Complaining About Access: How non-disabled people can help

Image shows a cartoon that explains the difference between the medical and social models of disability. Specifically, it shows a person in a wheelchair at the bottom of the steps. On the right is a caption saying “they should build a ramp” and on the left is a caption saying that the “impairment is the problem”)
Social and medical models of disability

It is a sadly common fact for disabled people (and in the context of this blog, specifically wheelchair users) to be blocked from attending events because of a lack of access, but whenever I discuss this with non-disabled people, they’re shocked that this happens at all.

A lot of people fall prey to the Just World fallacy and assume that in a universe consistent with their morals, the world would be accessible – but it isn’t. How do you act, from that moral perspective? What should you do when you see a marginalised group of people frequently barred from community events (e.g. queer events)?

The minute I start to complain about wheelchair access the alarm goes off in my head:

— “Don’t you think you’re being too troublesome Jamie?”
–“I’m sure there’s a reason they’re not accessible Jamie”
— “You don’t want to develop a reputation for always complaining Jamie”
— “Have you thought about how it might impact your career if you keep complaining Jamie?”

I’ve talked to other wheelchair users about this, and they completely understand this set of feelings. They’re instilled in us by a lifetime of fighting to exist in a non-disabled world where we’re permitted to exist on sufferance. We’ve learned not to complain too loudly (“aggressive“), too often (“moody”), too vociferously (“demanding”). We’ve learned to tailor our requirements and turn them into requests framed in polite language if we express them at all:

“I noticed that your event is running in a wheelchair inaccessible venue – I was wondering if you had considered maybe investigating moving to an accessible venue? It’s just that I might like to come, but I’m a wheelchair user and can’t get out of my chair or be lifted in…”
Always equivocating – hoping that those layers of language might make it polite enough to be permissible, rather than being straightforward and naming the exclusionary discrimination I’m experiencing.

“You have scheduled your event in a venue that openly prohibits the participation of wheelchair users and other people with mobility impairments. You are legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments, and those would include choosing an accessible venue.”
That still engages on a territory of politeness – reminding you about your legal obligations rather than your moral or interpersonal obligations to us as fellow humans.

“Why have you chosen to deliberately and openly ban wheelchair users from your event?
Because this is what the organisers of an event that uses an inaccessible venue have functionally done. No equivocating – through their choice of venue they’ve made it clear they don’t want people like me there.

As a trans person, I hope and believe that if a community-led disability event was scheduled in a venue that openly blocked trans people from using the toilets pertaining to their self-defined gender, trans twitter would be up in arms, and the venue choice would be loudly and repeatedly challenged – as it should be.
As a queer person, I hope and believe that if a community-led disability event was scheduled in an openly homophobic church, the queer community and our allies would be publicly criticising this and forcing either the original venue to change their position or the event to choose a new venue.
Maybe I’m overestimating the willingness of trans and queer events to challenge discrimination – but I really don’t think I am.

Why do events taking place in venues without wheelchair access not face an uproar?

Partly because this is perceived as a bricks-and-mortar issue. My two former examples require a change in attitude from the venue, whereas this example requires a physical change to the space, or a willingness to choose a new space.

This means that people will brush it off, and consider the lack of wheelchair access to be an apolitical and unlucky feature of the venue. If there’s truly an uproar, the organisers might apologise and say that they’ll look for a new venue for next time – but I’ve never seen this transfer into a new venue, all words, never action.

Partly because cheap and free venues are often venues that aren’t accessible. Finding a new venue that wasn’t homophobic shouldn’t be too hard, but finding a venue that’s accessible might be more difficult – and people don’t have the time or energy to do that labour – so they take the easy route, barring wheelchair users.

Rarely do people engage with the political and personal repercussions of preventing wheelchair users attending events, or what that says about the organiser’s politics.

If you run an event in a wheelchair inaccessible venue, you are making the decision to exclude wheelchair users. Whether you forgot that we exist (which is everyone’s excuse) or you decided that you liked the venue you’d found enough that our needs didn’t matter, you have excluded wheelchair users from participating in your event and you need to take responsibility for that.

That undermines any cross-liberation credit you might think you have. You can’t bill yourself as being an anti-oppression event while physically barring a subset of disabled people. Those things are not compatible (and I’m tired of people thinking they are).

If I complain, I’ll be the only one. I’ve had no response, I’ve had rude responses, I’ve been blocked. I’ve had torrents of abuse. I’ve had torrents of excuses. I’ve been called abusive. I’ve been accused of everything – homophobia, sexism, racism, biphobia, disableism – all for recommending events find a new venue. I’ve been told that there are no affordable, accessible venues anywhere in London. I’ve been told if I want them to move it’s my job to find a new venue.

So, non-disabled friends, what am I asking you to do?

I’m asking you to take this over. I’m asking you to stake your reputations on demanding wheelchair access. I’m asking you to tell events that regardless of whether they have disabled participants, they’re still morally and legally required to have disabled access. I’m asking you to refuse to read, speak, or perform at events without wheelchair access. I’m asking you to turn up at those open mic nights and spend your 3 minutes excoriating the event for not having access. I’m asking you to do the work of being an ally.

It’s easy to not-notice or to ignore the lack of access if you’re not yourself disabled, or not a wheelchair user. It gives you a simpler life. However, the decision to exclude sub-groups of disabled people has social and political consequences. It’s often Deaf people who speak BSL and use interpretation, and wheelchair users that are blocked from events, but where an event is a long way from public transport links, or doesn’t have great seating, people with pain and fatigue may be barred. If it’s in an unnecessarily loud venue autistic people may be barred. It’s worth considering these things when you organise or attend an event.

Events will always preferentially listen to the reasonable non-disabled person, not the unreasonable disabled person, so if we want change, this relies on your willingness to lift your voices in support of us. Places are often only going to change to another venue when it hurts their bottom line or their prestige to stay in the current one, and non-disabled people can really help here.

Events have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people, and this is an anticipatory requirement, meaning that whether there are any disabled people present or not, they still have to make those adjustments. Most of the time, using a wheelchair accessible venue would be a reasonable adjustment, in a legal context.

However, what matters more is the moral context. Do you want to support events that take a group of people who are already marginalised and oppressed in society, and make it impossible for them to attend? Because that isn’t the world I want to build. If you want it to be somewhere that doesn’t just replicate the old oppressions, here’s one place to start.

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