What is in a word, ableism, that is what. Yes, I can imagine the able bodied are busy trying to “get back to normal” so they don’t have time to think about what it is. Nor do they care it seems.
As able bodied people are showing and telling us, the normal is going back to meeting face to face, hosting events and parties, job hunting and office meetings. The online existence that Covid had forced us into for two years is almost over. If there is anything that Covid has taught me is that change is always in motion and where there is a will there’s a way. It’s great that our children can meet up with their friends, make new ones and be around each other with a limited fear of making others sick or getting sick themselves
The “normal” this past few days in another part of the world has been the COP26 summit. World leaders have been getting together to discuss the impacts of all things environmental. This is an important conversation that needs to be had especially with the rapid decline of the quality of our planet. It’s also a conversation that impacts the Disabled more than the able bodied. In disasters and wars, the Disabled are often the first casualties because we are sitting ducks (excuse the pun). When the world is in a panic, we are often left behind or are an afterthought.
It’s a daily reminder with all the rush to get back to life as it was Pre-Covid times. A painful experience caught my eye at a time when the Disabled are saying “nothing about us, without us”. The United Nations has declared that for 2021, the mission for Disability Awareness Month is “Removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all”. Yet the Israeli minister who was invited to the COP26 was unable to attend one of the events because it was inaccessible.
The irony of the UK-backed event being inaccessible left a raging bitter taste in my mouth. I realised that at the beginning of the summit, from the organisational stages, the minister must have declared that they are wheelchair users so that accessibility is arranged. The minister would have worked on an assumption. If I had a rand for every time I was told a place was accessible only to get there and realise there is at least one step between my chair and the venue.
When we ask if anything is accessible at all, we are asking if the accessibility goes all the way up. How heart-breaking to realise that even with the UN, accessibility is an afterthought. There is a realisation that a minister with all that power and access couldn’t even get to an event she was expected to attend. When the world leaders realised that she was absent due to inaccessibility, they didn’t pause the discussions or opt to show a supportive solidarity by meeting her where she was.
It would have sent a very powerful message to the world that is watching that when the Disabled are excluded. It’s their responsibility to use their access and mobility to make alternative means to include us. Instead the discussions she was meant to be a part of went on without her and she had to go home and take it to the chin.
It’s things like that that make accessibility a never ending conversation that the able bodied seem to be over so quickly. Their inability to move freely last year forced them to find ways to be around each other virtually. As soon as they were allowed to go outside again, they forgot about the Disabled that held them together and reminded them that there are ways to exist in a world that says you are unwelcome. The parties that are being thrown, the job interviews that are now being discussed as we try to make sense of the economy – all of those things are happening without the Disabled.
Yet we are an estimated 25% of the world population. But nobody asks where the disabled are in their party and board rooms. This is the same as the COP26 not asking where the Disabled Minister was – hard as she was to miss in a wheelchair.
So with my tired spirit I ask, what is the world going to do about its ableism? Until when are we expected to wait? While we wait, are we supposed to make peace with being an afterthought? This is of course until something drastic happens again to remind the world that Disabled people need to be included in all spheres of conversation and society as a whole. How long are we meant to remind the world that the Disabled being left out of conversations means that the changes and inclusions that we are supposed to be part of doesn’t happen. We can’t contribute because our voices and our bodies are not seen or heard. Our party invites always get lost in the mail after all
We can’t take care of ourselves and stop being “a burden to society” that then spends its time and resources punishing us for our disabilities. The world needs to show a commitment to the minority and meet us on the red carpet for a talk if the venues aren’t accessible. We are getting tired of reminding the world that accessibility is a human right and is a basic requirement for all of us, in more ways than one.
I decided to go look for pictures from the event to see if I could spot the Disabled minister from first glance and she is not in any of the pictures. She becomes more present in print pictures as part of the ongoing discussion and the apology tours that the organisers are making. She did get blamed for somebody else’s oversight in one of the apologies, typically ableist. Speaking to how the Disabled will get forgotten, when we are finally remembered and included it usually means being paraded in front of the world to acknowledge our existence. This is along with the hopes that the apologies will be accepted while the lights are glaring at us. I feel like I’ve lived her experience and we are worlds apart. It makes me question, if a Disabled woman with resources can get forgotten, what about us with none?
Terrifying thought so I ask again what is in a word – ableism. It needs to be a discussion we have in the past tense when the world leaders meet again. This is so the Disabled are not expected to take it to the chin because ableism decided to show up once again. We also want inclusion. However it should not come at our humiliation and harm – society needs to do better.
Nothing about us without us and inclusivity is a human right
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.
Makgosi Letimile is an inclusivity advisor & consultant, disabled writer & sex worker and reluctant activist.