Living in a society that does not genuinely welcome you can be disheartening. I certainly don’t expect everything I talk about here to change overnight, but I hope there can be more awareness of how our actions or inactions can affect those around us. After becoming paralyzed, I knew the landscape of my life would be changed forever. Learning to maneuver physically in an able-centric world has obviously been but achievable. Although challenging, this was to be expected. What really surprised and frustrated me was how my physical disability isolated me socially; how I am regarded or disregarded when I am out in the world would affect me on a much more fundamental, emotional level. Of course, it’s hard for others to imagine each and every way a person can come to feel isolated by a single act on their part, and I understand that not all of the ways I am treated are purposeful or done with knowledge or malice. These observations are about how people’s awareness can be raised to comprehend what living with a disability is like from a first-hand perspective.
The lack of independence and spontaneous transportation for disabled people creates the phenomenon of forced intimacy. We are forced to reach out to our community not to be isolated, but reaching out is not always easy. It changes the dynamic of your relationships with your family and friends. It forces you to reveal things about yourself that you don’t feel comfortable sharing and turns the dynamic of that relationship to one of sympathy and dependence rather than helping and assisting. Let’s look at some of the ways this manifests.
Transportation, either public or private, is essential for everyone to have access to so they can go to work or socialize. For the most part, transportation is ability-centric. Let’s consider public transit as private transportation tends not only to be cost-prohibitive but, when a specialized vehicle is needed, you can’t just hail any old taxi going down the street. In larger urban areas like New York City, if you are nondisabled, you have access to any train or bus available and can go anywhere you need to at almost any time. But what happens when you need an elevator to get on a train? Instead of there being one at every station, you only have access at select stations, and those may not be anywhere close to where you need to end up. If you then need to use a bus, many of which are wheelchair accessible but often overcrowded, you had better hope there is space on it, and those occupying the front section are willing, without resentment, to give up their seats.
When I lived in the Bay Area, The BART, while one of the more accessible public transportation systems, there is much room for improvement; I would often try to enter or exit a train platform only to find an out-of-order sign-on the station’s elevator. With no prior notice at any point of my trip. I would then be forced to get off the train, find out the elevator is broken, get back on the train, ride to the next station, get off, and ride back in the opposite direction to use the elevator on the other side of the original station where I intended to disembark in the first place. Suddenly, your trip became twice as long and ten times as frustrating as the commute of a nondisabled person.
Then there is the issue of sidewalks. Some cities do not have proper sidewalks that everyone (able or not) can use to travel safely to their destination. If sidewalks do exist, there may not be curb cuts or, if there are, they are extremely damaged and impossible to use as intended. At times I must roll in the street and use the bike lanes (if they are around) to roll in the road because aside from there not being any curb cuts, I cannot use the sidewalks themselves if they are in great disrepair. I am sometimes in the way of bicyclists or unsafe near traffic. This creates a sense of both being “in the way” and not belonging to each world.
A lack of space is another way disabled people are isolated. Over the past two decades, it’s been a trend for restaurants or performance spaces to open that are often too small for a wheelchair. In these places, disabled people are forced to ask complete strangers to make room so you can get to your table. Sometimes your chair is so big that you are invading their space, causing the dynamic of social interaction into one in which disabled people feel like they have to apologize for their presence and the nondisabled feel inconvenienced for having to accommodate them. The grocery store is another environment where we force disabled people to have to ask complete strangers again for assistance to reach a product, taste a sample, or even get through an aisle that is not wide enough. (The original Berkely Bowl in Berkeley, CA, and Greenlife in Asheville, NC are two incredibly inaccessible examples). Navigating an aisle filled with nondisabled people can be quite a task in and of itself, not to mention the social skills needed to ask people who are not paying attention to you to move so you can get what you want.
My last observation is focused on simple awareness and mindfulness. I find that in most cases, nondisabled people unintentionally cause feelings of social isolation for disabled people without even realizing they are doing it. I remember one of the first times friends isolated me without any realization. It was in a park for someone’s birthday. Everybody that was celebrating was sitting on a small pavilion that had a step. Being in a wheelchair, I couldn’t access the space where everybody was, so I sat alone, isolated from the party. Nothing is more depressing than sitting by yourself as you watch all your friends gather in a space that is entirely inaccessible to you. As they are each other’s company without even one second of awareness that the only thing that prevented you from socializing with them was simply a step. It’s sometimes the littlest things that can get in our way and make us feel disconnected from others.
What disabled people must endure every day socially is so detrimental to their state of mind. We as a society must recognize, accept, and acknowledge how we ignore, forget, or are entirely unaware of how we could be isolating disabled people. Then we will be on our way to living in a place that being truly inclusive is realized.