Presenting accessibility as a burden

The world of discrimination is rarely one of grand, sweeping gestures, though they do happen. More commonly, it comes in the form of sly, everyday, sneaky presentations, which some refer to as ‘microaggressions.’ The little things in life, conscious and subconscious, that remind people they do not belong and their humanity is something open for debate, rather than something assumed from the outset of an interaction. These things haunt members of marginalised communities, contributing not just to endless social stigma but to subtle internalised hatred as well, because when you’re constantly being told that people like you are worthless, it’s very difficult to get out from under that.

Disabled and nondisabled alike, people engage in actions of disablism surrounding requests for accommodation on a daily basis, ranging from the extremely aggressive and explicit to the quiet, the casual, sometimes the totally unawares. It’s the flick of dismissive finger from a wheelchair user when an autistic person says that web animations hurt her brain and she wants people to stop using them. It’s a nondisabled boss refusing to change light bulbs when a migraineur says that certain types of bulbs are more prone to causing headaches that may leave him ill for days, unable to function, let alone go to work. It’s everywhere.

One of the most intrusive and common manifestations of this, though, is the treatment of accessibility as an immense and terrible burden, something utterly unreasonable and unfair that disabled people are demanding of the world around them. And the fact is that, yes, disabled people are demanding accommodations, but that’s because they deserve to be treated as part of society, because they are. When other people interfere with their ability to interact on level ground, that means that they have to ask for accommodations, because they’re rarely reflexively provided. A D/deaf conference attendee can’t assume that she’ll have a sign language interpreter (no, not even at a disability or ‘social justice’ conference!) and needs to explicitly ask about it. A wheelchair user needs to ask about doorways and bathrooms before he goes out to dinner. An autistic needs to find out about the layout of a movie theatre before they can commit to attending the latest film with friends.

For disabled people who need accommodations, they can be a source of constant stress. There’s not just the worry over whether they will be available and having to ask about them, but the almost certain knowledge that the response to accommodations requests will be dismissive — especially if it’s something that addresses cognitive or intellectual issues rather than physical ones — or outright hostile. One of the most overt forms of hostility that comes up is the language insisting that accommodating disabled people is a huge burden, a pain in the arse, a massive favour being done to the whiny person who can’t just suck it up, buttercup.

It’s the pointed sighs directed at disabled people who ask store owners to please move objects out of their aisles. It’s the nasty emails from developers demanding that web users ‘prove’ that animations make it hard for them to function, paired with an insistence that it would be ‘too hard’ to exclude animations from a site that they themselves designed. It’s the groaning over people who ask for sign language translation and demands that people just sit closer or read lips, claims that it will just be too expensive to make sure an event is accessible to all who would like to attend. It’s the fiery looks shot at people who ask hotels to move rugs in their lobbies so that people using canes and walkers don’t slip. The list goes on, and on, and on.

Sometimes these acts of resistance are very clearly intended to be visible. Nondisabled people want disabled people to know that they feel put upon and hard done by if asked to adhere to basic human and sometimes legal standards of accessibility and accommodations. Making a big production out of the whole thing is intended to shame and humiliate disabled people, making them feel unwanted and encouraging them to not make a nuisance of themselves in the future. It’s a direct shot across the bow at people who want to engage with society. People may claim it’s ‘easier’ to just not have disabled people around, so creating incentives for ‘them’ to go somewhere else is quite reasonable.

At other times, it’s more subconscious. Many people have convinced themselves that providing accommodations is a burden, and they take that internalised notion and project it. Disabled people, unsurprisingly, are perceptive people, and they’re well aware of what’s happening when people engage in this kind of casual disablism. Just because it’s not explicit or intentional doesn’t mean its invisible, and in a way, this can almost be more damaging, because it’s so insidious. It’s impossible to pin a behaviour down and say ‘this, right here, this,’ but everyone in the room knows what’s going on.

And then organisations have the gall to ask why disabled people aren’t more active, don’t participate in their activities, and so forth. Why should they, when they’re rarely included in the first place and when they are invited, their requests for information about venues and accommodation are usually treated with such disrespect? This is not a case of bitter cripples cutting themselves off from the world, but rather an instance of the world cutting disabled people off, while still wanting credit for trying. After all, you did put up that wheelchair ramp for that one whiny parishoner at the church, right? It’s not your fault if she’s ungrateful for it and you have no idea why she’d feel unwelcome after you spent two hours whinging and fussing over putting it up before you actually did it.

Image: Taiwan Accessibility, Christian Heilmann, Flickr