Editor’s Note

Accessibility: A Right, not a Convenience

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 already have?

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.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Mobility Management.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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