Breaking down barriers; making places and experiences accessible to people of all abilities is how to pave the way to inclusion. But inclusion requires more than just access; it requires understanding. We can break down inclusion into two types: Physical inclusion and subtle inclusion. Physical inclusion is the act of providing physical accessibility. Subtle inclusion is the way that able-bodied people can reframe their own thoughts and experiences in regards to disability and the need for accommodations.
It has been my experience that a simple request for accommodation (physical inclusion) is often met with suggestions, which then requires me to get personal about my disability – or to go into great detail; detail that I should not have to provide. I’m the expert of my abilities and I’m not like every other disabled person who uses a wheelchair or forearm crutches. This is an example of a lack of subtle inclusion.
Take for instance a recent conversation with a well-meaning person (WMP):
WMP: Have you thought of taking the train?
Me: I have taken the train and it was a bad experience – it was not easy.
Me: You see, I use the wheelchair for such things so people won’t knock me over and so I am not standing for a long time.
WMP: I’ve seen other people in wheelchairs on the train. They are fine.
This conversation highlights how able-bodied people cannot see beyond their own experiences.
They cannot see that maybe that person(s) in a wheelchair, just the other day, could not use the train because the elevator was broken or while on the way to the station, the cutout they usually use was blocked. They will not see them when they are not there … they will see them only when they are there – hence why, “They are fine.”
I’ve had conversations with people about accommodations I require or why I do this instead of that. Essentially, why I have the difficulties I have in doing things that they do effortlessly, or with little thought. They ask “Well why don’t you do X?” I reply with a well-thought-out explanation, which elicits a follow up about trying Y. This pattern always leads to a conversation that is very personal and unnecessary. This is ableism and the people are ablesplaining my abilities because they don’t and cannot see beyond their abilities. They do not see what it takes for me to be in front of them.
Subtle inclusion can only begin when able-bodied people break the habit of assuming that disabled people have not thought of every possible aspect of their abilities and thinking that every person with a mobility/visual/hearing/etc disability faces the same obstacles. It begins when able-bodied people see beyond their own experiences and take the word of disabled people. But this may take some better understanding.
Let me help: I’m mobile but walk with stiff and weak legs. I also have weak hands and a weak right arm. I use a manual wheelchair for long distances but I need assistance. Walking is the best way to get around as I cannot maneuver the wheelchair easily with my weak arms. However, walking is also very challenging.
Pretend for a moment you are me:
Tie 30-lb weights to your knees (not your ankles - because below your knees are pretty much sticks) and make your feet stiff. Stand up. Oh wait!!!! You must use your arms to stand up.
Ok, walk on your toes ALL THE TIME - which means you have very little balance.
Doors: add 10-lbs to each door you open.
Curbs and stairs: you cannot bend your knees and hips very far and you must use your arms to lift your whole body up each step. Nothing near a curb you could use to get you up? Oh well. Hope for help or walk to somewhere there is a cutout or something to lean on.
Wheelchair: You've decided to use a wheelchair to make shopping easy! Um. You are by yourself and must get the 25-lb wheelchair out of the car. Aaah an incline. Wave someone down to help. At the top, is a regular door. Luckily your new friend opens it for you. It was pure luck they were there. Get your purchases and head back to the car and only hope someone is there to help with the door! Back at the car, you get out of the wheelchair and prepare to put it in the car. Use all your strength and make sure you do not fall. You get back home and open your heavy door and sit down, grateful you don't have to go out again.
Moving around: You must clean the house. ONE hour in, you realize you forgot to sit to rest your feet (they begin hurting). You have so much more to do! Oh well, do a little more and call it quits.
.... I forgot to mention something. Do all this with forearm crutches. GOOD LUCK.
This is just a slice of my experience. I’m out and about in the public sphere on a daily basis and the amount of assumptions and clear misunderstandings are eye-opening. Breaking down barriers needs both types of inclusion (physical and subtle). One cannot be attained without the other. They depend on each other and need to be accomplished together to get a barrier-free society.