Why don't they ever learn?

 Backsliding and Bigotry

by W. Carol Cleigh


W. Carol Cleigh is President of the Progress Center for Independent Living.

I used to think that, while it was difficult to get people to make their establishments accessible, once they were accessible they'd stay that way. After all, why would anyone make a public accommodation less accessible?

In December, 1995 I filed a complaint against Midway Airport. I had gone there for a flight and found parking in the longterm lot impossible. There was no accessible parking. And the shuttles didn't have lifts.

I went back to the airport, stuck my head out the car window and talked to a cop. She said I could "just drop off the handicapped person."

Alone in the car, I just looked at her. How I could "drop off" myself, I asked.

She got the airport manager. He at first suggested he could drive my car over to the long-term lot after I got out, but then realized he didn't know how to drive my car. He then suggested I park in the short-term lot. I'd be gone for 4 days; that would cost me $144. The long-term lot would be only $24. Since I didn't have a spare $120 and thought this was pretty unfair, I asked for another solution. They finally told me to park in the employee lot--they assured me I wouldn't get a ticket.

Four days later, I returned to find a ticket on my car. I also found there were no decent curb-cuts--I nearly fell over backward trying to negotiate one of them.

Over a year later, the Chicago Human Relations Commission ruled on my complaint: they found "substantial discrimination" at Midway Airport.

The airport tried to argue that they were going to build a new facility which would be open and fully accessible--in two years. I'm glad I didn't fall for accepting this, since it still doesn't exist. In my complaint, I demanded that they install decent curb-cuts, have working lifts on all shuttles and train employees to use them. There was also a small monetary settlement: I knew they'd hate writing that check, and I thought it would motivate them.

Last year I heard that fellow activist Karen Tamley had just filed a similar complaint against Midway. I was aghast. How could access disappear in less than two years? I turned over records of my case to her attorney.

I'm not sure what happened, but when I was at Midway again this past fall, I found that at least half of the lifts on their shuttles didn't work. The drivers I encountered had never operated one before.

I'll be renewing that complaint.

The summer before last, we demonstrated at a Dominick's grocery store, where a fence with a locked gate had kept grocery carts in and us out. They took that gate out. But a new store opened last week ‹with a locked access door, and a revolving main door.

Last year the Chicago Transit Authority had to shuttle passengers around a break on the "L," Chicago's elevated commuter train. We managed to get into the papers that they had made no arrangements for passengers with disabilities. CTA promised to do better. But just last week, Sharon Lamp, co-founder of Suburban Access Squad, had the same problem with a CTA shuttle.

Why do we have to seek the same accommodations over and over? Why wouldn't Midway repair broken lifts? Why would Dominick's build an inaccessible store after it had been forced to correct access problems at other stores?


I used to think ignorance was the major barrier to creating access, but constant backsliding suggests something else: ableism. There is a deep and abiding prejudice against us. Lack of access is not an oversight, nor is it simple ignorance. Rather it comes out of an irrational--if unacknowledged--need to exclude us, as if by excluding us they could exclude their own mortality. If they have to see us, then on some level they can no longer pretend they're invulnerable.

In earlier times, such fears that "this might be me" may have been allayed by the thought that disabilities were penance for evil (in this life or another) or that "cripples" were possessed by devils. In our modern age, with such myths debunked, they have to convince themselves that we haven't tried hard enough to be cured or that we were just unlucky (they, of course, are always lucky). Yet they find it hard to convince themselves even with these stories that they're immune from what happened to us. So in order to keep their fear of disability at bay, they exclude us. To believe that our disabilities are the only things that make us different from them is too hard a feat for them to manage; it threatens their world, their sense of order. They fear what we know--that the universe is fiercely random and therefore disability can happen to anyone. They try to tell themselves that the universe is fair and that they are safe, but they don't really believe it on most psychological levels. If they can somehow preserve a difference between them and us, then there is still a chance they are safe--that they won't have to suffer as they assume we do.

But it's hard to believe in that difference if they have to associate with us every day. It's hard to believe that we're evil, lazy, or unlucky if we're there giving it the lie. Our presence and competence forces them to confront our likeness to them--and therefore their own vulnerability.

And so they deny us access, in order to keep us out--keep us at arm's length, keep us from being and doing the same things they are doing. The denial of random vulnerability is one of the roots of ableism.

The only way to conquer fear is to confront it. More activism and more activists are the only way. We must focus on the reality that access is a civil rights issue. We must make people recognize that we are many and that we won't go away.

We have made some progress. Three years ago, all the shuttle lifts at Midway were broken. Now only half of them are.


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