Civil rights laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act are designed not only to promote equal access for people with disabilities, but to prevent the illegal seizure of our dignity.
Earlier this week, I came across a video detailing the mistreatment of a protestor and wheelchair user, Mr. Baxter Jones, during his 2014 arrest in Detroit:[vimeo_embed src=”https://vimeo.com/228668496″/]
The video, produced by the law firm representing Mr. Jones, tells the story of how he was taken to jail in a vehicle that was not adapted for transporting wheelchair users. The van used by police had no wheelchair lift or ramp, nor did it have securement straps or a seatbelt. This amounted to a violation of his civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it was also an affront to his dignity.
On this blog, I have endeavored to educate disabled people, informing them of their rights to equal access in their local communities and around the world. I have also spoken out against the rampant violations of disability rights within the travel industry. Accessibility violations encompass every aspect of travel and the built environment, including sidewalks, public transportation, taxis, hotel rooms, air travel and more.
My passion lies not in the law itself, but in protecting the dignity of people with disabilities. That passion and my understanding of the American promise leads me to demand respect from my able-bodied peers and the companies that I do business with.
While America is a country where “all people are created equal,” people with disabilities are often made to feel otherwise. When our civil rights are ignored or abridged, our dignity is stolen. And, without dignity, we are left to feel embarrassed and even ashamed of our own existence.
As I pondered the case of Mr. Jones, I considered situations where my own dignity has been seized by a lack of accessibility and businesses’ refusal to comply with disability rights laws. While there are many examples, one stands out—the denial of preboarding in the airline industry.
When other passengers are allowed to board the aircraft before me, I am often made to “put on a show” for the able-bodied passengers. In transferring to/from the aisle chair in the presence of others, having to ask people to get up so I can access my window seat, etc., I become flustered, nervous and rushed, jeopardizing my safety. My dignity, too, is lost, with gawkers and spectators turning their attention to my physical struggle.
I thought also of the times when I have been embarrassed among my own friends. “That restaurant/bar is not accessible, so I can’t join you” or, “I can’t get a wheelchair taxi, so I have to cancel.” This lack of accessibility sets us apart from society—it excludes us and needlessly exaggerates the attention to our differences.
How we respond to the accessibility violations we encounter may also jeopardize our dignity. So often, I want to scream, shout or curse in the face of disability discrimination. But doing so would be undignified and further distance me from others.
In a truly accessible world, the dignity of all people would be maintained, with each person given an equal opportunity to participate in society. Although we are far from that ideal, exposing disability discrimination is an important step toward improvements in accessibility and inclusion. We must seize the accessible opportunities that do exist while demanding that our dignity is upheld and our rights to equal access and participation respected. Without cursing, of course.
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