It’s Not Me, It’s You: A Take on Accessibility
When I learned about the Social Model of Disability, I was the first to roll my eyes (is anyone surprised?)
The Social Model of Disability is an ideology that suggests that the problem isn’t someone’s physical impairment, but rather, inaccessible environments, coupled with negative public perception of disability.
I hadn’t heard of this idea until I was seventeen and at my very first advocacy conference. In the heat of that sweltering summer in New Mexico, all I really wanted was for someone to bring me Starbucks, and for all these disabled people to stop whining and start living. Up until then, I always thought of disability as something that I just needed to deal with and move on- why should the world have to change for me?
In college, I had the opportunity to learn more about this school of thought, and continued to brush it off as an excuse for disabled people to be negative. I’ve always thought that with a stubborn attitude and just the right amount of sass, I could make anything happen. The only kind of “social model’ I gave any thought to was the socializing that happened over wine and cheese after class.
Recently, I’ve learned that there are some obstacles even the most positive of attitudes can’t overcome.
About a month ago, I began the search for my first post-grad apartment. This is both terrifying and exciting. While the thought of paying over a thousand dollars just for a place to sleep makes me nauseous, I am excited for the freedom of a place to call my own. I’m sure that these polarizing emotions aren’t unique to me. I think that everyone’s early twenties are an inherently unsettling time- how can anyone manage staggering Southern California rent, the complexities of a romantic relationship, all while struggling to climb the corporate ladder? Just in case that wasn’t complicated enough, imagine having to take on a whole new layer of complexity. Imagine having to navigate a world that wasn’t made with you in mind.
“Yes! It’s a downstairs unit.”, the realtor says encouragingly.
“Great, so there’s no stairs?” Finally, a spark of hope.
“Well, there’s about three sets of five stairs up to it, but once you get inside, it’s all flat!”
The problem isn’t just stairs though. Often times, inaccessibility is sneakier than that. A driveway, too steep push up independently. A bathroom, wide enough for you to enter, but not to turn around in. Over time every uneven sidewalk becomes a subtle reminder that you’re different, your needs are special.
Of course there are accessible apartment complexes, but they come with a hefty price tag. Buildings were required to have adaptable units (meaning, only accessible in theory), after 1991. With new buildings comes nicer amenities at a higher cost. In the housing world, accessibility is equated with luxury rather than necessity.
As every property I visit has some kind of deal breaker, I’ve started to realize that maybe the Social Model of Disability makes more sense than I originally thought. There are times that I am frustrated by my own body, but 9 times out of 10, I am frustrated by an
environment and society that caters almost exclusively to an able-bodied population.
Limited access to necessary resources, like housing, perpetuates existing stereotypes about the disabled. When disabled people live at home with their parents, they are often labeled as dependent and unambitious. People are quick to blame a person’s medical condition, or even their character, before even thinking of structural and societal barriers to success. From there the cycle continues. When people assume that disabled people are lazy or dependent, why try to make the housing market more accessible?
If the world were perfectly wheelchair accessible, I would hardly think of my Cerebral Palsy as a limitation. While I understand this isn’t reality, when we begin to think of disability in this light, we can make progress toward a more accessible, inclusive, and productive society. People living with physical disabilities have all the potential and drive as able bodied people, and can do great things, if only we were given the right tools.
The world is ours for the taking; we just need you to build us a ramp.