The communal responsibility of disability advocacy

Life is better when it’s designed for everyone. Graphic by Reece Butler


It’s no secret that accessibility is a contentious and highly stigmatized subject. Disability is an undeniable aspect of over 40 million Americans’ identity; yet the idea of taking legitimate measures to provide universal access to social, economic and physical life experiences is still not deemed a topic of polite dinner conversation. 

There are many reasons for this seemingly unanimous inability to discuss accessibility in the context of basic human rights. And, while I usually feel enormously comfortable with assuming that accommodation nay-sayers are just ableist, one of the aforementioned many reasons offers a slightly more nuanced take. 

After all, what are the main pushbacks when it comes to seeing accessible implementations — ADA-compliant automated doors, flexible attendance policies, speech interpreters, etc. — as worthy improvements? In my experience, people tend to have an issue with resources going toward accessible practices because they hold the mentality that accessibility should solely be an issue for the affected party or parties to personally remedy. 

In summary: most people think that individuals with disabilities should be responsible for adapting to the world around them instead of the other way around. 

Although this perspective is certainly not unique to any one region, it absolutely reeks of the American myth of self-sufficiency and our tendency to prescribe to a meritocracy. After all, isn’t the American dream all about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and overcoming challenges as an individual? 

This combination of individualism and accessibility is not one of my own creation, either. It is a longstanding interpretation known as the medical model of disability

The medical model of disability is one that examines one’s barriers as a product of the medical conditions they are diagnosed with. Although this model provides an emphasis on adequately navigating individual needs such as pain mitigation, it has a tendency to place blame on the person with a disability when challenges arise. 

Allison McElroy, a junior elementary education major and the public relations chair for Bulldogs for Universal Design sees lots of room for error with the use of the medical model as a default. In her experience, that mindset frequently mistakes disability for a problem. 

“[Users of the medical model] have this idea that if people have something different about them, then that’s a negative thing and they want to be ‘fixed’,” McElroy said. 

The root issue of using the medical model is that it operates off of the base assumption that everyone who identifies with any disability must inherently be yearning to change who they are — and that’s simply not the case. 

Becca Mattson, a senior youth and community development major and president of Bulldogs for Universal Design, echoed McElroy’s frustrations with the medical model. 

“If an individual wants a cure for their condition … that’s totally valid,” Mattson said. “But they shouldn’t have to want a cure because society has made it so they cannot function as they are.” 

An alternative to the medical model is the social model. The social model proposes that barriers emerge for those with a disability out of a lack of societal understanding and advocacy. This extends to all types of barriers, including inaccessible infrastructure, outdated learning objectives for course content and social stigma. 

With this model, it’s not up to any one person to change or ignore their own needs in order to participate alongside non-disabled individuals without accommodations. Instead, the social model encourages communal responsibility and advocacy. 

For Mattson, this looks like engaging in intentional and pointed dialogues about fixable problems with people who have the power to create change. 

“Advocacy under the social model is that you’re going to find who’s in charge … of barriers and advocate for them to eliminate that barrier as a means to accessibility,” Mattson said. 

While the social model does a good job of directly opposing the presumption of individual responsibility, there are still some valid criticisms. 

The main discontentment with the social model of disability is that it has a tendency to ignore the medical side of disabilities that have inherently limiting aspects such as chronic pain and constant hospitalization. Moreover, there are even more progressive theories that specialize in integrating both of the most popular theories and address political elements as well. 

However, if you’re just engaging with models of disability for the first time, it can be much easier to focus on the medical and social models. 

Both Mattson and McElroy concurred that the medical model is the most popular understanding of disability and I think most people would agree.

Even though you may not have had the language to identify this particular theory, there’s a good chance that you have encountered or heard of situations of inaccessibility where your first inclination was to encourage the individual to change, instead of focusing on eliminating the barrier altogether. 

On the other hand, usage of the social model is inherently resistant toward institutions wherein accessibility has not been adequately considered. 

Understandably, this can lead to some pushback. Specifically in an academic setting, problems of inaccessibility are often caused by well-meaning but ill-informed individuals who don’t see themselves as a part of the problem. For staff members or faculty, this too often results in a response of stubbornness. 

Mattson noted that discomfort from individuals in charge is a common reaction. 

“It’s a natural human thing to become defensive and to say ‘Well, we aren’t the problem,’” Mattson said. “I think the most important thing you can do is … reframing your mindset and asking yourself ‘What can I change about the environment to make this accessible for this person?’” 

When this reframing doesn’t occur, it leads to the misrepresentation of student needs. For instance, Mattson recalled being told to simply ‘sit out’ on inaccessible class activities and McElroy knows of instances where students who needed attendance accommodations were encouraged to take a medical leave of absence. 

In both of those examples, the person most capable of making change favored excluding students over accepting personal responsibility and creating better conditions for students in the present and future. 

I cannot stress this point enough: that is discrimination. 

On the bright side, times are changing. Increased awareness of disability and education on the role of non-disabled individuals has encouraged plenty of people in power to make learning experiences as open as possible to everyone. 

Erin Garriott, a senior lecturer in the College of Education, has internalized her role in Butler students’ experience in order to make her classes as inclusive as possible. 

“I do feel like [accessibility is] my responsibility, and I really enjoy being able to create spaces and learning opportunities where all different kinds of people are welcome and included and celebrated,” Garriott said in an email to the Collegian. “We just have so much to learn from each other … and we can’t do it if certain people can’t get here.” 

Like it or not, most of us — especially those of us who do not identify as disabled — have grown up with outdated and incomplete information about what disability really looks like and how much responsibility we should bear. Moreover, these misunderstandings give us far too much room to make incorrect and even offensive assumptions and decisions. 

If you’re resistant to that depiction of yourself, I really don’t blame you. After all, who among us wants to openly admit our biases? But clinging to the preservation of an unrealistic, hyper-woke self over prioritizing internal growth that positively impacts our community is not an option. 

So, let me be the first to say that I have absolutely had to unlearn the medical model as a default understanding of issues of accessibility and accommodations — and that recognizing my own biases is the only way I could have possibly begun to adequately participate in any sort of social progress. 

Garriott shares this recognition of personal growth and education as a vehicle to change. 

“I can see how I have perpetuated social norms or environmental barriers myself,” Garriott said. “But I think noticing and naming the biases that I had has made me so much more aware of inclusive and non-inclusive spaces.” 

This mentality is one of the hallmarks of progress when it comes to all social issues. We can only begin to accomplish change when the burden of education no longer falls on those who are most affected. 

So take this article as your official sign to start educating yourself on new perspectives of disability and examining what you can do to contribute to accessibility and inclusivity. For most of us, this looks like small, everyday actions that spark meaningful and compassionate dialogues; but don’t underestimate the power of simply listening and learning. 

At least in my experience, the more I learn about things that seemingly have nothing to do with me, the more I realize that I have had an obligation to play my part all along.


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