What I Wish People Understood About Disability Rights
I have been without my wheelchair for seven months. On October 19, 2015, I was due to fly out of London City Airport when I was denied boarding on a British Airways flight due to my disability. When the airport staff returned my wheelchair to me at the gate, the wheelchair had been damaged so badly it was no longer safe to drive. Despite taking legal action against both British Airways and London City Airport, I’m still no closer to knowing what happened or having my mobility back.
In recent weeks, friends have started urging me to let it go, to just move on with my life and forget about getting justice. Big corporations are just too powerful, I’m told. I should worry about protecting myself. My friends who say this fail to understand just how vital the battle for disability rights is and how this civil rights battle will have an impact on their own lives. I’m not out for vengeance. I am desperately seeking progress.
Here are seven things I wish my friends understood about the fight for disability rights.
1. It’s not about being nice! All human beings should be afforded a certain level of dignity because humans have an innate value. The second you associate disability rights with being a nice person, you are make the protection of those rights optional. A wheelchair ramp isn’t a nice thing to have; it’s a thing that enables me to enter a building I have right to enter.
2. My wheelchair is part of my body. You break my wheelchair, you break my legs. You separate me from my wheelchair and you are directly responsible for disabling me. It doesn’t matter that I can get work done at my computer and make the best out of a bad situation, I still have the right to be able to leave me house independently.
3. If you wish I was different, we have a problem. Entropy happens, bodies break down, disability affects people of all cultures regardless of age, class or any other condition. If disability is the natural order of things, why am I the one who should change? Maybe rather than hoping one day I’ll wake up healed, you should hope for a society that can face the frailty of the human condition better.
4. The rights of the disabled will someday become the rights you inherit. If you live long enough, you will become disabled. You won’t wake up a different race, or gender or a member of any other disenfranchised group. But you might wake up paralyzed from the neck down. Because I was born with a disability, I’m pretty well equipped for getting by in this world. If you find yourself in a car accident tomorrow and lose your ability to walk, you won’t have that benefit. When I fight for disability rights, it’s not just my rights I’m fighting for — I’m fighting for yours.
5. Yes, equal access seems impossible. So did stopping the slave trade. It wasn’t that long ago that abolitionists were considered “crazy.” The idea of women voting once seemed like a can of worms not worth opening. The divine right of kings once seemed like a given. Just because something seems like an institution doesn’t mean it can’t be torn down. Don’t waste my time explaining why equal access is difficult to achieve. I understand the complications, but they are not good excuses to stop progress.
6. I am disabled, but I have a right to be pissed off at you if you’ve earned it. There seems to be an ongoing belief that because I’m disabled, I have no boundaries. That you can invite me to a show in an inaccessible venue, abandon me when I can’t get in and assuage your guilt the next morning by acting like it never happened. It’s not my job to be a doormat. If you don’t treat me well, I will call you out on it. If it continues, I will leave. My boundaries are as real and legitimate as yours, and just because you feed me dinner or help me wash my hair doesn’t mean we have some unbreakable bond.
7. We still have a long way to go. Yes, there are laws that protect the rights of those of us with disabilities, but some law in government doesn’t stop the day-to-day discrimination we face. Many people don’t see that they discriminate against disabled people because such behavior is still the norm. I once had a woman who is well respected in Hollywood tell me she “doesn’t care about disability rights.” Laws don’t create social progress. Changing hearts and minds does.
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