I sit here writing this as a twenty-one-year-old disabled woman, yet I feel like a twelve-year-old girl. Today, like many times in my life, I have been excluded due to inaccessibility, ignorance, and poor planning. I feel as though I am back in middle school when I was “too crippled” to sit with the cool kids at lunch. Segregation–even unintended segregation, is a reality for most physically disabled people. Our bodies are viewed as an exception to the rule–we are outliers, and thus the masses will not cater to our needs. We may not be able to use stairs or travel spontaneously, but “most people” can. Or so that is the assumption. I do not believe this happens out of malice, but instead absent-mindedness; people that are not disabled simply do not consider how disabled people’s needs may differ from their own. Even though unintentional, it still hurts and reminds me the disability rights are still on the back burner for most people.
I do not want to be angry or come across as bitter or miserable, but it is difficult to feign nonchalance when inaccessibility, exclusion, and the resulting segregation are regular occurrences in my life. However, in certain spaces, I must swallow my anger and act like I am part of the group even when it does not feel like I am. And so the anger rolls around in my head like the loose pennies I do not intend to use rolling in my backpack–loud, yet useless. I often do not feel entitled to my anger because accommodations often require work on the part of my able-bodied peers; thus it makes sense that I am often excluded from events. However, inaccessibility is a social construct. Able-bodied people built stairs and narrow doorways, able-bodied people tailored a society to fit their needs.
The isolation that stems from inaccessibility has led me down a path of eating disorders and depression in the past. I often blame my body, instead of ignorance and poor planning on the part of people organizing events. It is easier to blame my body because in theory I can fix it (or at least manipulate my body size), but that is unhelpful. I used to punish myself because it was easier to think I could “fix” myself than to understand how deeply rooted ableism is in our society. I did not choose to exist in this body, but people do choose whether they want to accommodate my needs or not.
I am in my fourth year of college, and I am fairly involved, yet at most events I attend, it is clear to me that no one was expecting a student with my level of mobility issues to show up. Many of my peers are quick to point out that I can talk to the director of Disability Services, but it is unrealistic for me to contact them about every event I attend, especially when I decide to go at the last minute. This often prevents me from attending events.
While I do not expect people to bend over backwards for me, I wish everyone was more cognizant of the reality that disabled people like to be included. Like our non-disabled peers, we lead complex lives; we are not one dimensional like the ubiquitous blue disability symbol. Disabled people are human beings, human beings that appreciate being thought of.
Last semester, one of my only disabled friends at school, Angela, passed away. We met through unfortunate circumstances–she had been diagnosed with cancer a year before and was experiencing mobility issues. Angela was looking for a community–a sense of comradery, and I was starting my club Disability is Diversity. We had mutual friends, and began talking after she joined the club. At school events (for context, my school has events every fifty days of school to countdown to graduation), when accessibility was lacking, I was afraid I would accidentally hit intoxicated students with my wheelchair, Angela had to sit down every few minutes, and neither of us could drink a lot, we had each other. We laughed as our friends danced like fools. We ate nachos. We even danced for a song or two. Having someone that understood my limitations was something I did not realize I needed. I do not recognize loneliness when it is the only thing I know, but when I tasted companionship (not just friendship, but a person to share my experiences with), I began to realize how lonely I had been before. For a while, I stopped advocating for myself because I did not see a point in improving accessibility or inclusion if Angela is not here to enjoy it, but I realized that I would not be honoring her if I stopped fighting.