Thinking like the Physically Disabled

How Do I get out of here?

While listening to a recent podcast of This American Life (TAL) it made me realize the troubles that the disabled have to go through in this country.  I don’t mean the way others treat them differently, although that certainly is an issue, but rather the little things we take for granted.  The sad thing is that, from what I’ve heard from friends and family who have lived abroad, the US is one of the top countries in the way we treat those with physical disabilities.  The story on TAL, in case you don’t have time to listen to it, was about how California is the only (or one of very few) state in the USA where the disabled can sue for Americans with Disabilities Act violations and get monetary compensation.

I’d like to get the monetary compensation part out of the way so that it doesn’t cloud your thinking of the rest of the point I’d like to make.  The plaintiffs are entitled to a sum of money up to $4 000 per violation when they sue an establishment.  I’m not sure what the federal fine is everywhere else.  It must be something paltry because it was stated that, due to the financial consequences, California was the most ADA compliant state in the US.  The segment on TAL decided to focus on the unintended consequences of such a law.  I’ve written before that all laws end up with unintended consequences similar to emergent gameplay on MMOs.  So there is a small segment of the disabled population in California that makes a living suing for ADA violations.  And that quickly becomes the focus of the segment.  Is it fair for people to go around suing every business that’s out of compliance?  I think what ends up incensing people is that these people make a living off of it.  It’s seen as a despicable thing to do.  But I argue it’s more despicable for the businesses not to be in compliance.  The only time I started to agree with the businesses is when things start getting to an uber-picky level where everything is right but one thing.  But, then again, isn’t it the right of that person to be able to do everything we can?

One of the most poignant examples for me was a location where the main disabled guy they were talking to demonstrated that he could not get out of his car because there wasn’t enough space for his van’s ramp.  In essence he was trapped in his car.  I would absolutely hate not only feeling trapped by disability but literally being trapped.  Another woman mentioned how the hairdresser she went to had eliminated the extra space by the disabled spot and left her unable to get out of her car.  She had to go find some street parking somewhere and then wheel herself over.  As someone who’s been on crutches, I can say that distances that feel trivial when you have use of your legs can become nearly insurmountable when you’re unable to move around like a normally-abled person.  Another example in the segment involved one of the guys working on a construction site unable to use the bathroom because the building he worked in only had a bathroom on the second floor and didn’t have an elevator.  He had to go use a gas station bathroom whenever he had to use the bathroom.  That’s appalling.

People who are in wheelchairs, use walkers, or any other kind of physical disability are still citizens.  They still deserve to be able to go to ball games, eat at restaurants, work normal jobs.  They deserve to be able to get in/out of their cars and live completely independent lives if they want to.  In a way, these barriers to access are even worse than those of african descent had it in the US before civil rights.  At least, under the law, they were guaranteed separate but equal facilities.  So, maybe they couldn’t go in the white bathroom, but they could go in the coloured bathroom.  A disabled person might not be able to go to ANY bathroom.  And, there’s even a selfish reason to push for better adherence to ADA requirements – it could easily be you!  A traffic accident at pretty much every speed over 25 MPH has the ability to leave you wheelchair-bound.  And, all of us WILL grow old.  And when you’re old you can’t move around as well – you might need a cane or a walker or a wheelchair.

So far I’ve only focused on the wheelchair-bound because that’s the easiest group to see and think about.  But there’s another group that has it very bad off – the deaf and blind.  Both groups tend to be ignored as we’re moving into this technological world and the silly thing is that there’s no reason for that.  Technology has the ability to make everything accessible in a form they can use, but we are just ignoring it because we don’t realize how hard it is.  Close your eyes and try and surf the Internet.  EVERYTHING is on the Internet now.  It’s the main reason I’m against Three Strikes rules that eliminate Internet access.  In the beginning, the Internet was perfect for the blind.  Everything was text and it’s easy enough to create a text reader, but now it’s become all multimedia and a lot of times people forget about including the blind.  Luckily, there’s the program Orca on Linux to help blind people navigate around their computers, but that’s not perfect.  Not all programs have the required hooks.  They’re working on it and they mustn’t stop.  And for the deaf, the Internet’s multimedia move has sucked as well.  I’m not sure if closed captioning is mandated on television in the US or if all the TV programs just realize that it’s important not to ignore a segment of their audience, but this does not exist on the net.  I think that Congress should mandate that all professionally produced video content on the web needs to have subtitles or captions.  I know that none of the videos on Netflix streaming have it (unless there’s a way to enable it that I don’t know about) and they’re pushing that over DVD rentals.  Right now if you’re deaf you have to stick to DVD rentals.  But it may eventually go away.

The important thing is to realize that there’s a lot we take for granted if all our senses and muscles work correctly.  We need to make sure we can provide for every citizen to have access to the same aspects of society both physical and technological.

5 responses to “Thinking like the Physically Disabled”

  1. I dunno, man, there was also that time pre-Civil Rights when Africans/African-Americans where they were slaves. Maybe you want to tone down that part of this op-ed?

    • I thought about that. But I meant between slavery and the 1960s. Although one key difference is that the stuff against the african-americans was out of hate and the stuff against the disabled is out of ignorance. But, again, I think that ignorance is part of what makes it so insidious. I do take your point that my comparison is almost bordering on Godwin’s Law levels of non-comparison.

  2. I was just thinking about disabilities the other day – I was at the gym and there was an open parking spot right next to the door. I passed it up because automatically assumed it was handicap parking. Once I was out of my car, I realized it wasn’t, but that’s how ingrained disabled parking is in my mind. And then it made me think – should a gym have handicapped parking?

    But you’re right. There’s all these things non-disabled people don’t even think consider. Having never been in a wheelchair. I never would have realized that you can’t turn around in a bathroom stall in a wheelchair. Or if you make a building that’s very white and glassy (as many fancy, minimalist places are), it’s much harder for older people who have duller senses. It’s like a totally different way of thinking.

    • I’m glad that I helped you think about some new stuff you might not have thought about.

      As far as disabled parking at the gym – if people still have use of their arms, they certainly have the right to work them out. Also, they might play basketball in a wheelchair league. And, of course, they can swim.

  3. […] After this blog post it shouldn’t be a surprise that I was quite annoyed at the United Artists AFI edition of the movie, “Fiddler on the Roof”.  I was watching it for the third time a couple weeks ago and, as is our habit, I turned on subtitles.  Neither Danielle and I are deaf, but we often turn on subtitles to make sure we can understand everyone in the movie.  Sometimes they have accents that are hard to decipher and sometimes they’re blocked out by ambient noise in the movie or in the real world. […]