Contesting False Consensus: Ableism and the Public Sphere

Wheelchair ramp leading to the main entrance of the South San Francisco Main Library, South San Francisco, California. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the wake of the presidential election, Rhodes scholar Jay Ruckelshaus drafted a Facebook status on what Donald Trump’s ascendency to the Oval Office meant to him as a wheelchair user. The response to his post, from friends across the political spectrum, was resoundingly sympathetic. “Nobody wants to be anti-disability,” Ruckelshaus would later write in The New York Times. “Rarely, if ever, do people contest my claims that we must do more for those with disabilities.”

And yet, Ruckelshaus continues, this sense of “false unity” does little to actually address the structural injustices faced by disabled people. “Its logic is rooted not in any deep belief in the equal worth of citizens with disabilities, but rather in a general aversion to disability,” he writes. “There is also a profound lack of disabled people in the public sphere, meaning any substantive discussion that does occur is extremely rare.”

Because disability rights are not understood or engaged as a political matter by vast swaths of the American public, the “pro-disabled consensus” generally takes the form of non-disabled people paying lip service to disability issues. Far too often, this results in little or no tangible action (or, in the case of architecture, unimaginative designs that treat disability as an afterthought). Inequities are in turn normalized, concretized, and reproduced by what Ruckelshaus describes as a “non-political” discourse, citing “our inability to speak honestly–and contentiously–about disability.”

What lessons might those of us interested in urban planning and design draw from Ruckelshaus’s writing? To start, it would be worthwhile to study the long and ongoing histories of ableism in the production and management of the built environment in the U.S., from the “Ugly Laws” of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to today’s numerous misguided responses by law enforcement to people with mental health conditions in public. Just as importantly, there is a robust legacy of disability activism to be studied, including direct actions, scholarly work (some resources provided below), and the buildup to the Americans with Disabilities Act. These narratives demonstrate the ways in which ableism is contested and politicized, and how architecture itself has been identified as a disabling force.

Hierarchies are always built into our environment, whether we choose to recognize them or not. Ensuring a quality public sphere that provides opportunities for participation to all people—regardless of ability, age, race/ethnicity, gender, income, or immigration status—is a normative ideal that requires working across difference to make certain that disadvantaged groups feel safe and welcome. It necessitates acknowledging difference and often significant effort and investment (in addition to making small, immediate changes: e.g., better signage in multiple languages for accessible entrances, or hiring an ASL translator for events). Moreover, it demands centering the voices of those most affected by disabling policy and design. As Creative Reaction Lab’s Antionette Carroll recently stated in Fast Company, “You cannot say that you are effectively addressing issues if you are not including the people affected by them into your efforts, and giving them access to power.”

Ultimately, contentious dialogue is not the end goal; removing barriers to participation and representation is part of a larger, much longer process of creating more equitable and inclusive cities. But, as Ruckelshaus asserts, the politicization of disability for non-disabled people can be a first step, and will help move public life forward in ways that “false unity” never will.

 

Resources:

The History of the Americans with Disabilities Act: A Movement Perspective by Arlene Mayerson (1992).

Inclusive City Life: Persons with Disabilities and the Politics of Difference by Michael J. Prince (2008)

Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment by James I. Charlton (2000)

Keywords for Disability Studies edited by Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin (2015)

Designing Collective Access: A Feminist Disability Theory of Universal Design by Aimi Hamraie (2013)

Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation by Eli Clare (2015)