Image of coloured jigsaw pieces all locked in place.

Disability, Ableism And Inclusion. Oh My!

Ableism comes in many forms, and despite what we like to tell ourselves as a society regarding our progress in this area, I think we are failing. We are failing the ghosts of advocates past, present and future by our tendency for play acting, rather than truly acknowledging our shortcomings and moving forward in any meaningful way. Even today, with all the advances in disability rights, legislation, inclusivity, human centred design, and supposed social understanding, sometimes I have to wonder if the push for inclusion is just a box ticking exercise with no intention to back it up. So often the powers that be apply no substance, logic, or practical application to their methodology. It is as though they almost deliberately leave a fundamental piece of the puzzle out of the equation, and thereby set us up to fail, while still being able to make themselves feel good about just how generous they are by allowing us to dwell within society.

It is as if we should be grateful for not being abandoned in the woods at birth, and should simply accept what is being offered regardless of how shallow or nonsensical the sentiment. Sometimes it is obvious, while at others it may be so subtle, or well intended that it almost escapes our notice.

It is the gap in a fence in an award-winning park that is supposed to safely foster our children’s growth, understanding, and human interactions that undermines the entire purpose of the playspace in the first place. It is the sneaky half step leading to the wheelchair accessible toilet, thereby rendering it inaccessible to a wheelchair user. It is the lack of braille signage on lift buttons, which completely disempowers a braille user to find their own way by its absence. It is the very exclusion of people with disabilities in a business diversity strategy or disability action plan. It is the ignorance and assumptions of legislators, policy makers, product designers, web developers, journalists, and pretty much anyone who is in a position to make a meaningful difference, which is actually all of us, but chooses not to. Justifying it with an all too common narrative of it is all too hard, too expensive, too time consuming, too resource intensive, too dangerous, or too unimportant to matter. Because how many of “them” are there anyway?

Disability Strikes Us All

Here is the kicker. Disability can happen to anyone at any time without warning. In fact the older you get, the chances of you falling into said category increases exponentially. It may be a temporary disability such as tearing the ligaments in your ankle at touch footy on a Monday night, and then using a set of crutches to get around for the next eight weeks. Perhaps the temporary ringing in your ears for a few hours or even a day after a loud rock concert, making it difficult to hear those low registers. Having to swap hands with the mouse, or worse, stop using it all together in your desk job because your wrist is sore from the repetitive strain injury accumulated over many, many clickety click click clicks. To something more permanent like slowly but surely losing your hearing, vision, mind, or mobility almost without consciousness, and therefore without the requisite adoption of a disability identity to match the impairment. And without that self-identification as a person with a disability, followed by the constant reminders and realisation of being a disabled person, it is all too easy to stay in denial and tell yourself that all this stuff doesn’t relate to you.

When we consider disability, quite often we only think of it in the context of a congenital version, meaning someone has been born with it. Alternatively, someone who has had a terrible accident, and suddenly acquired their disability through no fault of their own. Something that happens to someone else. But regardless of how said disability is acquired, people tend to be pushed to the fringes, pitied, or put on a pedestal and expected to perform like trapped circus animals for the amusement and inspiration of the masses.

The Path Of Least Resistance

We are notorious for taking the path of least resistance and blaming disability as the problem, rather than examining the entire context of a situation, and taking responsibility for it. We refuse to view a diverse society as an opportunity for innovation, expansion, and alternative solutions for all. A society that if we did in fact embrace these traits, could be so much more efficient, effective, and empowered than we can even begin to imagine. However, instead we stubbornly hold ourselves back by our small mindedness, narrow thinking, and tendency to collectively punish others for our own suffering.

When it comes to sewing the very fabric of our communities, from our large scale governance to our smallest of planning and implementation details, designs, and developments, I am not sure we are going about building an inclusive society the right way. Because from a disabled perspective, it often comes across as though it is inclusion, but inclusion on ableist’s terms, which isn’t really inclusion at all.

And if this is the case, then does the push for inclusion actually allow people to become comfortable with their limitations? Or does it force them into a pressure cooker of inarticulate shame, vulnerability, double standards, unrealistic expectations, unmet requirements, and uncertainty? Does it allow enough flexibility for us all to fit? Or does it still require us to play along so to speak in order to feel accepted?

Rights Versus Results

Yes of course you have the right to everything, but we’ll still manage to create an environment which makes you feel different, and as though we’re doing you a favour, which is actually not a favour, but rather an impossible task, as you are expected to reach the same heights and in the same time frames as your able-bodied peers, but with often less than 10% of the resources, supports, opportunities, or actual capacities allotted to you. But no, no, don’t dare complain, or call the unfairness of it all out, because for the most part at least now you can be seen in society, even if it does mean you are constantly harassed, mocked, made fun of, minimised, and marginalised.

But it’s better than nothing, right? Say it’s better than nothing because we need to know what a good job we’re doing at accepting, inviting, and empathising with you. And by empathise, of course we mean looking at you through a lens of privilege and entitlement which doesn’t actually allow us to understand at all. Or rather it would, but we just don’t want to because that would mean reflecting on how, when, where, and why we’ve got it all so very wrong. And if we’ve got it so wrong as you infer, then what does that mean for our position of dominance and authority? Because no, no this isn’t about you. This is not about your marginalisation, your forced fragility, or your push for change. This is about something far more precarious. It is about society, culture, and class as we know it.

Oh I get it, it’s just too difficult to comprehend the competing and seemingly contradictory needs of the different disability groups. It is practically impossible to get a handle on how they all fit together, let alone what we can do either as individuals, groups, or organisations to transform ourselves from this ugly duckling status into the wisdom, grace and beauty of the black swan.

Not to mention we as a sub culture of disabilities don’t present a united front, or respect the nuances of our differences. Instead we also see difference as a threat to our survival. However, we only see it thus because we are pitted against one another in the first place, be it through the fight for funding dollars, the thirst for recognition, validation, or sense of power, no matter how fleeting or fraught, because there is so little of it to go around that the cost to the greater good and bigger picture doesn’t seem to matter. Or because of the misunderstandings, misjudgements, mythologies, and mirrors that nobody wants to examine too closely, but we all know are there.

It’s Not All Bad

There is no suggestion there aren’t those organisations or times when it is done well. I mean for my money, whoever came up with screen reader technology, audio describe, doors that automatically open, and audible tactile signals for traffic lights, definitely rocks! But this doesn’t take away from the absolute must have for text captioning, transcripts, or hands free speech to text for example. Because with each of these technologies, and many more such inventions, and their integration into the mainstream, billions of lives have been transformed, regardless of ability, because as sure as something is built for a minority, such as a disability group, the majority will adopt it as their own, and use it in ways that are far more inventive and wide spread than it was ever intended.

When it comes to participation, no need is any more or less important than another. They are all valid. And if we went about things whereby inclusive practice was a given, or expected as part of the wider culture, then everything, and I mean everything would be less arduous for everyone. People with disabilities would no longer be seen, thought of, or spoken about as a burden, lazy, or a drain on the system, because the system would actually work, and provide us with more of a chance to proactively participate. And in turn, we would begin to see ourselves as more worthwhile, more confident, and more able to contribute on our own unique terms in accordance with our strengths, perspectives, and abilities without fear of reprisal, punishment, or discrimination.

How Do We Fix This?

Reverse engineering and adaptation is costly, inefficient and often ineffective in comparison to building it in from the beginning. Sure we can educate, but I believe we have to go several steps further, and learn to accept, embrace, and enhance.

I think sometimes we get caught up in equality, and forget what it really means. Equality isn’t a case of carving up the pie into smaller and smaller slices so everyone can have some. It is so much bigger, bolder, and beyond anything as linear as that. However, isn’t that how we think of it? And isn’t that why on an innate level we see diversity and disability as such a threat to our very survival? Many secretly see inclusion as the giving up of something they rightfully own, rather than the receiving of something more than they already have, know, need, or want.

What is the good of sharing a bag of peanuts with someone who is unable to eat them just for the sake of being equal, when what we really mean is an equivalent experience? So instead of nuts for everyone, why not nuts for those who prefer nuts, fruit for those who prefer fruit, chocolate for the chocolate lovers, and coffee for those who desire it? The point is, not everyone can or wants to eat the pie, so why not widen our thinking, and start inviting everyone to the banquet and offering all of us a selection of tasty treats, and watch in wonder how the universe aligns, and nobody goes hungry because the community naturally self-organises through collaboration, cooperation, and creativity?

Why don’t microwaves have a voice-over option for example, that can be turned on if required, and left off if not? Why are the newer coffee machines from a certain manufacturer touch screen and not push button? Yes Nespresso, you know I’m talking about you. Don’t look at me like that. Just think about it for a second. It is not just the vision-impaired market you are alienating, but those with arthritis, or those who are just time poor. Why are we as a society not utilising our technology for the good of all, and still making people jump through ridiculous hoops to get it, when it would benefit all of us in ways we haven’t even considered if better options were built in as a matter of course?

Surely machines are supposed to work for us, and not us for them. Since when did operating the 13 options on the washing machine become an operation in cognition and concentration that demands our full attention to get it right, instead of something simple, safe, and sure footed in its design and operation?

However, it is not just the high tech things. It is the simple things such as creating good contrast between surfaces in a public space, baby change rooms which aren’t being used as store rooms, and easy to identify transport logos for public transport hubs. Or simply better awareness, education, and tolerance from the get-go on the strength of difference, diversity, and disability.

The Benefits Of Equality

Access, accessibility, inclusion, empowerment, and opportunity don’t hurt anyone when they are provided. But they hurt all of us when they are denied, withheld, or rationed, be it directly, indirectly, or otherwise. Don’t underestimate how inequality effects you whether you realise it or not. It effects everything. Surely it makes sense to give people the opportunity to have equity within their community. Because maybe if they felt they had a genuine stake in it, and as though their contributions were valid, they would be more likely to participate in more meaningful ways, and not feel that the only way they can get their needs met is by playing the system, being a charity case, or being the hero, all for the crumbs off the mainstream table, like a starving, angry dog or cute kitten.

Yes, partly I get it, because if one hasn’t lived it, or isn’t emotionally invested in someone else who has, then how can they understand it? However, by the same token, you don’t have to care in order to make a change. Surely you don’t care about every single aspect of your job or your daily life as much as you should, but still you simply get on with doing the best you can anyway. So why is it different when it comes to accessibility and inclusion? Why do we make it emotional first, and leave logic, rationale, and intelligence at the door?

Surely it would be much easier if we simply acknowledged our collective discomfort and feelings of inadequacy around the subject, and got on with making the necessary changes to move forward with purpose, power, and pride.

How do I explain what exclusion is if I have not experienced inclusion, equity, or equality in any real way?

How do we bridge the gap between us?

How do we build upon our similarities rather than our differences when the balance of power feels so off kilter that I can barely gain a foothold to say “hello, I’m Meg, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Now how can we change the world?”

Mar 21, 2018

Posted in The Illusion Of Inclusion and tagged , , .