons. Nothing tacked on or clumsily constructed as an afterthought. Maybe even one day in this ideal world I’ve imagined, we won’t even need special consultants or initiatives for creating access. Maybe the ability to learn how different bodies navigate the physical and social world will become second nature, and people will need little help in creating accessible spaces and content.
In this imagined world, my city and state would invest some of their billion-dollar budget surplus into plowing our streets and sidewalks during this snowy season. Every curb cut and bus stop would be cleared, regardless of how much snow has fallen. They would know the importance of this because disabled leaders starting at the local level would remind others that in order to be a member of one’s community, you first must be able to access it.