As society reopens, the battle for disability rights continues

Jill Babcock
| Detroit Free Press


Michigan teenager finds swing for disabled brother

When Forrest Bernhardt needed an Eagle Scout project, he came up with the idea of ​​helping his wheelchair brother, Zachary, have more fun in the local park.

Detroit Free Press

I am tired. I don’t mean that my arms are exhausted from rolling the wheelchair or that I’m tired from staying up too late last night. No, I’m talking about the bone-tired exhaustion that only marginalized groups know, the result of the sinking feeling in the stomach when you have to let discrimination roll down your back. Or, in my case, explain for the umpteenth time what ableism is and why the person who leads me to a stairwell commits it.

For the past year and a half, like so many of us, I’ve been in my house. I rarely ventured out just for doctor’s appointments and to visit my mother. During this time I’ve forgotten how hard it is to let things roll off my back, ignoring the person answering my question by directing their answer to my sane companion, or realizing that people are expect twice as much from me if i want to be treated like everyone else. But I’m not the only one who has forgotten.

Now that everything is open again and we can safely leave our homes and socialize, I realize Ableism is back and worse than ever. Maybe I naively thought that the “new” normal wasn’t that bad; Boy, do I get a rude awakening.

For example, I recently attended a virtual meeting with my superiors describing our “back to office” process; due to many problems we will move to a new floor in my office building. The building was built in the 1950s, ahead of any disability rights laws; While far from exempt from these laws, tenants and owners have never made the building fully accessible. The building has approx. 34 floors, of which only three have handicapped accessible bathrooms. The floor on which I worked at the beginning has such a bathroom, and for two and a half years, bathed in sweat, I fought for the bathroom for the disabled on my floor. If I moved to a different floor now, I would have to use the elevator every time I had to use the toilet or start the fight from the beginning.

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I live in Detroit; a city founded 316 years ago. We have had our share of triumphs and probably more than our share of sufferings. Our infrastructure is archaic, but we are here fighting to move forward. Over the past few years, I have volunteered with a group of disability rights activists and advocates in the community to raise awareness of the injustices of people with disabilities. We were influential in creating a disability office in the city administration. It’s a stripped-down version of the full-budget, staffed department that we envisioned and that is needed. But at least it’s a start. Some of the stories I’ve heard have caused the hair to stand up on the back of my neck. And for each of their stories, I have my own.

I also volunteer with some dedicated lawyers through a disability rights division of the prosecutor’s office. We know the laws, we know our rights. We also know how to coexist; something that many people seem to have forgotten in our rush to re-acclimate.

Before the Michigan pandemic started, we sent a letter to the owners and prime tenants of my office building, which happens to be the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building, about non-compliance with the American with Disabilities Act, particularly in relation to the bathrooms. The letter has been largely ignored and, to my knowledge, nothing has been done to resolve the non-compliance issue. So me and anyone with a disability who does business with the City of Detroit or 3rd Circuit Court is back to where we started years ago.

Something has to change. It’s the year 2021 for heaven’s sake. I’m glad we’re reopening and on the verge of controlling this atrocity called COVID. But when we meet and interact again, wouldn’t a little empathy go much further than what we have now?

Jill Babcock is an attorney who lives and works in Detroit. She is an advocate and activist for disability rights.

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