Ableism in All Its Forms Is a Shame
The Americans With Disabilities Act guarantees a right to public spaces.
Posted February 24, 2023 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Denver Councilman Chris Hinds was asked to participate in a debate that was originally set on a stage he could not physically access.
- The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 recognized inaccessible architecture as a form of discrimination.
- Vigilance and advocacy are still required to made public spaces accessible to all, but internalized ableism makes this advocacy harder.
The scene was both infuriating and painfully familiar to anyone who needs physical accommodation in a public space: On February 13, 2023, Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds, who is paralyzed from the chest down, had to hoist himself up onto a stage for an election debate because there was no way to get his wheelchair up there. He pulled up his legs up behind him and then partially laid there with a small crowd around him, stage techs and representatives from the venue, all watching and trying to figure out how to help.
“What was going through my mind is, 'How do I remain composed?'” Hinds said later.1 “I’m about to start a debate; I’m about to do my best to share with the people who are in front of me why I am the best candidate. Meanwhile, I am out of my wheelchair, laying on the stage.”
It took them 15 more minutes to figure out they needed to hold the debate on the floor in front of the stage so that Councilman Hinds could participate in a dignified manner.
Chris Hinds was required to participate in the debate to qualify for Denver’s Fair Election Funds. And once there, he had to navigate the situation in front of a literal audience, both live and recorded, with behavior that could be considered “electable.” Mercy. (He did a great job, by the way—I will be proud to vote for him again next month.)
Anyone whose body works differently knows all too well that moment when you see that the conference room or the entrance to the store or the school auditorium or wherever you need to be is just not going to work for you. There aren’t a ton of great options. You can be super nice (like Councilman Hinds was) and try to make it work. You can throw a tantrum and make a stink, threatening to sue or to organize a rally. With my particular disability, I can sometimes choose to pretend it’s all fine, but then I pay the price—maybe lose some nights of sleep to the pain or miss a day or two of work to recover. Or you can just give up and go home, reminded once again that the world doesn’t really have room for you.
The shame of internalized ableism
When I saw that video of Councilman Hinds crawling onto the stage, I was overwhelmed with feelings. Outrage, anger, fear, and shame. The anger and outrage are of course appropriate here, but why on earth should that travesty make me feel ashamed?
Welcome to internalized ableism. I was looking at him on that stage and all I could see was myself. It made me feel the reality of being in too much pain to work at a regular job for eight hours a day, and how that makes me feel like a dead weight to my family and to society. It reminded me of feeling like a terrible mom for not being able to attend all my kids’ soccer games and school events.
Lauren Presutti defines internalized ableism this way: "Internalized ableism occurs when we are so heavily influenced by the stereotypes, misconceptions, and discrimination against people with disabilities, that we start to believe that our disabilities really do make us inferior."2
This internalized ableism lives so deeply inside of me that it almost immediately eclipsed the outrage of hosting a public debate in a venue that was inaccessible for one of the participants.
The right to public spaces belongs to everyone
It feels important to note here that the law agrees: Councilman Hinds and I and everyone else have a legal right to be in public spaces. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 recognizes inaccessible architecture as a form of discrimination, and states that people with disabilities have a right to protection from discrimination. That law was passed by activists and advocates with disabilities kicking a whole lot of a** (watch the Academy Award-nominated Crip Camp if you don’t know this story).
Anger can lead to action
All that is to say, I am aware that feeling shame about this incident is objectively wrong. I don’t usually call emotional responses objectively anything but there is a correct response to what happened to Councilman Hinds—and that’s anger at the venue and the planners and renewed commitment to advocacy and education to make sure it never happens again.
So the question is, how do I get from here to there? I’m hoping the answer is action. I’m hoping that it’s writing this post. It’s telling everyone who reads this of my now not-so-secret shame because bringing it out in the open makes it a little smaller.
It is not Councilman Hinds’ fault that the venue was inaccessible and it isn’t my fault I can’t work an eight hour day. And both of us deserve better.