Last Friday, I proposed that disabled people really only need three things: Accessibility, Money, and Agency. Leaving aside food, clothing, and shelter, which all people need, Accessibility, Money, and Agency encompass all of the “special” needs of disabled people, of all ages and disabilities. This week I’ll try to explain what I mean.
First, Accessibility ...
By “Accessibility”, I mean all of the ways in which disabled people are admitted to physical places and social pursuits that we might otherwise be barred from because of our disabilities. We gain access because of deliberate action to change the physical environment and social structures we live in. For example:
- Making buildings, environments, and services of all kinds physically usable by wheelchair users and people with other impairments. This includes businesses, government offices, recreational areas, houses of worship, streets and sidewalks, transportation services, schools, and homes. It is the gradual and eventually complete transformation of every community’s basic infrastructure so that no unnecessary physical barriers keep us out or restrict our choices. It is the practical ability … not just the theoretical freedom … to go anywhere, when we want, with little or no help from others.
- Changing laws, regulations, policies, and practices that have historically kept disabled people from full participation in all kids of pursuits, including employment, political participation, education, and socialization. It involves knocking down bureaucratic barriers like eligibility rules that screen out disabled people, overly restrictive and unnecessary physical requirements, medicalization of non-medical concerns, overprotective systems that put safety above independence, and other policies that sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally limit disabled peoples’ choices and opportunities.
- Access to assistive technology and individual accommodations, which help individuals adapt beyond basic accessibility. This includes mobility devices like wheelchairs and walkers, simple adapted hand tools and utensils, and computers and Internet services that can be used equally well by people any impairments. It also includes all of these adaptive tools being affordable to all, and designed thoughtfully for the maximum convenience of the user.
- Changing popular misconceptions about disability, which tend to create misunderstanding, fear, resentment, and social separation of disabled people by non-disabled people. In a sense, disabled people are at least partially kept out of full social life by how they are received by others. At the most basic level, what we need is for people to appreciate our specific differences and unique needs, while at the same time regarding us as essentially no different as people from those who are not disabled. It means we should neither be ostracized, nor put on a pedestal.
All of these measures, whether physical or social, involve the central idea of Accessibility … of deliberately creating environments that are as welcoming and functional for disabled people as we know how to make them. They all involve positive actions, sometimes expense, and at the very least individual decision and psychological change. As with other kinds of prejudice, it is not enough just to be nice or refrain from being mean. You have to make a pro-active effort to include disabled people, to meet us at least halfway so that our own individual efforts … hard work, risk-taking, and “putting ourselves out there" … can be effective.
Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at Money … something everyone needs, but which is uniquely empowering for disabled people, when we can get it.