In the US, the hard work of generations of activists with disabilities brought about the Americans with Disabilities Act, civil-rights legislation that became federal law in 1990. Now that the changes mandated by the ADA have percolated through society, equal access is no longer a dream or an idea on paper. It is overwhelmingly the norm.
Although the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms specifically includes people with physical and mental disabilities, accessiblity codes are determined at a provincial and municipal level - and are often considered optional.
(Obviously, the US's grossly inadequate health care non-system creates major obstacles for people with disabilites. Indeed, it even creates more people with disabilities, as treatable conditions worsen and cause permanent damage.)
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For people with physical disabilities, access isn't just about using a ramp to get into a building. It's about getting into that building to be out in public - to work, go to school, and participate in every aspect of society. The idea has always been that greater access would bring greater participation, and greater participation would bring greater acceptance. Eradicating physical barriers would begin to diminish the attitudinal barriers.
In my 20-some-odd years of interviewing people with disabilities, I've learned that attitudinal barriers are the far more enduring of the two.
Even though physical access lags in Canada, I think attitudes towards disability are more advanced here. The Paralympics, for example, are so much more well known and understood in Canada than in the US. I have been long tracking and documenting the shameful treatment of US Paralympic athletes by the United States Olympic Committee, and it never improves. The higher profile of the Paralympics in Canada may be an effect of better attitudes - or it may be part of the cause. Seeing top-level athletes with disabilities compete in the international arena goes a long way to normalizing disability.
Access and attitudes don't necessary align. Many people with disabilities who have traveled extensively observe that in places with less physical access, they have found greater acceptance and willingness to help, relative to the US. Many people have told me that when they were in Athens, or Rome, or Paris - old cities where uniform accessibility is a pipe dream - strangers went out of their way to help them, and to find a way to get them where they wanted to go. The help wasn't offered in a pitying or condescending way, but in a warm and welcoming way: we have a person who wants to participate, let's see how we can make that happen.
This can't compensate for lack of access on a daily basis - I'd hate to live constantly dependent on the kindness of strangers - but the Americans I spoke to were still very impressed by this difference.
And there are societies where full accessibility and enlightened attitudes seem to be the norm. A woman I've interviewed for several stories - a Canadian who is an international water skiing champion - raved about traveling in Australia. A wheelchair-user, she traveled on her own by train, and everything was completely accessible. She said it was paradise, both in access and attitudes. In her experience, nothing in the US or Canada came close.
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In the US, a whole generation of people with disabilities has grown up with the American with Disabilities act, completely mainstreamed in a mostly accessible world. But attitudes are slower to change than we had hoped or imagined. As in so many people's equality movements, it's much better, but there's such a long, long way to go.
Check out this story by Josie Byzeck, managing editor of New Mobility magazine. Josie interviewed wheelchair-using 20-somethings to see what issues they face. Some excerpts.
Romanik says he's never really been discriminated against: "Well, except sometimes by people I ask out on a date." He typically meets prospective partners over the Internet. "When they find out about my disability, often they don't even want to meet. So I don't tell them ahead of time. Some flip out — 'You should tell people,' and 'I just don't feel comfortable.' The disability image needs to change — this idea that disabled people can't have sex, and so on."
Although it's painful to be rejected, Romanik recognizes it's not personal. "People slighting me used to make me feel like I'm not worthy," Romanik says. "Lately my attitude is more, 'Too bad, your loss!"
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"Things are accessible now, we can get around and do things, but there's still this barrier. I don't know, it's kind of like we still aren't being treated like normal people," Wilk says, explaining how even though physical barriers may be melting away, the interpersonal obstacles left behind are just as daunting.
Wilk doesn't date much. "There is a certain etiquette that we miss out on, as people with disabilities," she says. "I've had guys in wheelchairs come up to me and ask if I want to get married when they first meet me — that's not the best way to get to know someone. They don't know you have to take things step by step, and ask someone out on a date. I guess they don't get the whole courtship thing."
And forget nondisabled guys. "I can get them as friends but as far as dating, it's really hard," Wilk says. "I wish it weren't like that, and one day it probably won't be. People will become more educated and realize it's OK to date us, it's not something to be ashamed of ... hopefully the attitudinal barriers will go away."
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"My biggest thing is not physical access, it's definitely the stigma and attitudes attached to what others think we can do," says Ayers, who has osteogenesis imperfecta. "Society and professionals, whether colleagues or employers, are supportive of certain things I want to do in my career, like my writing, but if I want to work directly with children or adolescents, I encounter a lot more hesitancy and discrimination."
Once, a supervisor actually told her to just stick to research. "I asked, 'Am I terrible as a clinician?' No, I was told, it would just be easier for me," says Ayers. "For her it was a huge issue for me to work around kids with emotional disturbances. All of a sudden she was very protective, even though she didn't know me."
A newlywed, Ayers is thinking about babies these days. She and her husband both have OI, which means they'd most likely pass it on to their children. This bothers some people, especially parents of others with OI. "I try to address it with them, that their views send their children the message that, 'We love you but we don't want more people like you in the world.' And some say, 'Why would you go through all that trouble, just adopt.' People are oblivious to how difficult it is for people with disabilities to adopt."
Barriers to career goals and parenting are Ayers' biggest access issues. But the little ones, too, can sting. "In the world people don't make eye contact, and sit two or three chairs away from you. They quickly put together a plan to go to lunch and don't invite you even though they invited two or three others," she says. "Some people are not consciously aware they're excluding us. It's even harder when people building those walls don't know they're there."
On the same page, you'll see a piece by Allison Cameron Gray. As a teenager, Ally used to write an advice column for Kids On Wheels, the groundbreaking magazine for wheelchair-using kids that I wrote and helped edit for several years (now defunct). Ally is one of the people who talked to me about traveling in Europe, the mix of bad access and good attitudes. Her piece about "Helicopter Parents" is a good read.