Crime and Punishment.

Empty blue wheelchairs in a row.

Disabled people are sick of a lot of things; ableism, inaccessibility, poor medical and social care, the list goes on and on. In particular, disabled people are sick of able-bodied people threatening to or actually removing accessibility aids as a punishment, or even some kind of “joke”. Disabled people often spend a lot of time and energy obtaining their accommodations in the first place, and the threat of their removal lingers over us and is used to control our behaviour. How something so sinister became socially acceptable is frankly, disturbing.

You don’t have to spend long browsing social media to uncover stories of teachers taking hearing aids and insulin monitors off of children, labelling them a distraction or somehow mistaking them for a phone. Police have been known to remove the wheelchairs and other mobility aids of disabled people at peaceful protests, sometimes damaging them. Even getting on a plane is a huge risk, as many disabled people will disembark to find their wheelchair damaged and unusable, with airlines being reluctant to correct the situation without a fight.

Ambulances and hospitals cause particular problems for wheelchair users in the UK, something I have first-hand experience of. Current models of ambulances do not have room for a wheelchair, not even a manual, folded-up one. This means that wheelchairs must be left behind, even if an ambulance is called while you are out and about. You simply have to hope that you happen to be out with someone who can take the wheelchair home for you, while you face medical treatment alone.

Once at the hospital, the problems continue. I was told off for trying to enter a ward in my powered wheelchair (having made my own way to hospital to avoid the ambulance issue), because it was unhygienic. The fact that everyone else had their shoes on was apparently irrelevant. Instead, a horribly uncomfortable wheelchair is fetched. This wheelchair can only be moved by someone else, stripping the disabled person of all independence. They are also indistinguishable from those being used for someone who cannot walk due to their current situation rather than a long-term disability, meaning that disabled people spend most of their hospital stay explaining over and over again that they need the wheelchair they are using.

Even staying on a ward is difficult for disabled people. I am lucky as I can walk a little and was thus able to access the bathroom on the ward independently, but for someone more dependent on a wheelchair the assistance of a nurse is needed just to visit the bathroom. Since nurses are overworked as is, this often means people wait a long time between requesting to use the bathroom and actually getting there, and will be treated with derision and impatience for adding to the workload of medical staff.

All of these issues could be avoided if the disabled person were allowed to keep their mobility aid.

Threatening to remove an accessibility aid or accommodation is like threatening to break someone’s leg; it impacts every aspect of that person’s existence, stripping them of independence and agency. Despite this, internationally viewed television shows like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier turn it into a joke. The scene in which the Winter Soldier’s prosthetic arm is removed in order to beat him in combat is treated as amusing, and even I laughed in the moment. It was only when reflecting afterwards that I realised just how degrading and disturbing that scene actually is.

Furthermore, prominent social media accounts turn accessibility aids like equipment to help get dressed or cook independently into a joke, lambasting them as unnecessary creations made for “lazy” or “stupid” people. Sometimes, the products themselves are even marketed as being for lazy people. This is of course when disabled people’s accommodations are not being blamed for climate change or labour disputes. Any disabled person who dares speak out about against the comments may quickly find themselves hounded by strangers who defend the ableism as not being intentionally ableist, even going so far as to claim that it is those who speak out against ableism that give disabled people and social activists in general a bad reputation. The contempt society holds towards disabled citizens quickly becomes apparent, as does the attitude that accessibility aids are luxuries, not necessities.

Quite simply, removing an accessibility aid is never an appropriate punishment, no matter the crime.

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