The March 17 edition of the Independent had an important story about the Americans with Disabilities Act, “On the Outer Cape, the ADA Doesn’t Change Much,” by Michaela Chesin.
Many readers may have skimmed over that headline, thinking that disability doesn’t relate to them. The fact is that most of us will, at some point, become disabled.
Disabled people make up 26 percent of adults in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 4.3 percent of children under 18 are disabled. Disability transcends race, gender, and sexual orientation. One in four Black Americans and one in six Hispanics have disabilities. Disability is more common in LGBTQ people than among those who identify as heterosexual. We are not siloed communities.
True disability inclusion is about a lot more than curb cuts and ramps. Much more can be done to create disability-affirming spaces on the Outer Cape. Having town disability committees is an important step. Committees are great, but without the teeth of an ADA enforcement mandate they are often relegated to advocating for piecemeal change. Ideally, they could do one-on-one outreach to determine specific needs for disability inclusion and disability pride promotion.
Disabled people should be recruited for leadership positions in towns and counties, honoring the intersectional disability justice movement’s principle of fostering leadership by those most affected.
Around town, we also need nondisabled people to be good allies to the disability community. Practicing good “disability etiquette” is also vital, while seeing disability as a social identity just like race or sexual orientation. Disabled activist and Forbes columnist Andrew Purlang provides guidance on what this means.
Here’s what you can do: use an accessibility checklist to assess your space and procedures; add to notices of meetings information on how to request accommodations (and honor them); start meetings with an access check; turn on captions for all Zoom/Teams meetings; describe slide images using alt-text; make websites accessible using WebAim POUR criteria; recognize that Instagram and Facebook stories aren’t accessible; know that not all disabled people prefer “person-first language” or the phrase “differently abled.”
Finally, apply these approaches at multiple levels of organizations to develop “disability lenses.” Learn about disability culture and history. Examine our ableist attitudes and implicit biases through Harvard University’s Project Implicit online test. Take a look at ableist terminology (read the Autistic Hoya blog by autistic attorney Lydia X.Y. Brown, a transgender person).
Leaders can model commitment to this work beyond the usual calls for ramps and captions. Managers can create time and space for this work in meetings. Individual citizens can engage in reflection. Taken together, these actions will go a long way towards a more disability-inclusive and disability-affirming community. Most of all, remember the disability rights movement’s rallying cry, “Nothing about us without us,” and let that keep us honest.
Elspeth Slayter is a professor of social work at Salem State University. She lives in Provincetown.