What Does Accessibility Look Like? My journey as an Ally in the Disability Justice Movement

Co-written by Weldon Haywood

I recently started tutoring a friend of mine, who has some learning disabilities.  In preparing for a workshop on Accessibility for Disability Awareness Week at Simon Fraser University (SFU), I’ve been reflecting on my journey for someone like myself, who has the privilege of navigating the world, as an able bodied person in an ableist world, with enough resources to have mental health supports.

Talking to my friend and working with him to find ways to navigate the education system has been extremely frustrating, as I am learning that for someone like my friend who has multiple disabilities, there are an insurmountable number of barriers that he faces to receive even the remoteness level of equal opportunity that I received when I attended post secondary.

It has really made me reflect on my own experience attending Simon Fraser University (where my friend is now attending) – and how easy it is to take for granted the luxury of being closer to “the norm”, and how in our ableist and able-body-centred society, it makes life incredibly easy for someone like me, and really difficult for others, like my friend.

Things like taking notes in class – which in my ableist ignorance seems “normal”, and “a given”…I don’t even think twice about taking notes in class, is on the other hand a huge feat for someone like my friend, who has to navigate the services and accommodations that are provided by the school. Without a note taker note taking could take him several hours a day (which takes away time from studying, writing papers, etc), which severely impacts his learning experience.  Whereas for someone like myself it’s not something I even think twice about.

In preparing for a workshop that I am working on with my friend on Disability Justice and Accessibility, called (What Does Accessibility Look Like? ) that is focused on the education system partially in the classroom structure.  I’ve really begun to think about the ways that we can be transforming the communities we live in, so that we can begin to operate on the notion of “assumed differences”.

Norms are really dangerous.  

As queer people, we know that the “norm” of “heterosexuality” and the “norm” of the gender binary “male vs. female” has been dangerous, and often even violent, to our communities.  As a queer, feminist, person of colour, and having been involved with organizing against the norm of patriarchal male privilege, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, white supremacy/white privilege – I wonder how much of  my own involvement in movement building has actually integrated the importance of extending that notion of including differences of our abilities/disabilities? My friend has really enlightened me on the importance of Disability Justice within our movements in creating social change and what it looks like to be an ally to people with disabilities.

One of the things that I’ve been also thinking about through my recent engagements on this topic,is that there is a difference between a rights based, civil liberties based, movement – where rights are granted to you.  This idea that disabled people “should be granted the same rights” as everyone else.

Is that good enough?

Disability Justice offers us a different, more integrated approach – that it’s not about disabled people being granted the same rights as us, it’s the transformation of communities, institution, and systems, that needs to happen so that we create a society that fundamentally appreciates differences. As my friend had expressed to me ‘equallness’ does not mean sameness, since we all learn differently it means providing creative solutions that takes into account different ways students  learn, for example having other alternatives to exams, which in the end gives equal opportunity for success for individuals like my friend.  What I have also learned from my friend is that we need to challenge what inclusion looks like, so that people with learning differences like him do not need to self advocate and approach teachers for alternative learning methods – the alternative learning methods should have already been in place, not as an afterthought.

Afterall, let’s not forget that the idea that making the effort to make something accessible is helping a “minority population” – is a complete myth.  We are not all going to be able bodied for our whole lives, we are all – yes, that’s all of us – temporarily able bodied.
Working towards transforming communities to incorporate a Disability Justice discourse should be part and parcel of the work that we do as activists…and it’s something that I will continue to work on.

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