By Kristen Williams
It’s weird how, as disabled people, we are often given an either/or version of accessibility. We are told that, while many spaces aren’t accessible, people will work with us – as long as we’re patient with them or bring someone to assist us.
This strange directive never fails to baffle me. Accessibility isn’t conditional – either your space is physically accessible or it isn’t. It doesn’t make sense to say, “Our space is accessible, as long as you have someone to carry you up the steps.” And yet this sort of thing is said all the time of bars and older buildings.
Why call yourself accessible if you’re not? Is it making you feel better? Is this your idea of trying to be accessible?
You know that those that help disabled people usually do it as a job and are paid by the hour, right? They’re called attendants. Everyone else I know works, goes to school, or doesn’t know me well enough to hold a cup between my legs
Naturally, this line of thinking – ‘the if-than’ accessibility hypothesis if you will – is a whole lot of over-explanation that only serves the establishment and those who support it. Rather than prioritizing the maintenance of an inclusive and accessible space, those with accessibility hypotheses have decided to spend their time justifying their lack of access under the guise of trying their best.
This kind of response maintains their sense of identity as “nice” and “good,” without any need for change, action, or reflexivity.
Instead of just being honest, with a strong-but-firm, “Sorry, we haven’t got a stop-gap ramp yet,” they think indirectly answering your question before throwing the spotlight back on you will suffice.
Of course, this only creates more questions and confusion than if the question is properly answered the first time around.
It’s not just small or old businesses, either. A while ago, I made a last-minute appointment to see my family doctor, in need of antibiotics. I explained to the receptionist that I’m disabled and would need help to provide a urine sample.
“Oh. We don’t have any staff for that available on such late notice, but we can see you if you bring someone,” she said.
I’m not here to slander my doctor’s clinic (Innes Medical), but, how is this an acceptable reply? The same doctor that is going to dip a stick in my pee can’t help me give the sample?
And even if that somehow was standard, where the fuck am I supposed to manifest a helpful person from? You know that those that help disabled people usually do it as a job and are paid by the hour, right? They’re called attendants. Everyone else I know works, goes to school, or doesn’t know me well enough to hold a cup between my legs.
Offering care and access on the conditions of bringing a person or being patient while we brainstorm your options isn’t access, it’s subtle-but-effective ableism.
If there were a hierarchy of isolation, disabled people would be right up there, along with the elderly. It’s quite careless then, to regularly offer to help us on the condition that we have other help, to manage the space you call “accessible.”
The truth is that much of the help we get comes from a pool of money. Sometimes we pay into it, and sometimes the government does, but either way, help is expensive—and therefore not all that accessible itself.
Even asking fishing questions like, “Don’t you have someone with you?” before surveying the room for that ever-available assistant/nurse/mother figure we’re all thought to have all the time (even though many of us don’t have enough money to cover groceries) is ableism. Stop asking us where our help is and start asking us what we need help with.
There are real, long-term consequences to assuming we’ll have people to assist us, to help us handle failings in accessibility. The truth is that, if we can’t find people to help us, we do less.
Then we’re not only less social, we’re not able to work as much, or go to the doctor as often. We stay home more. We get sick more. We’re more invisible and easier to forget, and this a far cry from equity, inclusion and a society that’s learned the value of all its members.
Accessibility isn’t conditional. It’s communicative, it’s informed, aware, and majors in interdependence. We would do a world of good to do away with the assumption that disabled people have help 24/7, and start educating ourselves about how we can offer to create barrier-free access.