Wheelchair Access – why it matters
I’ve written a lot about how non-disabled people should act to intervene when people have chosen to hold events in inaccessible venues*, but I thought it was time to make a personal case as to why this matters.
I’m in a wheelchair. My condition has caused progressively worse weakening, so I’ve gone from ‘limps over long distances’ through losing ambulation, to being a full-time paralysed wheelchair user. This shouldn’t matter. Of course it’s mattered on an emotional level – and yes, it’s been both a journey of loss and a journey of self-discovery – but it didn’t need to change my life to this extent. Being in a wheelchair limits my opportunities far more than the contours of my body do. This isn’t a result of me, it’s a result of individuals and organisations piling choices on top of choices, each of which excludes wheelchair users, until the mountain of choices to exclude us threatens to choke my life.
Because of these limitations, I have concrete losses. Opportunities. Friendships. Chances. These limitations aren’t accidental, they’re the result of decisions people have made. Those decisions have been to deprioritise making events accessible to wheelchair users. This means that those events have functionally prioritised non-wheelchair users. Have played into overwhelming power structures in society that exclude wheelchair users.
Example: UCL Policy and Practice. A series of lectures, talks, and research presentations on current issues in policy – the field I want to continue to study and work in.
Loss: Because I was barred from attending those lectures for being a wheelchair user, I lost out on networking opportunities. It is those networks that give people the chance to find internships, contacts, and jobs. But only if you’re not in a wheelchair, clearly.
Example: London Queer Writers Speak= , Featuring Remi Graves, Marie Marshall & Calu Lema. An event (called ‘speak equal’) of poetry performances and open mics that “showcases and celebrates LGBTQIA poets and spoken word artists whilst offering professional guidance and support for artists looking to develop their performance and writing practice”. When I asked about access and a friend followed it up, we were told “regrettably this space is not wheelchair accessible unfortunately as we will be in the upstairs room“.
Clearly they didn’t regret it that much, or find it that unfortunate, as they are “proud to call this our new home because we have use of: the beautiful upstairs room with big windows“. They market their space on its lack of wheelchair access.
Loss: The opportunity to see some excellent poets perform, and perform in their company. The chance to network with other LGBTQIA poets and spoken word performers, to make friends and build conscious networks.
Example: Queers without Beers, a social event I wanted to go to, as a disabled person who rarely drinks and wants to foster a sober social network and lifestyle. It chooses to base itself in a wheelchair inaccessible venue. The access statement says “this is an old Victorian building which comes with its own constraints”, but doesn’t point out that it chose that building and those constraints
Loss: build mindful community support network
When people who aren’t wheelchair users attend and participate in events that have chosen to use venues that exclude wheelchair users, those people are building their careers, networks, and friendships on our backs. I’m certain that for many it isn’t a deliberate choice, but that’s the result – networks of people who have “ambulant privilege”, for lack of a better phrase.
This is framed as neutral but it’s a decision
It is a choice for events to use those venues, and it is a choice to attend those events. As a queer/trans poet I know some aspects of the poetry scene feel hostile to me, and I would love to retreat to build and create in a collective of fellow LGBTQIA+ poets. However, I can’t because that space doesn’t welcome non-ambulant poets. In an effort to create a space which is safe from the overwhelming weight of hetero/cis privilege, a space has been built which replicates disableism.
It is a choice for me to hold those events accountable. To tag events, whether they’re my university (UCL), or other LGBTQIA+ poets and communities. It’s not a choice that will make me popular – nobody enjoys being called in, or held to account. However, these are the words I have to say.
Please raise your voice on this. At the least, even if you plan to attend anyway, ask events whether they have considered wheelchair access. Encourage them to do so. Hold them to account when they do not. If spaces are not accessible, wheelchair users will continue to be disappeared by a society that builds itself to exclude us. If everyone demanded that events were accessible, accessibility would become built into our society, but if ambulant people don’t demand wheelchair access, it won’t happen. You have the opportunity to change this. Have courage. Speak up. Join me.
*In the first draft of this post, I wrote “when venues aren’t accessible” – then I realised that the problem isn’t that venues aren’t accessible, it’s that people have chosen to use inaccessible venues.