Why are disability-accessible cities so important?
DISCLAIMER: This post deals with body size, weight, disabled bodies, mental health, and sexualities. Please be mindful of the sensitivity of these topics if you want to keep reading the post.
I had the first in-person appointment with my UK diabetes dietician this week. I was able to weigh myself for the first time since 2020 (It is a bit of a challenge to find wheelchair-adapted scales, especially since the pandemic). Turns out that I have lost a lot of weight since this whole journey started. While weighing myself was not how I first perceived this progressive change, it did make me acknowledge it with the help of a number. Then, I had a wholesome conversation with my diabetes team to talk about what the process had been like and make sure I was doing it in an integral way. The first picture is from September 2021, right before moving to London. The second is from two days ago at no other place than a cool boat party through the river Thames.
All of my reflecting with the team got me back to accessibility and all the different ways I have experienced it in the UK. Here are a couple of thoughts on this:
1. Access to health: Back in Costa Rica, I had to spend a great amount of my income to get the continuous glucose monitor (CGM) that I receive here with a simple click. This monitor, joined with getting all of my medications and modern types of insulin covered by the NHS was a game changer. The best way I can explain this is that getting these (fundamental) tools in my hands was no longer my priority, it went back to being a matter of logistics, so I was able to focus and prioritise other aspects of my life, like my studies, my social life (much), and my health. On top of this, I was able to understand that this city embraces diverse mobility and offers options to choose from in terms of exercising, like the wheelchair-friendly gym that I don’t go very often to. But simply knowing it is there made a shift in my mentality around taking care of my health this way.
2. Access to the city: I have mentioned this one so much… Simply having the independence to go places, that being by bus, tube, or taxi cabs, made me less sedentary. While that was the case back in Costa Rica mainly due to the pandemic in recent years, way before that I recognised that I had to force myself to stay home and choose Netflix over hanging out with friends. My main methods of transport were my parents’ cars or an expensive Uber. We are talking about a country where bus drivers rather ignore a bus stop when they see a wheelchair user waiting. Here, I am being able to choose to do a lot more every day, which in my case reflects as a way of exercising as well. Adapting a city to people with disabilities does not only means granting access to a place, it means helping us mobilise and get out of our homes to grow socially, emotionally, and physically as well. While I titled this one ‘access to the city’ because I live in London, it is important to point out that it also means access to travelling. I am as much of a resident here as a tourist, and I have been able to do my fair share of travelling inside and outside the UK, which provides the opportunity to do more every day.
3. Access to choosing (autonomy): Since I arrived, I was the main decision-taker. I have been able to choose my doctors, my insulin brand, my CGM, but also my meals, my clothes, and my daily activities. Autonomy is a right, but for people with disabilities it becomes a luxury, and a very expensive one that is. Choosing my meals meant that I was able to make better choices in terms of carbs intake (which is what matters mostly to diabetics), and while I have not stopped myself from trying the food I want to try, it has also meant that I can take those decisions based on the very different circumstances that I face every day in London. Choosing my clothing from various brands and getting to their stores online and offline has also been great. I can try them on in-store or at home and give them back if needed. Every disabled body is different, which makes disabled-friendly clothing a very niche, expensive, and often not trendy market. Therefore, trying on clothes has helped me choose the right sizes and explore new styles and ways to express my identity.
To be very honest, I was not planning this. It was not among my objectives for the year to get healthier or to reduce my weight. I have also never been a very sportive person. But I also realised I have been forced by my home city to easily identify in the ways I did. For example, I was always telling my friends I didn’t like parties, that I rather stay home binge-watching a show than making plans for the weekends. To be super honest with you: I can tell you I love partying now. All this does not mean I no longer like Netflix, but I like both things, and that is great.
Losing weight for me has also meant less chronic pain, not having had a back spasm since arriving, transferring from my wheelchair way more easily than before, recovering my sense of feeling a low blood sugar level at the right time, and increasing my glucose time in range percentage. This change has been progressive and while it motivates me to do more work towards feeling healthy in a good way, I still want to keep it as the side-change it has been so far, which takes me to the following part…
Not all of this is rainbows and butterflies:
I always need to tell this; London is not perfect. While living here I have noticed that while most places are wheelchair accessible, when it comes to places for sexual exploration, the probabilities of access are low. Soho, one of the queer neighbourhoods of the city, has numerous bars and clubs that do not have wheelchair access at all. I have called some of them in the past week to see if I can take my friends there in the future and most of them are not accessible. Yes, my friends are lovely people who always offer to lift me up and down stairs, but that is not access. Accessibility cannot and should not depend on someone’s intentions, even if they are the greatest of intentions. Socially, while this city definitely embraces diversity exponentially more than San Jose, it also exponentially increases racism, ableism, and discrimination even inside the LGBTQI+ communities. It is disappointing to see in the online dating apps the acceptable way in which people denominate ‘preferences’ and filter other people out based on physical characteristics. This is a worldwide issue that I am also a part of. Human rights growth should always be intersectional. While my self confidence has increased during the year, my insecurities have also come afloat in many different ways, reminding me of why I also excluded myself from queer spaces in Costa Rica. Disabled bodies are not compatible with the expectations and immersed stereotypes of the community I proudly belong to. So while I want to keep investing in my health and my self image, I acknowledge the huge emotional baggage that comes with it, which I accompany with the help of my friends, family, an a professional. Also, I recognise the privilege of residing here as a student. I was able to easily find a wheelchair-adapted residence due to my student status, but I have met some UK permanent citizens with disabilities who tell me about the huge struggles of finding disability-adapted houses and flats at an affordable price.
Finally, this all comes with the fear of being uncertain about how I can keep a more accessible life when I go back to Costa Rica. While I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity of living in London, in my case, I feel like I see the right conditions to keep exploring myself and at the same time know that it will come to an end sooner than later. I have been deconstructing these fears, recognising the realities that I will eventually face, and coming to terms with all of it. Many people find it easy to state how I should go back to Costa Rica and improve our circumstances, and while I understand the thought, I am one activist back home who works in media. I am not the system, and that change is as slow as it can get, in a very homophobic and ableist country that thinks of access as a favour and a good intention. Thinking I can go back and change things is a very deteriorating thought for me to invest on. I will help and contribute with my work, always, but it is not my responsibility, especially when moving back home means reprioritising the means to get my basic medical equipment in my hands.
I hope you take something away from this post: In whatever field you are working on, you will face disability in one way or another. So simply understand that access is not just the fact that we are able to enter a building using an elevator or a ramp. Access means health, self-love, friendships, tourism, education, work, sexuality, clothing, lovers, gender expression, food, transport, and autonomy.