Accessibility is Not Disability Justice: I’m Tired of Fighting

Light skinned man with hand out. Man is labeled “social justice organizations”, Butterfly near the man’s hand is labeled “basic accessibility measures”, caption on the bottom of the picture says “is this disability justice?”

Accessibility is not disability justice.

(Wait, what?)

ACCESSIBILITY IS NOT DISABILITY JUSTICE. This may sound jarring because literally every disability activist I know (myself included) spends so much time on basic accessibility. But it’s important to understand that accessibility is actually just a small part of disability justice. It is necessary, but nowhere near sufficient. It just gets us in the door (literally), but disability justice is what happens after we are all in the room together (metaphorically).

There is so much fucked up stuff going on in the world right now, we need all hands on deck. Disability justice recognizes that all people have unique and valuable skills, talents, and contributions that are applicable to all kinds of activism. Yet, almost all the amazing disability justice activists I know are basically forced into only disability specific organizing because it is too exhausting to make other kinds of work accessible. Basically, we drain ourselves just fighting for the accommodations that we need to be there and have nothing left for the actual work.

I’m angry about how much we have to give up just to be part of organizing and activism. We are forced to spend so much time, energy, (and often money) to be included in the conversation, it’s hard not to feel like saying “fuck it” and giving up.

Even if we can spare the resources it may take to participate, once there we often get relegated to focusing only on accessibility for other disabled people. In most of the non-disability specific organizations and groups I work with, I’m spending my time and energy pointing out and coming up with ways to make the work of the organization accessible to other disabled people. In other words, I’m still only focusing on accessibility and not the other aspects of disability justice.

Having decently accessible meetings and other events is the bare minimum that “social justice” organizations should do. What ends up happening is that even if we can get some accessibility measures in place, it ends up being too little too late. Eventually we get sick of trying so hard to be a part of things that we end up dropping out of the project. Then, without someone always talking about accessibility things go back to inaccessible again and the cycle starts all over again!

Nuance is an important part of social justice, but accessibility is not nuanced.(Well, if you get good enough at it it is! But I’ve never seen a non-disability focused group get anywhere near this so we don’t need to worry about it right now.) You actually don’t even need disabled people and if you are bad at accessibility there probably aren’t many anyway! There are resources and checklists on the internet that can help you (a few of my favs are below.)

In the end I won’t quit. I literally can’t quit even if I wanted to because to paraphrase Audre Lorde, I live a multi-issue life. I have to be involved in non-disability specific work whether they want me there or not. I can do this because disability justice has taught me how to take care of myself and rest and heal from the constant microaggressions. In the end, disability justice is what allows me to be able to put so much time and effort into fighting for basic accessibility measures. I hope I can someday have the capacity to share this knowledge with the people I work with. Until then, I will show up as best they let me.

Accessibility Resources:
Free Accessibility Audit Template by Radical Accessibility Mapping Project

How to Make Your Social Justice Events Accessible to the Disability Community: A Checklist by s.e. smith

A Planning Guide for Making Temporary Events Accessible to People With Disabilities by ADA National Network

20 Tips for a More Accessible Event by Shawna McKinley

Planning Accessible Meetings and Events: A Toolkit by the American Bar Association

Fragrance Free Femme of Colour Genius by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

10 Ways We Can Make Leadership Accessible for Sick Folks in Activism by Katie Tastrom