Accessibility and the need to address ableism

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I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed the other day, like any other student to pass the time, and came across a video from VICE News Canada that a friend shared on his timeline. I was immediately drawn into the video upon its first few phrases: “people with disabilities have faced inequality for centuries. It’s frustrating. Even my closest friends don’t even think about this” (VICE Media LLC, 2016).

You can watch the video here: http://www.vice.com/en_ca/video/common-good-toronto 

The video showcases Maayan Ziv, a photographer born with muscular dystrophy who founded the app “AccessNow,” which employs crowdsourcing to identify accessible spots across different cities. According to VICE Media (2016), AccessNow acts as a wider community platform for various persons with disabilities and allies to openly point out the inherent inaccessibilities of public spaces. As Luke Anderson, founder of the StopGap Foundation, articulates in the video “accessibility is traditionally associated with an institutional tone and we want to move away from that. Accessibility can be sexy … and fun” (VICE Media LLC, 2016). Essentially, the message that Maayan and Luke want to drive home for abled-bodied people is to change their perceptions of how people with disabilities should access the same spaces able-bodied people do everyday. It also challenges able-bodied people to think about their surroundings more often and how accessible they are to others.

I admit that this video has since compelled me to think about how accessible each social space I enjoy my time at may differ for someone with a disability. For instance, I’m now disappointed that one of my favourite local cafés, where I wrote most of this blog post whilst sipping a cappuccino, has no ramps for either their front or back door entrances nor does it have handle bars in their washrooms. You can bet I’ve since left my review on AccessNow, and I hope you do the same.

Yet, the discussion on disabilities for newly aware able-bodied folks cannot end here. This video and app additionally identifies and challenges the inherent ableism that permeates in most social settings that we able-bodied folk rarely care or bother to think about. What is ableism, you may ask? Ableism can be understood as a form of discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities characterized by the belief that they need to be repaired or cannot function as full members of society (Castañeda, & Peters, 2000). Ableism can also be thought of as “defining disabled bodies as broken and tragic” (Clare, 2001). A common and subtle type of ableism can be identified with the scenario Maayan described in the video when she asks her friends if a bar was accessible enough for her to join them. Here, ableism prevents Maayan in participating with her friends unless she reminds them she’s unable to attend unless the facility is, in fact, accessible. Like her friends, most of us able-bodied folk would likely not know the answer, or at least readily. Thus, such as in this scenario like most in our lives, ableism is reinforced in our day-to-day behaviours and practices as we ultimately exclude our counterparts with disabilities from engaging with us in the first place.

However, ableism still poses further and harsher consequences for people with disabilities beyond what I’ve mentioned thus far. It would not be critical to understand these consequences without keeping in mind the bodily impact this has for various kinds of people with disabilities. “We must not forget that our bodies are still part of the equation, that paired with the external forces of oppression are the incredibly internal, body-centred experiences of who we are and how we live with oppression” (Clare, 2001).

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I’m compelled by Eli Clare, queer disability activist and writer, as he makes us think critically about the impact ableism casts upon people with disabilities that able-bodied folks can’t understand first-hand. Clare (2001) shares his early experiences of difference being marked by her disability as he recalls when his classmates called him “cripple, retard [and] monkey” and the pain associated as he “stored the taunting, the gawking, the shame in [her] bones; they became marrow.” In instances such as these, many people with disabilities express how ableism works itself to divide or other them as “irrevocably different” (Clare, 2001). Later on in Clare’s life, the intersection of queerness with his disability fostered a sense of isolation for what he was going through (2011). As he shares, Clare describes the meaning of when he was could not express nor explore his gender fluidity in the same ways that able-bodied queers commonly did,

“My body never learned to walk in high heels; to feel strong and comfortable, even sexy in a skirt. I never stopped feeling at home in my work boots and flannel shirts, never lost my penchant for a broad stance and direct gaze … it seemed that folks who lived outside the gender binary—or in a complex relationship to it—didn’t exist in my world. More accurately, I was the only one” (Clare, 2011).

For many able-bodied, queer-identified individuals, myself included, exploring one’s own gender expression can be crucial to one’s own queer identity. Thus, as Eli Clare shared his story, the intersectionality of disability and queerness leaves a stark difference in one’s lived experiences and hardships are unique from those who are queer and able-bodied. Additionally, attempting to engage or engaging in queer sexual relationships can also prove to be increasingly difficult and frustrating for queers with disabilities where it isn’t for able-bodied queers. Andrew Gurza (2016), disability awareness consultant and queer male with cerebral palsy, describes his frustrations with the ableist attitudes of other queer men towards his disability. In the instances of sexually engaging with them, or attempting to, Gurza describes,

“I was tired of having people ghost me online. Cancel on me last minute. Promise to hang out and not ever follow-through. Fuck me, and then never see me again, making me feel horrible about my body, my disability, and myself. I had gone through years of this self-imposed torture, trying to make my mark somewhere, trying to connect with someone and show them who I was” (Gurza, 2016).

Although I personally identify similar to Gurza’s experiences with my own frustrations over the fat-shaming I’ve received from thinner queer males who’ve identify my fatness as extremely undesirable and even prevent themselves from interacting with me on that basis alone, our experiences are still unique from each other. It would not be fair of me, by any means, to say that I know what Gurza is going through. Despite the fact that I walk with a small, usually unnoticed limp at times due to an inch difference in the leveling of my hips, thus positioning one of my legs to be an inch shorter than the other, I still present and feel as able-bodied as most able-bodied folks. I could not identify my frustrations with discriminatory queer men in the same way that Gurza does as it simply impacts us differently,

“I came to terms with my disabled reality when I was 6 years old … I was never an angry person over my being in a wheelchair. The anger came when I started trying to share that reality with others who were too stricken with a disease called ableism to see what I was offering” (Gurza, 2016).

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Keeping in mind the adversities Clare and Gurza have shared as queer persons with disabilities that differ from able-bodied folks, it is critical that we realize ableism shapes their adversities differently than our own, they’re incredibly painful to go through and are very much legitimate.

I may not have the answers myself, especially considering that I’m able-bodied and have a long way to go before I can assure that I’m doing the best that I can to reduce all my ableist actions and attitudes. However, it’s a learning process. Ableism remains exclusionary and violent for people with disabilities and it won’t change unless we able-bodied folk genuinely act as allies to persons with disabilities and do something about it.

Image 1: Screenshot captured at http://www.vice.com/en_ca/video/common-good-toronto
Image 2: Obtained from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-morrisongurza/the-misadventures-of-dati_b_4861589.html
Image 3: Andrew Gurza, obtained from http://www.andrewgurza.com/lets-work-together/ 
References
Castañeda, R., & Peters, M. L. (2000). Ableism. In M. Adams, W. J. Blumenfled, R. Castañeda, H. W. Hackman, M. L. Peters, & X. Zúñiga (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice (pp. 319–323). New York: Routledge.
Clare. E. (2001). Stolen bodies, reclaimed bodies: Disability and queerness. Public culture. 13 (3), 359-365.
Gurza, A. (2016, September, 22). Why we need to talk about queerness, disability and depression. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.andrewgurza.com/blog/2016/9/22/why-we-need-to-talk-about-queerness-disability-and-depression.
VICE Media LLC. (2016). This Toronto photographer’s app is remapping accessibility around the world. VICE Media LLC. Retrieved from http://www.vice.com/en_ca/video/common-good-toronto.
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