Disability in diversity: Adding accessibility to diversity, equity and inclusion

As I worked on my story about the lack of inclusion on college campuses, I had some eye-opening conversations. I talked to Syracuse University professor Stephen Kussisto about how the disability community rarely sees itself in discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion.

During our conversation, I asked Kuusisto why that was. Searching for an answer, we discussed this frustrating concept. “The irony is that the disabled are from every background and are the connectors between all diversity issues,” Kuusisto, author of a series of books about disability, told me. “We’re the most intersectional people of all.”

Since then, I’ve been thinking about how diverse a community we are. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, around 25% of American adults have a disability. That’s one in four. That’s people of different genders, races, ethnicities and identities. Yet, the exclusionary, oppressive narrative lives on.

I’ll put it simply: when we discuss diversity, equity and inclusion but leave out people with disabilities, we contradict ourselves. We’re actually being exclusionary as we try to promote inclusion. Diversity, equity and inclusion cannot exist when people with disabilities are fundamentally excluded, from even a fraction of the discussions. Those trainings often leave out or undermine the most important part of the diversity umbrella: accessibility.

Without accessibility, diversity, equity and inclusion cannot exist. Access is the cornerstone of segregation not only for myself and others with disabilities, but for all marginalized communities. Think of historical anecdotes about buses, lunch counters, and education: they’re all about access. However, here we are: it’s 2021, and people with disabilities continue to have to fight for equal, reasonable access.

Some would say it’s a matter of widespread ignorance, but it’s more than that. Entrenched in the world around us, it’s such a subconscious way of life, like racism and sexism, that it’s invisible to most. Systemic ableism exists.

Because of this, there are times when I feel like it’s the 1960’s. Chipping away at this exclusion feels like lifting a neighborhood of houses, trying to not fall backwards in the process. We’re still a point where minorities have to be afraid to talk about their life experiences in fear of backlash. I think about that each time I write one of these articles.

Put simply, it’s seeing something many others can’t see but seeing it so clearly that finding words to describe it is a challenge and spending a lifetime looking for the words that will accurately articulate the view of plain sight. It’s fighting the urge to just scream, beg and plead with the naysayers to open their eyes and see beyond themselves. It’s decades of hearing “wait your turn” and never getting anything in return. Furthermore, it’s not getting a seat at the table but not resenting other underrepresented groups who have because it’s not their fault for fighting their own battles; instead, it’s the majority’s fault for ignoring those with disabilities.

What it is, most of all, is disgusting.

The result of a lack of recognition is dire for the disability community. It has caused a domino effect that impact shoots like a shockwave throughout even the most sacred aspects of society, like churches, many of which were not built with accessibility in mind, considering it wasn’t until 1990 that public places needed to be accessible. Physically accessible, that is. And with the COVID-19 pandemic, people with disabilities have been left behind even more, whether it’s with accommodations for virtual meetings or the blatant disregard for our lives.

But these are the reasons people with disabilities are less likely to be part of contemporary society. It’s not that there’s little effort to help us; we’re fundamentally excluded from the equation altogether, and I think it’s intentional. Intentional because it’s not in corporate interest to include us. There’s a concept known as universal design meant to compose and adjust things so all people have equal access, but doing so would cost money. Diversity, equity and inclusion are not good enough standards. It must be diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.