Earlier this week, my friend Meagan wrote a brilliant blog post about selective discrimination. If you haven’t read it yet, you should, because it’s important. I had full intentions of writing about a similar topic from another angle; thankfully she is gracious enough not to point out that SHE wrote about it first…
Over the past six months or so, since becoming more involved in the disability rights movement and meeting more people, I’ve come face-to-face with some of my own ideas about disability, access, and availability of information. People with a wide range of disabilities – those who are deaf or hard of hearing, who use wheelchairs, who are on the autism spectrum, who live with PTSD – have been far more patient than I deserve. I’ve had my own sense of privilege pointed out – just because I have access to something doesn’t mean that everyone does, and how dare I sit back and be content that I have access to facilities, employment, or information, when the fight for equality is far from over for everyone else? If you live with a disability, and even if you don’t, I hope you’ll consider the next few paragraphs carefully, make whatever necessary changes in yourself, and realize that it’s up to you and me to make things happen, even if it doesn’t directly benefit us.
Let’s start with a few examples. Several followers on twitter have recently opened up a huge discussion about a popular podcasting website that provides audio posts for their blind followers, but delays (if it publishes at all) the publication of transcripts so that deaf or deaf-blind followers can follow along. Many blind people are pushing for TV networks and video-on-demand services like Netflix to provide descriptive video, even as closed captioning has been part of TV networks for years now so that those who are deaf or hard of hearing can more fully enjoy movies and TV programming. In either example, many of those who have received access to the information or service are strangely silent on pushing for others with different accessibility needs to have that same access for themselves. What about physical access to buildings? Just because I have two strong feet and the ability to use them to propel myself forward, how dare I take for granted the ability to walk into any building I choose – a shop, a restaurant, a concert venue – and not even have to think twice about it? Many wheelchair users have to contact restaurants ahead of time to ensure there are ramps to the building, or make sure the seats they purchased for that blockbuster concert are truly accessible. Many are too gracious to point out that we all have our own struggles, but that’s hardly the point now, is it?
Among service dog users, the guide dog is the most commonly recognized. But many other service dogs exist. What gives guide dog users (myself included) the right to police what specific services another’s service dog provides so long as it mitigates a disability? How dare we sit smugly by when other legitimate service dog teams are denied access to public facilities just because we are the privileged and most recognizable? What gives other service dog users the right to tell guide dog handlers how much more training our dogs need than theirs? I’ve seen all of this and more… and it’s ugly. And I’m not even touching on the service dog fakers…
The blind community in and of itself is not exempt from such stances of privilege. There is an outspoken outrage when a guide dog user is denied access to a restaurant, movie theatre, or taxi. Yet, in moments of vulnerability and candor, some blind people who prefer to travel with canes acknowledge that there’s a teeny tiny part of themselves that is grateful that the battle for access isn’t directly related to them. Until this past week when two blind friends using canes were refused entry to a restaurant because the eating area was upstairs, modern instances of service denial to the blind traveling with canes are exceedingly rare. Several of my deaf-blind friends have had blind people question their dignity and right to access information, resources, and employment services. None of these things are right, and no one should ever indicate that discrimination in any form is OK… and yet…
I’m going to go out on a limb and borrow an oft-quoted and paraphrased poem by Martin Niemöller. Maybe this will help the disability community realize that we’re not so different after all, and denying access to some of us should be considered equally as horrible as doing so to all of us:
First they denied access to the service dog handler, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a service dog handler.
Then they denied access to buildings for the wheelchair user, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a wheelchair user.
Then they denied access to information for the deaf, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not deaf.
Then they denied access and accommodations for the autistic, and I did not speak out— Because I was not autistic.
Then they denied access and dignity to those with PTSD, and I did not speak out— Because I did not have PTSD.
Then they denied access to me—and there was no one left to speak for me.