Last Saturday I met up with some family down in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a pleasant lunch and afternoon of wandering the downtown pedestrian mall there. There’s all kinds of amazing independent stores in that mall, as well as a few chains. As usual when I’m planning to be out and moving around on hard surfaces for several hours, I was in the Doombuggy, my amazing wheelchair. It’s a light-weight, rigid, z-frame manual chair that goes zoom with just a mild push of the rear wheels. I love the Doombuggy fiercely, since it’s let me get out and do things I thought I’d probably have to give up, like wandering around malls and amusement parks with my family.
I was pleased to be out on a gorgeous day with family members I hadn’t seen in a few years, and was even more pleased to see that the pedestrian mall had eliminated steps in front of shops. Steps are not the only accessibility problem in the world; narrow aisles that make it impossible to navigate unless you’re ambulatory are another pitfall of independent businesses in particular, but steps annoy the shit out of me. There’s always just one or two, just high enough to stop me getting in without a bunch of shenanigans involving my husband’s ability to shove me and the Doombuggy up a 6” vertical surface.
So not having to deal with steps was really nice, and I was feeling cheerful and less of an angry cripple than usual when we came to the bookstore. Its name is Read It Again, Sam, and it sells used and rare books. I love books, and I particularly love used books, because each one comes with the weight of a silent past you may never discover. Sometimes there’s clues: an inscription, a scrap of paper or a train ticket used as a bookmark, a bit of ribbon caught between pages. Used books make me feel like I share a delicious secret with someone. I wanted to go into Read It Again, Sam, and look at books.
But there are steps. The one store in the entire pedestrian mall that I found that hadn’t bothered to convert its steps to a smooth, accessible ramp was the bookstore. Go figure. Two steps about 6-8” high, no problem at all for someone who was all ambulatory, but a barrier to people on wheels as effective as a razor wire fence. Those steps, and the fact that the owner of the store didn’t care about the steps, took a little of the shine off my day.
Naturally I posted a pic of the steps on Twitter. People like to wax righteous on Twitter about how Amazon and Barnes & Noble are going to kill independent bookstores and this will be the end of writers who do anything that is not guaranteed to be a New York TImes bestseller and therefore BUY LOCAL YOU PHILISTINES, BUY LOCAL. I always point out to these people when they come across my feed that I’d love to buy local, but none of the local bookstores are actually accessible. No one but other crips ever actually cares about this point. When I make it, I invariably get replies from other wheelies about how they, too, are tired as fuck of all the “BUY LOCAL YOU PHILISTINES” rhetoric. The silence from non-disabled people is deafening.
And so it was on Saturday, until I started to get really angry and asked a question to put it in perspective: why is it we would all get angry about a store that put a sign in the window barring customers on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, or religion, but we don’t give a fuck about steps? Why is there nothing but silence from progressives when stores discriminate against crips? Yeah. I went there. I was (and still am) angry about those stairs, and angry about the total lack of awareness and discussion in progressive circles about the fact that 20-plus years after the passage of the ADA, not only are business owners happy to put up metaphorical signs saying “FUCK YOU WHEELIES” but non-disabled people just do not care. I generally loathe participating in the Oppression Olympics, but this was (and is) a serious fucking question: why are you not as outraged about those stairs as you would be about a sign that said “WOMEN NOT ALLOWED”? Why don’t you care?
After I asked that question, people started talking. Shame is, I guess, a powerful motivator. I’m OK with that. At least one person asked cogent questions about who you should report accessibility violations to. Awesome! And then came the Stroller Brigade. Sigh. Every time I bring up ramps and it gets any play outside the community of embittered wheelies who just want to shop for books, people will pipe up with “Also, people with strollers need ramps!” I realize I am about to sound like an asshole, but stop. Just stop. Because just once I would like something to be about crips, and not about non-disabled people pushing strollers. Wheelchair accommodations are nice for people pushing strollers, sure, but so fucking often non-disabled people act like they’re only, or primarily, for strollers. They aren’t. As Wheelchair Dancer noted recently in a review of public transit in London and New York, strollers can be a serious accessibility problem for crips in and of themselves. How to solve this? No clue. But we could start with not trying to make accessibility all about strollers to the exclusion of crips on wheels.
In the end, it was all just a minor creep of rot around the edges of a great day out with family. But that creep of rot is present every time I try to go anywhere that isn’t a big box store. I always have to wonder if I can get in, even if I’m having a great day and on my feet working Sid. Because aisles that are too narrow for a wheelchair are also too narrow for a woman with a service dog to walk through. And every time it happens, and I talk about it, I am reminded all over again of how much no one but crips cares about this, about how resounding the silence is, about just how much people who claim to be in favor of equality for everyone don’t actually give a fuck whether I can shop at a local bookstore or not. But they’ll sure the fuck be ready to tell me that I’m ruining publishing when I go to Barnes & Noble.
 If a store has a web presence and an e-mail address, I generally e-mail them details of my visit, a picture of the accessibility violation, and links to the Department of Justice’s documents that detail ADA compliance for small businesses. If they don’t, I either drop an e-mail directly to the DOJ’s compliance people with a request that they do their damn job and harass people until they comply, or I just let it slide and stay sad and angry about it. Depends on how I feel.
Andrea Chandler is a regular contributor on feminist sonar. She can be found on twitter @civilwarbore or on her own blog the Manor of Mixed Blessings. She lives on a farm with cats, goats, chickens, and a multitude of dogs.