Blake Leitch is a writer from Auckland’s North Shore who recently graduated from Massey University with a degree in journalism. He also recently graduated the Be. Leadership programme. In this week’s guest blog, he shares his thoughts on how we can move from diversity and inclusion, to equality and universal rights for all.
Throughout my small, little life on this small, little rock, inside this rather quantitative solar system, I have been called a rather large number of different things in regards to one very specific part of my being: disabled, crippled, handicapped, physically challenged, special, differently able, uniquely able, otherly able…so many words, so many different definitions for one very small and simple thing.
Unfortunately, that one very small and simple thing as it relates to me becomes much larger and more complex in regards to the wider community. What is, in the first scenario, a man with SMA (or Spinal Muscular Atrophy) Type II becomes a plethora of people with problems pertaining to their physical, mental, sensory and other types of being. But what that also means is that the definitions for those things used to define me become abstract. I should know – I have spent a large amount of my life trying to understand exactly what it is that sets a disabled person apart from someone without disability.
While I could go through every definition for disability – cripple, challenged and so on – this really isn’t the place for such a thorough examination. You can trust me when I say this – or you can defy lack of knowledge and read through dictionaries yourself – but what I say now and have said before is that the definition of disability and the like is so vague, so abstract, that anything can really be called a disability.
Have you twisted your ankle? You’ve been disabled. Have you come down with the flu? You’ve been disabled. Have you been the wrong colour or the wrong gender or the wrong religion? You’ve been disabled.
Despite an ever-expanding list of synonyms for what is ultimately a disability, the definition has become in no way more defined. Furthermore, this turbulent time for ‘disability rights’ has also had a negligible effect in defining disability. I am a proud believer of equal rights for all. Equal opportunities for the disabled; equal opportunities between genders; equal opportunities amongst race and religion; equal opportunities for every person.
Equal opportunities for every person.
While I would generally consider myself liberal, I feel that one of the problems with liberalism is a forever increasing attempt to define what doesn’t need definition. Let me explain using a quote from an episode of The West Wing. Democrat and liberal, Sam Seaborn, is discussing an Equal Rights Amendment with Republican and conservative, Ainsley Hayes. Here is what Ainsley has to say in reaction to the bill:
“… it’s humiliating. A new amendment we vote on declaring that I am equal under the law to a man. I am mortified to discover there’s reason to believe I wasn’t before. I am a citizen of this country. I am not a special subset in need of your protection.”
I have watched and, to a lesser extent, been a part of appropriation for disability rights for a number of years now. Things have been changing slowly over time, but maybe the reason change is slow is because we have been looking at it from the wrong direction.
For example, right now, I am meant to be writing about diversity and inclusion. Maybe it is just me, but what I see in those words is a focus on difference. For people outside of our minority community, they see inclusion of diverse and different people as something good to do. To me, it isn’t good enough.
A word that I’m beginning to hear more and more within the disability community is universality. This is where a world that focuses on accessibility does it for the sake of the entire community, not just the disability community. Ramps are built to make things easier for everybody, clear signage is for the benefit of everybody’s sight and even smart phones which have allowed me to keep up with society are an instrument in all of society. Universality is becoming the focus and appears to be surpassing disability and accessibility.
Universality is a concept based on natural instinct. People generally find it easier to walk up shallow slopes than steep staircases; people generally read signs that are easy to read; handrails prevent anybody standing from slipping over. By focusing on universality, we can focus on turning inclusion of difference into simply the mundane norm. If we can figure out a way to change our own mindset to one of universality, then we can change the mindset of the majority to that same concept. It’s the difference between seeing two sides of the same coin and being on the same page.
I know that I have a disability and I know very specifically what I have. However, I do not like the word disabled because it lumps me with a whole group of other people with other conditions that I don’t know or don’t understand. While I don’t see a problem in learning about those differences – in fact, I quite enjoy it – I do see a problem in focusing on them.
I’m tired of disability rights, I’m tired of women’s rights, I’m tired of gay rights. I think it’s about time we turned the page. I think it’s about time we focused on equal rights, equal opportunities for every person.