COLUMN: Accessibility is like homework, it’s required but everyone treats it like it’s above and beyond

Debates have two sides, those who agree and those who don’t. Accessibility shouldn’t have two sides, therefore it shouldn’t be a debate.

Abigail Ruhman is a sophomore journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about student life, politics and social issues for The Maneater.

There’s a value in being able to pick where you want to sit in class. It’s the reason college students tend to create their own assigned seating. For some, the only way to focus is to sit in the very front. For others, the middle calls to them. However, imagine if you didn’t have a choice. Rather than the assigned seating high school teachers seemed to enjoy, your seat is chosen by the institution. The level of access you have to the world is controlled by able-bodied individuals creating loopholes for accessibility, so you sit in the back.

The issue of accessibility isn’t just limited to the classroom or to people with physical disabilities because it affects every part of society, yet still doesn’t see the attention it deserves. Accessibility should already be a mainstream ideal. The conversation about disability rights has been too medical for too long. It’s about disabilities rather than the people with disabilities, and the discussion tends to lead to questions about cures instead of rights. People with disabilities shouldn’t be treated like medical problems to be solved. This isn’t about going above and beyond — it’s about meeting the standard for caring about others.

WebAIM, a non-profit organization that focuses on providing information and products that make the internet more accessible to individuals with disabilities, posted a blog on the topic of the motivation behind accessibility. Within the blog, Jared Smith, a blogger for the site, explains that there is a hierarchy of motivation, shaped like a pyramid, to create real change in cases of accessibility. Smith puts the ways of motivating in order, from bottom to top, of how effective they are: guilt, punish, require, reward, enlighten and inspire. This means that guilting companies is the least effective and inspiring them is the key to change.

However, this pyramid fails to recognize it’s also playing into the idea of inspiration porn — the act of labeling people with disabilities as an amazing inspiration simply because they have those disabilities. The bottom half consists of guilt, punishment and requirement essentially saying that a company should become accessible on their own will. This is why the top half of the pyramid is rewarding, enlightening, and inspiring. While this is true about some cases of motivation, this shouldn’t be the case when it comes to social or civil rights.

Smith is placing the responsibility for change on the community, rather than recognizing that, ethically, it’s not their job. At the very top of the pyramid, Smith claims that seeing the impact accessibility, or lack thereof, has on people with disabilities should be the driving force behind creating a society that is truly accessible. In order to receive change, these individuals have to either show their daily struggle for all to see or boost the ego of the company to inspire more change. However, people with disabilities shouldn’t have to disregard their own privacy just to go about their day.

That leaves rewarding or enlightening the company, but these are also problematic. Why should a company be rewarded for treating people like people? Adding a ramp or more accessible store features shouldn’t equate to deserving a Nobel Peace Prize. Praising companies for doing the ethical bare minimum isn’t fair to the disabled community. This diminishes and dehumanizes the community because each small change is helpful, but it shouldn’t require asking for more.

The argument of enlightening companies is also unfair to the disabled community. For every minority, the pressure to constantly be an educator on your identity is exhausting. If you don’t do it, you have to count on allies. Counting on someone else to change the world for you doesn’t really work, so people with disabilities have to teach others in order to live a life. This boxes disabled people into the required role of an activist when they shouldn’t be obligated to put their lives on display in order to live it.

Treating accessibility as a reward system means that there isn’t any incentive to maintain accessibility. If a company got the social reward for installing an elevator, what happens when that elevator breaks down? With legality as a motivator, it should force them to do more than just surface-level change. Legal systems should be fixing the accessibility gap because the gap shouldn’t exist in the first place.

While it sounds intense, disability rights shouldn’t be a discussion of if a company has to do something. If it takes the guilt, punishment or requirement of change, then it needs to happen. Waiting for people to change on their own may sound better, but people with disabilities suffer while they wait. Accessibility is a discussion because it has to be, and the only way to escape that conversation is to establish actual equality for people with disabilities.

Edited by Bryce Kolk | bkolk@themaneater.com

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