There is this episode of House, where the hospital hires a doctor who uses a wheelchair. As a result, House loses his parking space and is forced to relocate slightly further away. During this episode, House, the doctor in question, and Cuddy, engage in an argument over who deserves the closer spot. The audience is predisposed to assume that House is a selfish jerk, and so an important point about disability is missed by the majority of watchers – namely the way in which disabled people and different disabilities are pitted against one another in order to keep us from uniting in a way that might pose a threat to abled power structures.
The debate that takes place raises some of the many ways that disability concerns are generalized in a way that hurts some people while it helps others, and imposing an ineffectual rating system regarding what qualifies as disability and what doesn’t.
The arguments can be summarized in the following way:
Walking with a cane is painful and so being forced to walk further causes more pain. In addition, there is a greater risk of falling due to icy conditions and so have a bigger risk of injury.
Being a wheelchair makes one harder to see from the point of view of a driver in a car, so a person in a wheelchair having to go further across the parking lot risks being run over.
Both are valid arguments. One imposes an ongoing cost and risk of injury, while the other creates a risk of fatal consequences. Both situations should be seen as unacceptable. A Hospital should have the resources available to give safe and accessible parking to two disabled employees.
Instead House was challenged to prove which disability was more disabling, by trying to spend a week in a wheelchair. Cuddy challenges him by claiming he couldn’t handle a week in a wheelchair. In other words the hospital created a competition whereby the point was to prove which disability was “more real.” Just the existence of that competition shows us the way some disabilities are socially treated as being real disabilities, while others are either fake or just people complaining.
The same social idea that feeds into this contest is the one that shames people like me who use mobility devices – that only people who are never able to function without an assistive device are entitled to use one. It is why those horrible memes exist that shame people who use mobility scooters and stand up to reach something on a high shelf. It is why anyone who is in a wheelchair and stands up or is seen walking is assumed to be faking it.
Moreover, the show gives voice to a problematic view of mobility devices as being a trap, or the source of disability. For many people who use wheelchairs, these devices are actually a source of freedom. Wheelchairs grant you more mobility than you could have on your own. It is a way to break isolation, by making it possible to travel further than you might be able to under your own power and strength.
The source of disability is not the chair, but the way in which we do not plan our society with accessibility in mind. There is no good reason why a wheelchair shouldn’t be able to go most places in a city. There is no good reason for us not to have invented wheelchairs that can go anywhere by now.
We’ve created a society that artificially restricts the number of resources available and then makes everyone compete for those resources by being pit against one another in some disturbing accessibility hunger games. I say artificially restricts because there is no good reason to deny someone access to a wheelchair. There is no good reason to make it impossible for everyone who needs a service dog or other animal, to get one.
There is no good reason to restrict accessibility, except as a means to distract disabled communities from fighting for disabled rights by making them fight to be allowed to survive – in the same way that the hunger games were used to simultaneously punish and distract the districts. Because the truth is just that – THERE IS NO GOOD REASON – for why this society is as unaccessible as it is.
The artificial separation between wheelchair users and cane users is not the only way in which disabilities are pit against one another. We as a society also create a false dichotomy between mental and physical disabilities, treating them as separate and with one of them being considered more valid forms of disability.
We privilege which disabilities are entitled to treatment and which are not – like forcing patients with certain disabilities – like say schizophrenia- to receive treatment and putting active barriers in front of other patients – like ADHD- receiving treatment. We even create a moral dichotomy, deciding that some mental illnesses are bad and make you bad, whereas others either don’t exist or aren’t really illnesses.
We create functioning labels for situations like autism, which don’t give an accurate picture of what life with autism is actually like. Half are fighting to be treated as real autistics while the other half are asking to be recognized as independent human beings.
By pretending that accessibility is a scarce resource, it pits disabled person against disabled person in a competition for basic survival, all the while pretending that these same people are actually being helped. In reality it is the unwillingness of ableist society to make accessibility universally available that creates the lack, and not an actual lack of resources. The technology is there. The innovation is there. The need for research is there. All that is missing is the motivation. It’s time for us to refuse to play these games and instead get the treatment we deserve.