My pet peeve: Labeling “othered” groups as though everyone who falls under that umbrella term has the same needs to achieve full inclusion in society.
For obvious reasons, I’m going to focus on the umbrella of people with disabilities/disabled people right now, but these thoughts have been heavily influenced by reading posts from GLTB activists about trans* inclusion (or lack thereof) and blog carnivals like the Asian Women’s Carnival and International Blog Against Racism Week.
Over the summer, while I was in the process of ranting to Don about my disappointment with our current government’s inclusion of people with disabilities, I was stopped on the street and invited to a talk. “Is it fully accessible?”, I asked.
“Oh yes,” responded the person inviting us. “We have a wheelchair ramp.”
“Do you have material available in braille? Do you have a Sign interpreter?”
“Well then,” I snapped. “I guess you aren’t fully accessible, are you?”
(As I said, I was just ranting about this when we were interrupted with this invitation, so it was already on my mind. People need to pick better times to interrupt me. I’d like to think that normally I’d be more polite.)
There’s a certain hierarchy of accessibility that “everyone” knows about. If you have a ramp, you’re good! That this doesn’t address the needs of any number of disabled people is irrelevant – the main image of people with disabilities is that person (usually white and male) in a wheelchair.
So, in the effort to be inclusive without thinking thoroughly about what disability means, and who is included when making accommodations, we end up with situations like this one, from the comments on a post on disability at Feministe:
Fire alarms. So it’s great and all when fire alarms have bright flashing lights in addition to the blaring sound, so people with hearing loss (like my dad) will know if the alarm goes off and be able to evacuate, right? Yeah, well, it so happens that I have photosensitive epilepsy, and the light on pretty much every alarm cycles on a frequency that triggers my seizures. So if the alarm goes off, not only do I have a seizure, which sucks in the first place, but I also cannot evacuate the building because I am either (a) unconscious and convulsing or (b) in “zombie mode” and unable to navigate the world safely.
I always feel so, so guilty about advocating for accommodations for people with epilepsy that will make the place unsafe for people with other disabilities…but at the same time, I have EXACTLY THE SAME RIGHT to be able to be there and/or be safe there. It seems as though some types of disabled people–deaf, blind, and/or in a wheelchair, in particular–are privileged over others. I lived on campus as an undergraduate, and when the school installed a new fire alarm system that included flashing lights, I was told that they would have someone “come check on me” whenever the alarm went off. Excuse me? You can’t have someone come check on the zero deaf students in the building but the three of us with photosensitive epilepsy have to wait until the fire department shows up? Not to mention the risks that come with having a seizure in the first place (such as, for example, death)?
Thoughtless accommodations, but gosh darn it, we’re “accessible”.
I know next to nothing about epilepsy, and my knowledge of deafness is limited, so I have no idea what sorts of accommodations would balance both the need for a flashing alarm and the need not to cause seizures in people. But that’s not my point. The point is that full inclusiveness, rather than going for the “easy” solution, would actually consider those needs and work them both in. It would be working with people with disabilities to design safety systems that would accommodate everyone. (Deaf people can also have epilepsy, after all.)
Grouping “othered” populations under this umbrella term allows the “general” population to decide “Oh, I’ve included a ramp, I’ve got a flashing light, and there’s braille on my elevator buttons, I’m set.” But we don’t all have those needs.
We’ve been grouped together as having the same needs both because it’s easier for the “general” population to decide they’ve “done enough”, and because we have greater strength in both self- and group-advocating when we band together. But, just like when other “othered” groups band together, things get left out, put aside, maybe next yeared.
I’m still mulling all of this over. My main activism-related issues are The Big Ones – my city is full of “just one steps” and has a serious lack of Sign Language interpreters. But right now, I’m sitting in a room with fluorescent lighting (severe migraine trigger). It looks like the fire alarm is of the flashing-light type. The door is pretty darn heavy. I haven’t seen a single TTY- pay phone on campus. And probably several other things that I’ve missed.
It’s almost like the easiest, umbrella-term solution isn’t the best one.
I’m still thinking about a lot of this stuff – I certainly don’t have all the answers. Feel free to get into it in the comments. (My schedule is such that I won’t be able to respond to anything until evening my time at the earliest, although other moderators will be approving comments for me.)