CW: Ableism, Mentions of Eating Disorders
When I was little, it never really hit me that I was disabled. I knew I had lots of dietary restrictions and had to eat special food, but I'd never had a problem that prevented me from living a fairly normal life. That is, until a particular day, when my mom brought me—along with my sister and some of her friends—into downtown Seattle.
We were trying to find a spot for lunch, and one of the other girl's moms had mentioned Dick's, a traditional, 50s-style diner. It was pretty famous—it's listed on tourism websites as an unchanged, throwback classic, and on Yelp as the place to get the best burgers in the city—so we decided to all pack into my mom's Honda minivan and head over to it.
We walked into the restaurant, immediately seeing 50s-style décor—and period-appropriate uniforms on the staff—and were welcomed by the smell of hamburgers in the air. After a quick pause to look over the menu as a group, the other moms urged me and my mom to go first, because they knew we would have to talk about my allergies. "Hi, we'd like to get a burger, but my daughter is allergic to sesame seeds, so we'd appreciate it if we could get it off the bun, please,” my mom said. And, at most restaurants, that would’ve been enough to garner whatever accommodations I needed to make sure an ambulance wouldn’t be called in the middle of my meal. However, that was not the case here.
"Sorry, we can't accommodate or modify changes to the meal," the staff member said quickly. I don't remember a ton, but I remember looking up at my mom in fear. I couldn't eat it without modifications, I'd had anaphylaxis to even small amounts of sesame seeds before, and the number on a bun would be life-threatening.
"What do you mean?" my mom asked, ready to defend my right to accommodations and access.
"We don't accommodate or modify any of the meals, that's just how our policy goes," they replied plainly—earning a look of shock from my mom and terror from me.
"Well, it's not like she doesn't like mustard, she will die if she eats it without the accommodations. Is that not something you guys can do?"
"No, ma'am," they told her, and she looked back at the rest of the group for validation.
"Then I guess you won't be getting our money," she said, gathering up the rest of the girls, grabbing my hand, and walking out.
I don't remember what we got for lunch instead, or what happened in the eyes of the other parents or girls on that day trip, but I do remember the fear of being confronted with the facts: I couldn't be offered accommodations. I remember my mom's rage after she was told for the first time that I wouldn't be served because my disability got in the way.
A little while later, I remember hearing that we had tried to make a federal complaint with the Americans with Disabilities Act against Dick's. From our end, it looked like this would be quick, easy, and painless: Dick's didn't follow the ADA's accommodations requirement, or at least we thought. Our complaint came back from the lawyer’s office, saying there wouldn’t be a feasible case because Dick’s had defended the lack of accommodations by saying essentially that they treat everyone that way. If someone wanted them to take off pickles because they didn't like the taste, they wouldn't be accommodated either, and so they didn't need to accommodate me at all.
At the time, it didn't register just how instrumental that moment was for me: that was my first real moment of injustice. There, standing in an old diner in the middle of downtown Seattle—in a place revered as a "must-see" place in the city—and I had just experienced violence. It didn't really hit me until years later that things in the post-ADA world were not working as intended.
The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability passed in 1990. At the time, it was seen as a massive accomplishment for disabled folks. To be honest, it was. It had protected me for most of my life, made sure that I would be safe in schools, and gave me protections against risks posed by food brought in by other students. Holding my hand the whole time, my mom advocated in my elementary school for me and dozens of other students with allergies, all on the basis that we deserved equal protection at school.
However, this law is not enough. Yes, it brought with it curb ramps and 504 plans, but it is by no means perfect. There are clauses within it—like the "grandfather" clause, and small entity exception—which mean that certain buildings don't necessarily need to comply with regulations in the ADA. Right now, loopholes in federal law allow for disabled people to be paid $1 per-hour for their labor. We were not included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (therefore creating a need for a separate ADA bill), despite being the largest minority presence in the U.S. Everyday, microaggressions are committed against disabled people, whether that comes in the form of people distracting service dogs while they are working, or “forgetting” to put captions on videos, or even totally failing to include disabled people in conversations around intersectionality.
The ADA does not completely protect people with disabilities, and in a country attempting to brand itself as a place where all people have access to equal opportunity to pursue the American Dream, it's shameful that we continue to allow that the country's largest minority to be forced into second class status. The ADA has not protected us enough—we are still not protected against systemic and individual acts of ableism. We are still segregated in schools, erased from history, and pushed out of the public eye.
But what can the average person do? In terms of changing the system, not much right now: you can pressure legislators and candidates to listen, you can protest, but most importantly, you can work individually to make things within your control more accessible. Right now, that means working on electing student government candidates that matter here at AU. If you're a candidate reading this, now is your time to step up. If you're a staffer or voter, it's your time to make a choice that will affect students at AU for years.
American University, in my experience, is okay at accommodating. They aren't criminally negligent—so that's something, I suppose—but I am demanding that anyone seeking or holding a position in AUSG add these points to their platform and make active efforts to push for them if they are elected:
Uplifting disabled voices in education and in discussions of discrimination and systemic barriers; listening to disabled people and including our experiences in your intersectional activism is what makes it truly intersectional.
Guaranteeing the enactment of Lily Theders's plan for the University to better support students with eating disorders.
Using CC (closed captioning) on all Zoom meetings and having those captions be easily accessible.
Using colors that have high enough contrast that they are easy to read on graphics, being cautious of using colors that may affect those with photosensitivity issues, and adding warnings for flashing or bright colors before you display images that may have them.
Pushing ASAC to revise their disability accommodations process, which currently asks for recent testing and proof of diagnosis. This process can be incredibly costly for people with long-term disabilities because testing for many conditions is costly, and many insurance companies won't cover testing deemed to be unnecessary. I suggest a policy with new classifications of temporary disabilities (therefore needing recent proof of diagnosis like an x-ray for a broken leg), and a long-term classification for unwavering disabilities.
Encouraging open spaces for conversations about disability that include disabled people, which would contribute to the destigmatization of disabilities and promote community healing through anti-ableist education.
Emphasizing the importance of accommodations for disabled people in all spaces, not just ones that they are required to be in, including campaigns, extracurriculars, etc.
Pulling the University away from a "bare minimum" mindset when it comes to accommodations: access needs to be full, complete, and proper for every single student, disabled or not.
Challenging ASAC to hire on-site crisis therapists who will take the role of showing up for wellness checks instead of the police, and using that as an opportunity to recognize how police uphold systemic ableism and disproportionately kill disabled people every single year.
Committing to listen to disabled people when we say something is wrong, and trusting that we know what is best for ourselves. Don't speak over us: amplify our voices across campus to affect change.
AU needs to do better. I wish I could say that my experiences with systemic ableism were unique, that the system has only ever failed me, but in my heart of hearts, I know that's not true. Disabled people are the largest minority in the United States, and yet we continue to be considered second class citizens. American University MUST make a commitment to create policies that will end ableism on campus, and will guarantee that being disabled no longer makes you lesser than an abled student in the eyes of society. Our community is depending on our abled allies and those with the power to speak up to do so, and that means taking action to make the substantive change we've been demanding for decades.