April 02, 2019

Unlearning Exclusion: How I Became a Part of the Solution

Kathleen Balthrop Havener

Woman pushing a man in a wheelchairNo child is born with an aversion to sunglasses or walking sticks. No toddler is anything less than fascinated by wheeled vehicles of any kind—including wheelchairs. No child observes for the first time another person using sign to communicate and is inexplicably frightened or compelled to turn away.

Each of these is a learned behavior, not a reaction that occurs naturally. Along with the more complicated prejudices and aversions we may feel toward persons who experience disabilities, our prejudices, once ingrained, must be unlearned if we are to enjoy the benefit of ordinary, unspoiled, and comfortable relationships with everyone around us. If we are to include persons with disabilities other than our own—I believe that I and each of us lives with some quality, often carefully hidden, that renders us different from our neighbors—in our everyday lives and activities, we have to unlearn our reactions of fear, misunderstanding, ignorance, and laziness and replace them with appropriately focused, carefully thought-out, directed efforts to include.

Meeting Challenges

Imagine yourself as a deaf person who has successfully made it through law school. You attend your first ABA meeting. Is a single event equipped with a sign language interpreter? Or imagine you’re blind. Are the materials available in braille or via recorded technology? Now imagine yourself a wheelchair user. You may find that CLEs and other events in a single venue are located on different floors, or that they are located at different hotels, maybe even a bus trip away (on a bus you can’t access). You can never get anywhere on time, and when you do, there’s no arrangement for handicapped seating at the CLE. Don’t even dream of accepting an invitation to sit on the dais. When you finally arrive at a new venue, you may very well find that the only accessible entrance is not where you’ve been deposited by the bus (that you couldn’t ride), but rather is around the block. Networking receptions may be scheduled in beautiful but unretrofitted buildings, and you can’t even get in. And when you do, the event—the bar, the food, the seating, the layout—is set up with fashionable but entirely useless (to you) bar-height tables and lovely counter-height chairs. You never see a speaker who addresses the audience from the floor. Instead you are treated to a lovely view of a sea of backsides.

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