My dear friend R has agreed to let me share her difficult experience as a lesson in being truly inclusive and accessible.
R pays for a club membership that comes with myriad services. A visible physical disability prevents R from using many of them. She appreciates the ability to use those she can, which are housed in a specific area of the club.
When visiting the club, R encounters several physical barriers. The club was able to utilize exemptions from certain accommodations required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Despite these difficulties, R makes the trip most days.
Recently, a staffer began insisting R vacate “her” space so it could be used by members who paid a special fee. To be fair, it is a policy the staffer can invoke. However, other staffers do not, mainly because the entire space isn’t needed for these special sessions.
It has happened several times. R forced herself to speak up, despite fears of being labeled a troublemaker. A sense that this wasn’t just about her pushed R to persist. As she says, “Accessibility should not be a luxury.”
The response was that R should use other services during those times. When she explained that her disability prevents her from doing so, it was suggested she hadn’t tried hard enough. One option offered to her required walking up a flight of stairs, which is impossible.
During each of R’s exchanges with the staffer, other members watched silently. It could have been any of us. Maybe we, too, would say nothing.
We’d have good, reasonable reasons for our actions. Maybe we’d think, “Why should I say something? R seemed to handle herself well. It’s none of my business. Wouldn’t it be condescending of me to help her?”
Or maybe we’ve been that staffer. Perhaps we have acquiesced to “good enough” or “legally acceptable” in the past instead of insisting on a fair accommodation. Can I get away with “good enough”? Sure. Can I point to others who are doing likewise? Absolutely. Does that make it OK? Of course not.
Silence is endorsement — and condemnation; it affirms the aggressor and convinces R she’s making a big deal about nothing.
Likewise, excuses are barriers. R wasn’t asking for special treatment. She wanted an accommodation that would bring her experience closer to those many of us take for granted. All that is required is thinking of solutions, not reasons to say no.
R’s days are a series of decisions and choices many of us don’t need to make. She must anticipate how she’ll handle issues of access, attitudes and options. Doing things like driving, working and socializing require she strategize about parking, sidewalk ramps, doors, asking for assistance and what to do if reasonable requests are deemed unreasonable.
When R shared this experience with me, we were seated in a crowded restaurant. We were able to have this experience together because of an accommodation made for us. This was done without question or discussion; staff merged us into the restaurant’s landscape, altering the flow of the space only slightly and in a way that quickly became imperceptible.
What that restaurant staff did is what is often required to provide “physical and emotional accessibility for all,” as R describes it. Accessibility needn’t be difficult, expensive or earth-shattering.
Instead, R’s requirements wish list is simple and possible, including things like empathy; ability, desire and willingness to accommodate needs; and respect for the innate dignity of others.