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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Crippled People are Not Wanted

I read several disability related blogs on a daily basis. At the top of my blog reading list is Patricia E. Bauer, a journalist who posts entries on a daily basis. She provides links to stories about disability and in recent weeks has had several outstanding guest editorials by people such as Paul Longmore. This morning when I read her blog I saw a link to a local United Kingdom newspaper, the York Free Press. For those that have never been, York is a lovely city and many buildings are antiquated and architectural beauties. Visiting York is like stepping back in time which is both wonderful and difficult for disabled people.

The York Press article Bauer linked to was entitled "Disabled Access Vetoed" published September 23. This article reinforced two facts: first, churches in general are not welcoming architecturally or socially for people that use a wheelchair. Second, laws like the ADA exist because when one strips away all the polite talk about wheelchair access the reality is crippled people are an affront to the delicate sensibilities of those that can walk. There are of course many exceptions to my generalization but the story in the York Press highlights what far too many really think but are reticent to state--ramps are ugly, an architectural eye sore, and the presence of disabled people is unwanted.

According to the York Press, leaders of St. Olaves Church applied to the City of York Council to improve wheelchair access. Church officials have noticed an increasing number of people that use a wheelchair worship at the church. Wheelchair access to the Church is limited if not dangerous. Based on the news report I read a temporary ramp is put in place when someone using a wheelchair wants to enter or exit the building. The Church proposed to modify an entrance to improve wheelchair access. This request was turned down because "the scheme results in a loss of character and appearance... and would be detrimental to its historic, visual, and architectural interest and would weaken the relationship of the church with the wider conservation area".

My interpretation of this news report is basic: if a person can walk they are welcome. If a person uses a wheelchair their presence is not wanted. What makes this story interesting is the blunt statement by the City of York Council. The primary industry of York is tourism and tourists do not want to see a ramp. Afterall, in America those damn ramps are everywhere. Tourists in York want to see cobble stones, ancient steps, thatched roofs, and archetypical historic buildings and churches. Wheelchair access and the people who use wheelchairs spoil the image the city wants to project.

The belief that wheelchair access is objectionable aesthetically is not limited to York. I have been told many times that wheelchair access is limited, inferior in my estimation, because it is visually unappealing. This viewpoint is an architectural and social problem. Based on my experience, architects do not value wheelchair access. In the United States wheelchair access is included in new construction and exists because it is legally required. However, wheelchair access is far too often an after thought and located in an area where it is unseen and hopefully unused. The letter of the law is adhered to but its intent, equal access for people that use a wheelchair, is not.

If readers think my views are too jaded let me relay one story from when my son was little. At my son's pubic elementary school there was one curb cut that provided access to the building. Like other parents, I faithfully attended the school open house held every fall. For five years in a row, grades first to fifth, when I tried to enter the building the single curb cut was always blocked by a park car (the curb cut was clearly marked by blue paint). I thus had to ask another parent to enter the building, find the principal and have her make an announcement that such and such a car was blocking the only curb cut. I was stuck waiting outside until the driver came to move their car (none ever muttered an apology). After the third time this happened I suggested to the principal that the curb cut needed to be marked more clearly. I suggested the entire curb cut itself be painted blue, that is make it painfully obvious where the curb cut was located. The principal turned her nose up at this suggestion stating that a brightly painted curb cut would be really "ugly" and detract from the school entrance. She also stated she did not mind making the announcement that the curb cut was blocked and noted that I did not have to wait outside too long.

The point of the above story is that architecture is only part of the problem people who use a wheelchair encounter. I was stunned by the principal's attitude and inability to grasp the larger significance of the problem. Surely a well educated person whose job is to set the tone for an entire school should be more socially astute. Then it hit me--the principal was indeed setting the tone for the school. She did not value wheelchair access, assumed I was socially inferior and lacked social standing in the community. The school had met the legal requirements for wheelchair access and utterly failed at the same time.

I am not sure which action bothers me the most--the City of York Council blatant statement that people who use a wheelchair are not welcome or the principal at my son's elementary school. The City of York Council viewpoint may be objectionable but at least I know where I stand. In contrast, the principal at my son's school is forced to follow the law with regard to wheelchair access but does not grasp the intent of the ADA, a law that was passed almost 20 years ago. In both instances I cannot help but conclude my presence is not wanted and that I have a long way to go before my civil rights will be acknowledged.


yanub said...

Oh, William, you speak the truth. Disability parking at the bottom of a steep slope, automatic doors that open only long enough for someone with no disability to get through, "accessible" entrances that double as service alleys, hallways to restaurant restrooms filled with extra many ways to put out the "unwelcome" mat.

william Peace said...

Yes, that symbolic and very real unwelcome mat is always present for disabled people. In reaction to this I have what I think is a funny outdoor mat at my front door. It states in bold print "GO AWAY". I leave this mat outside my door all the time. I only remove it if someone I know who uses a wheelchair is visiting.

FridaWrites said...

To me, she should have only had to make that announcement once, and all the other parents would have been horrified to think they might have accidentally parked there too.

This of course is the ideal world that lives in my imagination and does not match up with reality at all, where people would quickly get it, feel remorse, and never repeat such a mistake again. Since people are now parking on the 2 curbcuts at my daughter's volleyball practice, I'm having the same issue.

william Peace said...

The last time the curb cut was blocked at open house a good friend was already in the school. She happened to be in the classroom with the person who had blocked the curb cut. After the announcement a woman got up to move her car and people laughed--thinking this was funny. By the time the woman got outside her body language indicated she was angry. She got in her car and moved it a grand total of two feet, opened her window and told me to go up the curb cut as though she was speaking to a petulant child. I replied there was still not enough room for me to get by. At this point she rolled here eyes indicating I was being a jerk. I sweetly replied that I would be upset if in my struggle to get by her car and up the curb cut I put a long ugly scratch in her Mercedes Benz. She then gunned her engine and backed out at top speed. The point of this story is that I refused and have always refused to accept a subservient social status. So Frida, be a pain in the ass and make the people blocking the curb cut at your daughters practice move their cars. This provides your daughter with an education in civil rights that will last a life time. This sort of action will not make you popular but I do not care what others think when I assert my civil rights.

CT said...

My disability doesn't get in the way of stairs or even rock climbing... but I bridle at any notion of limiting access for aesthetic reasons, and of course this is a crock, as I could imagine all the beautiful stone work that could be done making everything accessible. :)

Makes me question people's religious faith of course.

william Peace said...

CT, My experience with organized religion has not been positive. Catholic Church administrators and those that attend Mass on Sunday have made it very clear over the years that my presence is not wanted. I have encountered locked doors at supposedly accessible entrances. Those worshipping also like to pray for my poor crippled soul and more than a few have told me if I prayed harder I could walk again. The result is I try to avoid Church and the negative social interaction that comes with attending Mass.

stevefnp1 said...

I am not disabled and I thank god i am not. I see all the time how the world is as a nurse and the things people do. I also teach nursing and see how young adults on their way to being nurses are often also quite cruel. I am not sure what it will take to make people change. I have survived life and death crises in my life and maybe that is what it takes to shake some people up into having empathy and thanking god every minute they are allowed to exist especially when they continue to not change!

stevefnp1 said...

I am not disabled and I thank god i am not. I see all the time how the world is as a nurse and the things people do. I also teach nursing and see how young adults on their way to being nurses are often also quite cruel. I am not sure what it will take to make people change. I have survived life and death crises in my life and maybe that is what it takes to shake some people up into having empathy and thanking god every minute they are allowed to exist especially when they continue to not change!