Let's Talk About That Sign...
A few days ago (okay, a week or so ago now, thanks to losing internet for over a week) I shared a picture on social media of a sign posted to an elevator door (a different but equally problematic one on each floor) in the New London City Hall encouraging people to "Take the Stairs" for health reasons. I shared this picture with a note about how it was a little bit ableist. I went on to explain that it insinuates that using the elevator is lazy, and kind of forgets that 20% of people are disabled, and may not even have the option to take the stairs. That it was insensitive, as it took an accessibility device and then subtly shamed people for using it. But it's not a huge offense, like not having an elevator at all. Just maybe not the kindest use of taxpayer dollars, especially since, as I said, 20% of those taxpayers are Disabled People.
I am a healthcare provider. I am a NATURAL healthcare provider. I am keenly aware of the obesity concern in our country, the poor health of our population, and the need for us to rectify our overly-sedentary ways (not that lack of exercise is always connected to obesity/health issues, but that's a whole different topic for a different day). But I am also a disabled woman who deals with ableism, inaccessibility, and judgment literally on a daily basis, and it's exhausting and infuriating. So I decided to say something. Sure, this little sign is innocent enough, and obviously isn't trying to condemn disabled folks for using the lift. But... it also doesn't say that at all. It's just a blanket statement, pasted on my only access to where I need to go. And I know how petty this seems, so I want to talk a little bit about why it isn't, and why it is a problem.
First of all, this sign was in a government building, provided by a government organization, paid for by state tax dollars. And doing some simple math here, if 20% of people are disabled, that means 20% of taxpayers are disabled. Which means that ~20% of the funding for this sign telling you not to be lazy and to walk up the stairs comes from people who, as much as they may want to, might not be able to take the stairs. As I mentioned in my social media post, a lot of days I personally can take the stairs. But on an increasing number, I cannot. I've pushed it and tried before, on days when I shouldn't have. But I was fed up with feeling incapable, broken, and useless... excluded and like a lazy imposition. And you know what happened? I fell down a flight of stairs. Many disabled people (I certainly will not speak for all of us) would give anything to be able to just "take the stairs," but we can't.
I also want to take a hot second and point out that, while our nation is inarguably unhealthy, I don't really think it's the government's job to manage people's individual health for them. But in some senses, that's neither here nor there.
Okay, back on point. We've established that this sign is not well informed and is exclusionary/inconsiderate. But where does the actual discrimination come in? It might come as a surprise that the discrimination, in my mind at least, is not in the sign itself. Not really. Not directly. It's in the society that fights us tooth and nail every day for basic rights, basic accessibility, basic human treatment. If you read my last post you'll know that every week in our country a disabled person is murdered by their caregiver. That 40% (and rising, btw) of police violence is perpetrated against people with disabilities. That we do not have marriage or employment equality. That only 1% of residences in the country are accessible, and that accessibility in general, even in major metropolitan areas, is a joke (more on this in almost everything I've ever posted here, social media, and most other places I talk about stuff).
note: per suggestion, I will eventually write a post outlining the "subtle/hidden inequalities" of being disabled. Stay tuned, and don't @ me with your outrage in the meantime ;)
If you've followed along earlier in the year, you know that the ADA, the only piece of legislature protecting disabled folks, has been under attack yet again. And it's nothing new. The GOP specifically is constantly trying to cut protections and requirements that make spaces safe and equal for people with disabilities (and not nearly enough Dems/Independents/etc are fighting it!). It's been an ongoing battle since the ADA was passed in 1990. In fact, it's been an ongoing fight since long before that. If you follow me on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook then you have probably read about my own personal experiences and the ones I share from other disabled folks about how inaccessibility, prejudice, and discrimination is rife in day-to-day life, even in a (more) liberal and forward-thinking part of the country like New England. About how it's a fight to get into places like banks, restaurants, medical offices, government buildilngs, educational institutions, and lecture halls. How people give so very little respect to disabled people (especially women, in my admittedly biased experience). People steal our parking (often making a place inaccessible from the get-go), and tell us they'll "only be a second." They make jokes about our pain and struggles, and use our conditions as slurs, then tell us not to be so sensitive. They don't make public areas accessible just to save a few bucks (or, as I hear sadly often, "why do they [disabled people] even need to come here?"). They actively lobby for laws that could kill us, all while also ignoring our cries for help, our pleading, not for special treatment, but simply for equality. Just to not be shot by cops. Just to be able to go out to dinner or the movies with our families. Just to be able to go to the doctor without having to spend a fortune on specialized transit (ask me about the subway issue in NYC sometime). Just to be able to get out and vote for our representatives like everyone else. Just to be able to grab a cup of coffee without being interrogated, touched, moved, or harassed. Just to be able to say "we are having these struggles" or "this is an issue" without being talked over and past by people who disregard our experiences because they're inconvenient or uncomfortable.
I know abled folks, and even some disabled folks, don't see this because they don't personally experience it. Which I understand. But just because you don't observe something yourself (especially when you aren't part of that marginalized demographic) doesn't mean it doesn't happen, that it's not a huge issue. That's part of why I write and post and share so openly about my life, my experiences. I would love to go one week, just one, without someone kicking, grabbing, or taking my cane away from me. I shit you not. I would LOVE to go just one week without some nosey stranger in line behind me asking me a bunch of personal, probing medical questions. I would love to be able to attend events with the same (or similar) ease as other people. I would love to be able to access public spaces, especially for events I have paid to attend. I would like to be able to get health insurance that despite the preexisting conditions that I was born with (I know I was born sick, but I like to believe I don't deserve to die because of it). I would love not to have to justify why my needs are as important as those of someone without a mobility aid. I would really like to not have to fight so damn hard to have the same legal rights as everyone else. These aren't huge asks, y'all.
When this is your life, fighting hard from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep again just to be able to live a passably normal life, finally getting to a place and having the accessibility of it used as a teaching moment on how to not be a lazy fatass is just... well it makes you want to just break down crying, if I'm totally honest. We can argue all day about whether the sign is technically discrimination, whether the city has the right or responsibility to try and manage individuals health like that, about whether people are being "overly sensitive" or not, about whether this is a good use of tax dollars, but listen... if you've done something that, intentionally or not, hurts others, especially an already marginalized group, I mean... to quote a thing I saw on the internet once, "I don't know how to make you care about people."
PostScript - It's worth noting that Ledge Light Health District, who was responsible for the creation and distribution of this sign and the others in the building (and across the county) reached out to me personally to apologize, and stated that they "really missed the mark on this one." They went on to acknowledge that their sign was indeed insensitive, in poor taste, and discriminatory even though it was obviously well-intentioned. They have asked me/#AccessibilityPSA to consult with them on their health outreach for New London County moving forward, so they can educate others in a helpful and still respectful way.