Earlier this week, as I was crossing the parking lot toward a grocery store, I noticed a man sitting on a motorcycle near the accessible parking spots– the spots closest to the door that are reserved for disabled people. I realized he was parked in one of the striped spaces between the accessible spots.
For a long time, I didn’t know what those striped areas were for. They provide wheelchair users the space necessary to lower their ramp or lift out of their car so they can get in and out. I also learned that many people who are unaware of their purpose, block these areas, thereby preventing the car next to them from loading wheelchairs/walkers on or off. An obstacle in the striped area means that disabled people may not be able to get in or out of their car.
I kept staring at the motorcycle, assessing, tempted to just go right up to the man and tell him to move but I’ve never told someone off for blocking disability parking before.
I had recently read a story about a disabled woman who was making a run to the grocery store during the busy holiday season, only to discover that the entire row of legally-mandated accessible parking spots was blocked by a truck selling Christmas trees. The few spots that were left were being used by customers loading their trees into their cars, preventing every person who actually needed those spots from using them.
Thankfully, the disabled woman managed to swipe a spot. If she hadn’t, she would have had to skip shopping or wait in the car while her husband and daughter shopped for her. But as soon as she left her car, she was forced to endure a shouting match with a customer who wanted to load her Christmas tree. “She stole my spot!” yelled the able-bodied woman who had 100 other parking spots to choose from.
The disabled woman reported the problem to store management, received a sincere apology, but half an hour later when they left the store, the truck was still there. The people in charge of enforcing the rules had not bothered to do so. Who knows how many disabled customers came and left, unable to shop because they had no place to park.
I don’t think able-bodied people understand just how non-negotiable disabilities are. Some of us can walk, some of us can walk short distances. But when we cannot walk, or if we can only walk a maximum of 15 feet, that limit is not something we can push against. We can’t bargain with it. We can’t make it go away. A deaf person cannot negotiate with their level of hearing. A blind person cannot adjust their level of visual impairment.
Those of us who do have the flexibility to walk longer distances will often leave the accessible spots for someone else on the days that we don’t need them, precisely because we understand that others need them more. We don’t tend to ask for more than we need or round up our limitations for convenience. We play down our needs as often as possible.
I pondered over the story about the disabled woman and the christmas trees as I went inside the grocery store, trying to decide what I wanted to do about the blocked accessible spot. I imagined what it would be like to arrive for a normal boring shopping trip only to discover that you simply can’t get out of your car. I decided to wait a minute and if he was still there when I went back to check, I’d find a staff member and tell them to handle it.
And then I’d check back again to make sure the staff member had followed through.
For some reason, getting people to understand that people with disabilities need accommodation isn’t as simple as telling them. When a person whose job it is to serve customers, refuses to help or offers only verbal support with no action behind it, it reminds us that able-bodied customers will always be prioritized over disabled ones.
After about five minutes, I went and checked on the motorcycle. Thankfully it was gone.
But the awful feeling that crept over me when I saw it didn’t leave.
When someone blocks the wheelchair loading zones, when someone without a disability sticker uses a parking spot, when businesses render the accessible parking spots un-useable or provide a disproportionately small number of them, it sends a very clear message: If you cannot use a normal parking spot, we are fine with the idea that you may not be able to buy food or enter our building. We are fine with pretending you don’t exist.
What if I hadn’t been there? Would anyone have noticed that there was a problem? In all likelihood, I’ve walked past the same situation multiple times and never thought twice about it. How often does this problem go completely unaddressed?
I don’t have a disability parking pass because I’m now strong enough to walk the extra distance without issue the vast majority of the time so in some ways, this issue doesn’t directly affect me. But the cultural attitude this problem is rooted in, does affect me.
When I worked as a cashier, customers would often place their money on the counter next to the credit card machine– outside of my reach. I told one man that I needed help with the money because I had trouble bending over. He snapped, “You shouldn’t be working here if you can’t bend over.”
Never mind that it would actually be illegal to fire me from a job that’s 99% customer service skills and multitasking, and only 1% bending-over. I heard this attitude from customers repeatedly whenever I asked for help: I shouldn’t be working there, it didn’t make sense that I was working there if I was disabled, I should really find another job. No one offered me a job of course, and no one was interested in hearing that I’d still need accommodation and assistance at a different job. I’d still be disabled.
It was that same message: You shouldn’t be here. Can you just not be here? I’m not interested in the mechanics of how you do that. Can you just stop? Can you just resolve my cognitive dissonance about disabled people lacking the accommodation they need to work comfortably or live without being required to work and let me pretend that’s not an issue?
As with any form of oppression, avoiding ableism isn’t as simple as avoiding the specific people that treat you badly. These messages surround us and make up the structure that we live in: People with service dogs kicked out of public spaces or denied access to public transportation or even private taxis; large sections of well-populated cities that are not wheelchair accessible; people with invisible disabilities harassed for using accessible parking spots because they don’t look like they need one; staff members denying disability assistance in airports because the customer doesn’t look disabled; denying access to life saving health care based on pre-existing conditions; youtube videos about rare illnesses and disabilities filled with comments that say, “Let them die and put them out of their misery,” even when the sick person was capable of communicating and said nothing about being unhappy with their lives.
If your disability prevents you from working, the average length of time it takes to be approved for disability assistance in the United States is two years. The first time you apply is almost always denied, as standard practice, regardless of your circumstances. You cannot work or bring in income during the time you’re waiting for your application, or you will be denied. And if you’re lucky enough to be approved, the amount you receive will not be enough to live on. If you make income from any additional resources or if you get married, your stipend can be revoked or reduced.
How do you survive in such a system? How can you not absorb that you should not exist?
Worst of all, these decisions are made and enforced by able-bodied people who just don’t listen when we say, “Actually, that’s not how this works.” We don’t have the power to set the record straight on what disabilities “look like,” or what resources we should have access to, or what real accessibility is. We just have to hope and pray and be thankful for what we get.
These ideas seep into you, affect your decisions, your opinions of yourself. You may not even realize they are there.
About a year after I became disabled, I noticed that something in my romantic relationship of four years had changed. My boyfriend felt less like a life partner and more like a companion.There were no changes in his behavior that were causing this shift. He wasn’t moving away from me. I was moving away from him.
Once it became clear that my disability was not temporary, I found myself believing that I could no longer be a good life partner for my boyfriend. My life was filled with so much maintenance, boring medical talk, careful balancing of treatments and resources, and always always new limitations. I couldn’t offer excitement or spontaneity or passion like I used to be able to. Why would he choose boring and limited? Why would he want me if I was disabled? Why would anyone?
While I managed to work through these feelings in this particular instance, the central issues beneath them popped up again. When I injured my arm, it took an incredible amount of courage to ask for the help I needed with cooking, cleaning, and other chores.
But even in the face of so many friends willing to help me, my self-esteem plummeted. I couldn’t use my arm or hand at all and the extra energy my body was spending on healing and reacting to pain meant that my focus was shot too. No cooking or baking projects, I could only type on my laptop for short periods of time; no writing, no event planning, no DJing, no any of the things I was good at. I could only read articles on my laptop, watch TV, and spend time with whoever was available to come to my house.
I found myself confronting some old ideas about myself: What value do I have if I can contribute nothing? Why would people want to be around me when all I do is take from them and I don’t give back? I have always needed to be giving 50% more than I take, and if the amount I take gets too high, I’m tortured with guilt. What was there to love about me if I didn’t have my talents to hide behind? What would happen to me if I spent large chunks of my life in this position?
I had these limiting beliefs about myself long before I became disabled, but the thoughts in my head were now reinforced, not just by me, but by society’s opinions of my disabled body.
At its center, I think the purpose of any kind of oppression is to minimize the existence of people like you. Whether that is by actively killing you, letting you die through neglect or lack of resources, by conceptually obliterating you, by making even you question whether you actually exist or not, or by punishing you for every moment you do exist. Oppression of any group seems to boil down to, “Everything that you’re doing right now, could you please not? Could you please just, cease to be?”
© 2020, Kella Hanna-Wayne
Originally published on yoppvoice.com as “What Ableism Feels Like” on Jan. 14th, 2018
KELLA HANNA-WAYNE (Yopp), one of our newest Zine team members and a partner in our upcoming February series on illness and disability, is a disabled, chronically/mentally ill freelance writer who is the editor, publisher, and main writer for Yopp, a social justice blog dedicated to civil rights education, elevating voices of marginalized people, and reducing oppression; and for GlutenFreeNom.Com, a resource for learning the basics of gluten-free cooking and baking. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, Multiamory, Architrave Press and is forthcoming in a chapter of the book Twice Exceptional (2e) Beyond Learning Disabilities: Gifted Persons with Physical Disabilities. For fun, Kella organizes and DJ’s an argentine tango dancing event, bakes gluten-free masterpieces, sings loudly along with pop music, and makes cat noises. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Patreon, Medium, and Instagram.