As society reopens, the fight for disability rights continues | Opinion
I am tired. I don’t mean my arms are exhausted from rolling my wheelchair, or I am tired because I stayed up too late last night. No, I’m talking about the bone-tired fatigue that only marginalized groups know, the result from that sinking feeling in your stomach whenever you have to let some act of discrimination roll off your back. Or, in my case, explain for the umpteenth time, what Ableism is and why the person leading me to a stairwell is committing it.
For the last year and a half I have stayed in my house like so many of us. I rarely ventured out, only for doctor appointments and to visit my mom. During that time I forgot how difficult it is to let things roll off my back, to ignore the person who responds to my question by directing their answer to my able-bodied companion, or to realize people expect twice as much from me if I want to be treated like everyone else. But I’m not the only one who forgot.
Now that everything is re-opening and we can safely leave our houses and socialize, I notice that Ableism is back and worse than ever. Maybe I naively thought the “new” normal wouldn’t be so bad; boy, am I getting a rude awakening.
For instance, I recently attended a virtual meeting held by my bosses describing our “back to office” procedure; because of many issues, we will be moving back to a new floor of my office building. The building was constructed in the 1950s pre-dating any disability rights laws; though far from being exempt from those laws, tenants and owners have never made the building fully accessible. The building has approximately 34 floors, but only three of those floors have handicapped bathrooms. The floor I initially worked on has such a bathroom, I spent two and a half years full of sweat and tears lobbying for the handicapped bathroom on my floor. Now, moving to another floor would require me to use the elevator every time I had to use the restroom or start the fight all over.
I live in Detroit; a city incorporated 316 years ago. We have had our share of triumphs, and probably more than our share of woes. Our infrastructure is archaic but we’re here, struggling to keep moving forward. For the past couple of years I have volunteered with a group of community disability rights activists and advocates to bring attention to the inequities faced by individuals with disabilities. We were influential in creating an Office of Disability Affairs in the city government. It is a stripped down version of the fully-budgeted and staffed department we envisioned, which is needed. But, at least it’s a start. Some of the stories I have heard have made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And for every one of their stories, I have my own.
I also volunteer with some dedicated lawyers through a disability rights section of the State Bar. We know the laws, we know our rights. We also know how to co-exist; something that a lot of people seem to have forgotten in our rush to re-acclimate.
Before the pandemic started affecting Michigan, we sent a letter to the owners and major tenants of my office building, which happens to be the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building, regarding the lack of compliance with the American with Disabilities Act, especially regarding the bathrooms. The letter was mostly ignored and nothing, to my knowledge, has been done to address the noncompliance issue. So I, and every individual with a disability having business with the City of Detroit or the 3rd Circuit Court, are back where we started years ago.
Something has to change. It is the year 2021, for heaven’s sake. I am glad we are re-opening and that we are close to controlling this atrocity called COVID; but in seeing and interacting with each other again, wouldn’t a little empathy go a lot further than what we have now?
Jill Babcock is an attorney who lives and works in Detroit. She is a disability rights advocate and activist.