Accessibility has been getting a lot of attention lately. Legal battles for accessible swimming pools
and taxicabs have become so strenuous that they’ve spilled from our industry into the mainstream
media, with stories appearing in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Battle lines have been drawn largely with people with disabilities (and industry members) on one
side and “everyone else” on the other. Anti-accessibility arguments by the latter have a common
refrain: Sure, it would be nice for people with disabilities to be able to catch cabs and go swimming. But
making everything accessible is inconvenient and expensive. Why can’t they be happy with what they
The argument almost sounds reasonable when you consider the costs of new equipment and
construction, especially in today’s still-hobbled economy. Some swimming pools are already accessible. So are some taxicabs. Some sidewalks have curb cuts. Some building entrances don’t have steps.
Many people point to those facts as proof that accessibility has come a long way in this country —
and that people with disabilities should be more than appeased by the progress.
Isn’t that good enough? Do people in wheelchairs really have to be able to visit every restaurant, movie
theatre or hotel swimming pool that exists?
It’s true that, given the hectic schedules at tradeshows, I can’t remember the last hotel swimming
pool I visited. And I tend to be a creature of habit regarding where I shop and eat. Even in my rather
small hometown, there are many dozens, if not hundreds of public buildings I’ve never entered and
probably never will. So what’s the difference between that practical reality and the intermittent inaccessibility
a wheelchair or scooter user faces?
The difference is in having the choice. And that’s why we as a society need to start calling accessibility
what it really is: a civil rights issue.
What if a cab driver said, “I don’t accept passengers of your skin color”? Would we say, “That’s OK, I’ll
wait for another cab”?
No. It wouldn’t matter if other cab drivers in the same city didn’t feel that way. We would say that
even one cab driver violating our civil rights is one too many.
And what if we arrived at a hotel pool only to be told, “Sorry — we don’t allow people of your religion
to get into the water”? Would we say, “That’s OK, because I know some other hotels would let me
into their pools”?
Of course not.
We’ve been at this crossroads before. For instance, in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregating
public schoolchildren by race was unconstitutional. The decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of
Education said that separate is not equal — that the children being segregated are fundamentally
being denied equal treatment, opportunity and protection under the law, “even though the physical
facilities and other ’tangible’ factors may be equal.”
If wheelchair users decide they’re too busy for a dip in their hotel pool, that’ a choice. When the
hotel intentionally chooses not to provide a way for all of its guests to use the pool, that’s segregation.
I’m sure most of the people and entities enabling this segregation would disagree. They’d tell you,
probably truthfully, that they’re not maliciously trying to exclude people who use wheelchairs. “We’d
love to have them eat at our restaurant or stay at our hotel,” they might say. “We’d love to drive them to
the airport. But it’s just such a hassle, to put in a ramp or widen our aisles or put in a pool lift, or pause
while they secure their wheelchairs in the vehicle. We can’t afford all of that!”
Asked to integrate their lunch counters during the 1950s, restaurant owners initially refused, arguing
that by doing so, they would lose more business than they would gain. So it will always be easy to
justify suspending or limiting civil rights by quoting current events or financial concerns. It will always
be easier to exclude some than to include everyone.
There’s no guarantee that attaining equality will ever be easy or inexpensive or convenient. And
often, it is none of those things. But it is the law. And even more so, it should be our hearts and souls.