Able-bodied normality- what is it and how can we fight it?

Able bodied normality

Why is it that being able bodied is seen as the default, the norm? Is it because the majority of people are physically able bodied or at least perceived to be that way?

Able bodied is defined as “fit and healthy, not physically disabled”. At face value that makes sense right? If you’re able bodied your body is able to do normal activities of daily living as well as recreational activities. What about those who are able to do activities of daily living, but do so in an adjusted way, for instance showering whilst sitting in a shower chair, or using a wheelchair to be mobile, what if they do the same things as so called “able bodied” individuals but in ways which are adjusted to their physical capabilities, does that then make them somehow less abled? Or is it just that they’ve adapted to a world which takes two arms and two legs functioning at full capacity as the status quo?

At face value it makes sense that the majority is considered the norm, but when it is considered how harmful that mentality it is, it becomes blatantly clear that the idea of a “norm” is inherently biased towards those who fit in with the norm and actively excludes those who are outside of it.

This is seen in all facets of society, and is by no means limited to able bodied vs physically disabled, it is seen in males vs females, black/latinx/asian/Indigenous populations vs white.

When these examples are examined carefully the trends are frightening, society has this “default” setting which allows certain demographics to get ahead in life, while actively holding back those who are outside of this default.

In western countries it comes as no surprise that white males are statistically more likely to go to university or college, have high paying white collar jobs, own their own home and car, and have disposable income; and because society has these advantages ingrained for white men, it is again no surprise that white males comprise the vast majority of those in positions of power.  A quick google search revealed that at Stanford University 42.5% of the whole student population is white and 52% of the whole student population is male. I could go on and on about the disparities in higher education and how the system is predisposed to advantage white middle class males, but I think the point is made.

This blog post could honestly go on for pages and pages and pages, on all the inequality in society and the way those who are viewed as “other” are pushed aside in favour of the “normal”, but I will endeavour to limit my discussion to disabled vs non disabled.

If we flip the norm on it’s head and view disability as the norm, and those who are not disabled as the outliers, society looks very different, all buildings would be entirely accessible to 100% of the population, there would be adequate public restrooms for all those with disabilities. These 2 accommodations for those with physical disabilities are so far outside the norm for a lot of people that it is hard to fathom the idea of that even being possible.

As you’re reading this, I want you to walk through a busy street in your hometown/city in your mind, and count how many of the shops/businesses have obvious disability access, and how many either don’t have access at all, or have a sign pointing to some seedy alleyway, where a ramp is accessible but requires more effort to get to. In my hometown, with a population of around 50,000 you’d be surprised to find that a lot of businesses don’t have disability access, and how many people accept that as the status quo, and when I raise the fact that a business has stairs out the front I get met with blank stares as if to say “So?”

It’s not unusual for disabled access to be placed somewhere out of the way, as though being disabled makes you less than, and means you should enter through another door. I vividly remember being 16, going to the NSW parliament house on a school excursion, and having to go almost around an entire city block, to get to the wheelchair access, and then having to wait another 15 minutes for someone to buzz us in, because no one was watching the door camera of that entrance. It may seem like a minor inconvenience, but imagine doing that for almost half of the public buildings you want to enter, and having to wait until someone acknowledges your existence before you’re allowed entry. It’s exhausting, both physically and emotionally. Physically because you have to go further to access the entryways, and emotionally because it further emphasises your “otherness” and makes you even more of an outlier than you were before. And let me tell you, at 16, being other is so not what you want.

These seemingly small inconveniences build up over time and leave me feeling exhausted, and angry. It may sound like nothing when you read this single instance, but imagine being disabled, 26 years old, and still having to do that every time you want to go somewhere new and you’re unsure what the access is like, or worse, having to decline invitations to places or events with friends because there’s just no feasible access at all.

Which brings me nicely to the point of disabled access public restrooms. The number of times I’ve heard people say something like, “They’re not ONLY for disabled people, they’re for everyone, it’s just that people with disabilities can use them too”. Geez thanks, for allowing me the privilege of peeing in a public restroom, how generous of you. You have the ability to go into any stall in the women’s bathroom, and it’s no problem at all for you, whereas I have to make sure the disabled access bathroom is unlocked (some places hide the key in the centre management area, and then I have to go all the way to that office, and all the way back to the bathroom), make sure no one is in it, make sure it’s been cleaned sometime this decade, and then I have the privilege of voiding my bladder. I cannot tell you the number of times I have waited outside a bathroom thinking that someone with a disability is in there, and someone walks out and won’t look me in the eye, or worse, mumbles something like “the line was really long at the other restroom”

Without getting too graphic here, I’m going to take a second to talk about the fact that with my specific disability, I don’t get a whole lot of warning when I need to go to the bathroom, if I gotta go, I really gotta go, yes there are times when I’ve had to wait because someone with a disability has been using the disabled access bathroom, and that has resulted in my having an unfortunate accident, which while it’s embarrassing I can deal with it because I know that the person who was using the bathroom was probably in the exact same situation as me. But when someone walks out of the bathroom, and blushes bright red and mumbles a half assed “apology” about the big line at the women’s/men’s restroom, I see red. I rarely say anything, because I’m already busting for the bathroom, so time is a factor, but on the few occasions when I have said something I have been met with defiance, and anger. And on a few memorable occasions with flat out insults.

In essence, it appears that a small portion of the population views disability of others as an inconvenience to them rather than an inconvenience to the person with the disability, and this prevailing attitude of “well it inconveniences me, or makes me feel uncomfortable” is why people with disabilities have been, and still are, treated as outliers and undesirable members of the community.

Imagine your very being is viewed as an inconvenience or something to find uncomfortable, imagine people averting their eyes or pulling their children closer to them as they pass as though we’re to be feared or are contagious. Now imagine, others view you as disabled, and solely disabled, no other facets to your identity, no other attempts to delve into your personality or exploration of your goals and aspirations. These are all issues people with disabilities face on a daily basis.

In essence, people with disabilities are people! It’s not difficult to treat people with disabilities like you treat everyone else, and that does not mean treating them as “special” or doing that sickly sweet condescending way of talking as though they’re either doing us a favour by speaking to us at all, or that we’re too stupid to understand “normal” speech.

Treat people with disabilities like people and we’ll all get along perfectly fine.

If you think I’ve missed any important points please feel free to leave a comment down below! Keep it respectful and friendly guys!

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