Demystifying the Marketplace: Making the World Accessible for those with Disabilities

Hello, readers,

Long time no see, and whew, has it been a busy week. I have been walking my little feet off in order to satisfy my love-hate relationship with my pedometer, reading, writing essays and reviews, doing devotionals, and trying to squeeze in time to eat. But now I’m back with a new topic.

First of all, in personal news: I have finally been able to dig deep into Julie Shaw Cole’s Getting Life. It is a fascinating, heartbreaking, wrenching, thought-provoking read that actually made me cry once, and it was the impetus for this post. You see, many times–more times than any of us likes to admit–we accept, perpetuate, or even reveal within ourselves an attitude that Emily Mason’s friend George takes in the book: “It’s their world, the non-crips.” And as for people with disabilities, they can do the same thing. As Emily says later on, “Maybe it is their world, and I have no rights to it.”

Well, besides the obvious–the use of the slur “crip,” especially by a person with a disability, and the assumption that the world is only meant for certain groups, there’s a lot wrong with those statements. First and foremost, nobody earns the “right” to live in our world today. Being born into it means that ideally, as much as possible, you should get a fair chance to experience it. (And yes, I know life isn’t fair–we’re speaking in terms of ideals here, okay?) Secondly, such statements and attitudes perpetuate powerlessness, especially in the community of people with disabilities. So the question becomes, what can be done to give the power back?

I’ve touched on a few issues, such as paratransit and people who are labeled “selfish” for wanting to use public transportation, but I actually haven’t spent a lot of time on physical accessibility yet in this blog. Well, today is accessibility day. We have in fact come a very long way with this one, but we aren’t “there” yet. For instance, I read a few weeks ago in a Twitter post from Accessibility or Bust that in Canada, one has to pay extra for accessible seating at a Cannucks hockey game. And recently, when I checked the showtimes at my local movie theater, I noticed only one movie, at one time slot, carried the option of closed-captioning and/or descriptive video for people who are blind. (Too bad; I’ve kind of always wanted to try those DV headsets. And though I’m not deaf, I have used captions on my TV, just to see what it’s like).

In Getting Life, published in 2001, other accessibility issues are raised, such as a complete lack of curb cuts in Emily’s neighborhood, unaccessible entrances at places like the library, and a van with a wheelchair lift that had been broken for quite awhile, with the added bonus of a crotchety driver who proceeded to wreck the thing with Emily, who uses a wheelchair, on board.

For crying out loud.

Now, as a person who can walk, talk, use stairs, and open doors just fine most of the time, I admit, physical accessibility is not something I let stop me most of the time, and it’s not something I used to think about much–until those scattered incidents where I couldn’t get where I wanted to go because it wasn’t accessible. I’m talking about steep stairs with no railings. I’m talking about big hills, sidewalks full of cracks, holes, and water hazards, high curbs, and other assorted obstacles. And these things, of course, make me think of other accessibility issues, like lack of ramps, lack of ways for people who are deaf or blind to enjoy visual or auditory entertainment, libraries that don’t carry books on tape or other options for people with dyslexia…I could go on and on. The accessibility issues in this country have gotten so bad that some people end up chaining themselves to public buses without access to get their point across (Memo to you guys: rock on!)

And yet, the U.S.–land of the free, land of opportunity for all–and boy, is that a laugh–still doesn’t listen. Not to mention countries like England and France, where ADA-type laws are unheard of, as evidenced by lack of accessibility on stairs, in subways, and so forth. (I know because I’ve visited both countries). But even Europe is further ahead of the curve in some areas. For instance, at least they have the decency to use tons of curb cuts, which is huge for a gal like me with zip depth perception.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I understand the old argument most people make when this subject arises: access costs money. And I understand that some countries, such as Third World nations, may just not have it (although those of us more fortunate could do a lot about that, and should). But in response, I will tell you three things:

1. In most cases, access does not have to mean a huge, elaborate deal. Putting in a ramp costs a lot less than many other endeavors a business might undertake in a given fiscal year.

2. When a business of any kind puts in something that people with disabilities need, such as an automatic door–yet does not call it an accessibility modification–people without disabilities use it and love it. (For another example, take the electric toothbrush).

3. A world without accessibility clearly sends the unspoken message: We do not want people with disabilities here. It also scares people with disabilities away from being out in the world.

You see, I think helping people with disabilities get out of the timid, scared mentality that the world will only hurt them will help tremendously with physical and other accessibility issues. I’m not for one minute suggesting that people with disabilities are contributing to negative messages about whose world it is–no, far from it. But if we all–including me–stopped capitulating to what Emily in Getting Life called the “it’s a jungle out there” attitude, the rest of the world might be more willing to see people with disabilities as regular Joes and Janes who yes, need access, but so what? That’s not such a big deal, right? After all, more people means more of a chance to get to know new faces and names. A chance to meet new customers and patrons. A chance to learn new facts and hear new stories.

So what does the “jungle” mentality look like? Well, it basically stems from a few things that keep their grips on people with and without disabilities all the time: discouragement, fear, timidity, and even anger. We live in a culture where, from the time we are young, the cold, hard facts of “the real world” inundate us. Rapists and murderers roam the streets–and most of them look as harmless as your beloved uncle, aunt, or grandparent. Thieves lurk in doorways with con artists, all waiting to see who they can take. Homeless people are not to be trusted or shown compassion because they’ll just spend what you give them on alcohol and drugs. Food from vendors carries diseases, parasites, chemicals, and nitrates. The slightest change in the weather could be catastrophic. Your boss will fire you if you show up late for work one measley time. Bills must be paid the minute they are picked up, or else you face foreclosure and worse (which also goes to prove you’re “not ready” to live in the real world). Curbs and hills and stairs are bad, bad, bad–bruises, cuts, scrapes, and broken or sprained bones waiting to happen.

If you ask me, this kind of thinking makes the entire world sound like George Bailey’s version of the world without him in It’s a Wonderful Life, or one of those dangerous ancient civilization marketplaces where they chopped your hand off if it even looked like you were going to steal something. Through that lens, the world looks crowded, noisy, cold, dirty, and hostile. (Cue Claude Frollo singing “In Here” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame).

Being fallen, our world and our public will never, ever be perfect this side of Heaven. But the truth is, the scarier we make the outside world seem, the less people with disabilities will want to experience it. They will therefore be giving up any dreams they may have had, and kowtowing to the ableist attitude that says, “Fine, we didn’t want you out here anyway.” Think about it, parents, colleagues, friends, relatives, and others. If your loved one didn’t have a disabiltiy, would you constantly throw negative aspects of public life, and the accompanying horror stories, at them?

But you say, “They have to know this stuff so they can live independently,” or “They have to know this stuff so they can make a choice.” True, but what kind of choice is it when everything you present is negative? And why can’t we add the positive side of independent living to that equation? (While we’re at it, what is independent living, anyway–is it a myth? More on that in a future post). Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that living on one’s own is what everyone will choose. But I think that choice–and the most positive version of all choices–should be open to anyone and everyone with a disability, so they can see how possible it is to live their best, least restricted lives. Because sometimes, the alternatives can be downright nasty. For instance, in the book I’m reading, Emily wrestles with the question of whether a woman “like her,” with severe disabilities, can make it “out there.” But I’m rooting for her to (haven’t finished the book yet) in large part because, in the nursing home where she lives, she is manhandled, verbally and physically abused, unnecessarily drugged, locked in closets, and even raped. An extreme example, perhaps, but I challenge you–which environment is more protected?

Now, which one is safer for Emily?

That’s what I thought. So I implore all of you: take a lesson. Instead of crying out to people with disabilities, “Stay inside; you can get hurt out here!” start extolling the virtues of our world. And while you’re at it, for the love of Mike, open the doors of all that world’s pieces. Make it as physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually accessible as it needs to be for others–not what’s convenient for you.



  1. Thank you for wrestling with Emily and George. I am just glad to see that they are still provoking us to think through these issues after all these years.
    I hope you get to finish it.
    Julie Shaw Cole

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