Why Disability Accessibility Matters
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed into law. It is a piece of civil rights legislation that makes it illegal to discriminate against anyone with a disability in all aspects of public life: meaning jobs, health care, schools, transportation, and any public or private facility that is open to the general public. Disabled Americans fought hard for this bill, many being arrested and brutalized in hopes of its passing. One of the hallmarks of this bill was accessibility. Any public building without wheelchair access is automatically discriminatory against disabled people, as it isn’t open for disabled people to get to.
Quite recently, I discovered that the ADA is seen as a controversial bill by many. Maybe it was my own naivety, but I was genuinely surprised that many people dislike this extension of the Civil Rights Act. A bill, currently being discussed in our government, is threatening to roll back enforcement of the ADA, which would greatly hurt disabled people. This bill, H.R. 620, would make it harder for disabled people to file complaints against places that are inaccessible, and make it a lot easier for businesses to get away with not being accessible.
An argument against the ADA I’ve recently heard is that it’s an expensive burden on small businesses to meet its standards. I was told by this person that it’s unreasonable to ask small businesses to pay to be accessible to everyone. I was told the government shouldn’t have a say in how a business conducts itself, and profits should drive a company to be accessible or not. Essentially, the ADA was positioned as being a burden to small businesses rather than a protection of the civil rights of disabled people.
This discussion points to a much larger issue, in my opinion. It points to the general acceptability of ableism, belief that disabled people are burdens, and a grave misunderstanding as to what accessibility really is and why it matters.
First, let’s talk about life before the ADA. The world was largely inaccessible, which left many disabled people living in group homes under subpar care, simply because it was their only option. Investigations into such homes revealed them to be abusive and neglectful, but disabled people didn’t have access to public buildings, school or work, which left them without hope.
Not only did the ADA prohibit job discrimination based on disability, but now the buildings had to be accessible as well. I mean, it’s pretty easy to say, “we don’t discriminate in our hiring process” while simultaneously being inaccessible to disabled people, showing how actions truly do speak louder than words when it comes to laws. Disabled people were unable to attend schooling for the same reason. When it comes to disabilities, discrimination is seen not only in prejudiced behavior, but also in denial of access.
Second, let’s talk about life with the ADA. It absolutely is a whole lot better than life before the ADA, that’s for sure, but there are still many obstacles (literal and figurative) that disabled people face daily. The world around us is still largely inaccessible. Unfortunately, it’s not really a problem you notice until you have to. Before I became disabled, I didn’t recognize how loosely most places interpret the ADA.
For instance, the ADA states that all places need to be accessible to enter. Many places have accessible entrances, or alternative entrances, for this very purpose. However, once you are inside they aren’t really accessible at all. Often, it’s hard to move around in your wheelchair or with your mobility device, or there will be steps that lead to different parts of the inside of the building. For example, I went to a restaurant one time where there was a ramp to get in, but the bathrooms were down a large flight of stairs. I had to have someone walk up and down the stairs with me to help support me so I wouldn’t pass out along the way. It would have been near impossible if I was on my own. It absolutely is impossible for many other disabled people.
In the past year and a half, I have discovered what a nightmare accessibility truly is, even with the ADA. I have encountered ramps too steep to push myself up, and almost too steep for my boyfriend to push me up. I’ve seen ramps that inexplicably lead to a step. There are ramps that are ridiculously far from the front entrance, not a huge problem if I’m being pushed in my wheelchair, but almost impossible if I’m trying to push myself or am using my rollator.
One of the most infuriating cases was when we went to a park, which cost us $45 per person to enter and claimed to have disability accessibility. Once inside the park, we discovered that the accessible part of the park was one small path that went from the entrance to a scenic view in the back. That’s it. None of the attractions or exhibits were actually accessible, yet we were charged full price for the ticket. Honestly, I’m still peeved about it. Fellow disabled people, beware of Lookout Mountain Park in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Their accessibility is a joke.
I know that seems like a rather petty thing to be upset about; there are much worse examples of inaccessibility out there. But I think it’s important because not only does it demonstrate the frustrations of faux accessibility, but it also shows how profit isn’t necessarily hurt by inaccessibility for most businesses. Many get away with charging outrageous prices for disabled people, simply because we don’t have any other options. Others get away with being partially accessible, while still requiring us to pay full prices.
Which brings me to the most important point, in my opinion:
We are human beings, not dollar signs. An argument founded on saving money in the name of discrimination will absolutely never make sense to me. It is also incredibly dehumanizing to tell disabled people that their right to exist in the world is less important than your profit margins. Because that is truly what is at risk here. It’s not about disabled people being denied access to one or two places and just going to the places that are accessible. As described above, most places do everything they can to skirt the ADA already, so take away its bite and most places will become completely inaccessible again. What it truly comes down to is whether or not you believe disabled people have a right to exist in this world.
Denying us access is denying us the right to exist.
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Thinkstock photo by Cirano 83.