Sunday, January 25, 2009

Ableism, Accessibility and the Inauguration: Doing the Math

When I was in high school I have to admit I was not a great math student. I faced new concepts (and some old ones) with a combination of confusion and intimidation that blocked even the faintest possibility of success. Finally, I stayed after school for extra help (though I held out no hope) and the teacher I worked with turned out to be great. She taught me a principle that made it possible for me to learn math, and that eventually became a foundation for logical thinking.

She told me, “If a principle works, it works for any number.”

Then she would have me do the complex equation with the number 2 or 5 until I understood it. In this way I learned things I had managed to miss completely for years… and I eventually passed the class. (Frankly, my dad probably also told me this 10,000 times, but he was my dad. I didn’t hear it when he said it! Sorry Dad!)

Extrapolator that I am, today I apply this principle way beyond math. When faced with a complex question of ethics I simplify it for myself by applying it to other groups or situations to see if I understand it better. It is not a perfect razor, but sometimes it helps.

So, let’s talk about the inauguration.

Carol Florman,of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies announced to the press early in January that the inauguration would not be accessible, transportation would be shut down and travel would be long and obstructed so those with disabilities, small children and the elderly shouldn’t come…

What other minority should we substitute into this equation? Let’s think about African American’s…

Would it be acceptable to tell African-American citizens that the inauguration would not be safe or appropriate for them so they would be better off staying home? Cilla at Big Noise points out that the Disability Rights movement has many lessons to learn from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s—what have we learned about exclusion and segregation? Could we tell African-Americans that they would be better off watching the inauguration in a place better-suited for “their kind”?

As much as I love our new President’s disability platform, I find the ableism and inaccessibility that were evident at the inauguration terribly upsetting. It feels as if, in our administration, the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing…

(And can you tell me, after 20 years of the ADA, why our nation’s capitol is NOT suited for people with disabilities??

And why, when becoming accessible is required do disgruntled folks blame “those people with disabilities” rather than the business-owners and policymakers of the last 20 years who should have taken care of the problem years ago?

Sorry, I digress!)

When I discussed the inaccessibility of the inauguration with folks they told me I was unreasonable… whining even.

I was told there had only been 2 months to plan (don’t inaugurations happen every 4 years??) and that “those people” should content themselves with the TV since many people weren’t going (people who made that choice for themselves, may I point out?)

Then, at the inauguration itself former Vice-President Dick Cheney was using a wheelchair and commentator, Chris Matthews remarked that his wheelchair use was a metaphor for his lowly status in the eyes of Americans….


A wheelchair is a tool used for mobility. It makes no implications whatsoever about the status or capacity of its user. None.

And let’s try our substitution exercise:

Which minority could we put down in that way without consequences? What if something about Cheney reminded the announcer of the GLBTQ community and the announcer used THAT as a metaphor for something negative?? An announcer making that sort of remark would have to apologize—he might even lose his job.

And the fact that these glaring gaffes are either invisible or seem perfectly reasonable to most people in 2009 is utterly appalling. This is the living breathing definition of ableism among us.

So, the inauguration is in the past. What now?

Join the folks at the AAPD in demanding an apology from TV announcers who make ableist remarks. Thought while speaking is required. Ableism is as demeaning as any other ism and must end.

Write to Obama’s administration and ask them to gather their inauguration committee and some folks versed in Universal Design and use this fresh inauguration experience to design accessible events NOW. So we never have to have this conversation again.

We can do better than this, I'm just sayin'.

Gary Pressley has some thoughts on this subject as well. See here, here and here.


cripchick said...

we can DEFINITELY do better than this. i wish cheney's use of the chair had pointed out the inaccessibility of the capitol--- like why couldn't commentators point out that he'd disappear a million times to go down some secret hall and two foot wide elevator?

liz henry also had a great post about this:

happy new year, terri. hope you are well!

Big Noise said...

Excellent analysis. We certainly CAN do better. So can they.