Vanguards of Afterthoughts

September 19, 2017 | Max Soh, 2017 AAPD Summer Intern

As people with disabilities, we face barriers daily – a building that has only steps to its entrance, presenting barriers for people in wheelchairs, an event with information necessary for participation only in print materials, presenting barriers for the blind, videos and websites with audio but no captioning, presenting barriers for the deaf, teachers and professors arranging their curriculum where the sole means of excellence is measured through how long a student can sit through a three hour lecture or how much a student participates in class, presenting barriers for those with various forms of psychiatric disabilities – and the list goes on.

Yet, I would like to inform you that these examples, along with many others, are more than just barriers, these obstacles constantly send a message to us that says “people with disabilities most likely will not be in this space”.

When a company builds its entrances without the presence of ramps, when event planners disseminate information on the nights’ events solely through print pamphlets or brochures, when a web developer takes into consideration what may be rendered as effective design solely on the basis of what may be counted as aesthetically or audibly pleasing, when teachers only recognize the brilliance of a student through how much he or she participates in class, it is equivalent to me as a person of color being offered the phrase “we only serve white people” over and over again.

As a person of color, I do not and will not tolerate it if someone denies people of color rights and opportunities whether implicitly or explicitly, whether interpersonally or systemically, and as a person with a disability, it deeply troubles me that on a daily basis, people with disabilities (whether physical, psychiatric, mobile, developmental, or otherwise) are denied not just their rights, but their opportunities, and no, it makes no difference whether this denial is made through ableist rhetoric, through the absence of universal design, or through silence on the part of those in power.

Inclusion must be a priority of all who seek to better society for every single person. However, lest we fall into a notion that inclusion is merely a headcount of diverse individuals, I would like us to venture beyond diversity. Our very notion of how we orientate towards achievement and progress must be completely transformed to orientate around the marginalized. To simply endorse diversity without inclusion and to simply tout inclusion through measuring how many different individuals one has in a population is as some including myself have noted, to add color to a black and white film with a bad script – though the film might appear “enhanced”, it is the same film, it is still the same actors reading the same lines, following the same plot, and ultimately arriving at the same ending.

It is simply not enough to see how we may “accommodate” those with disabilities, we must reinvent our infrastructure and the very core functions of our institutions to include disabilities and minorities from the get go. In other words, instead of creating a new innovation around the majority, and then think (or in most cases scramble) to “accommodate” individuals with disabilities and other minorities, we must create our innovations around everyone (including the disabled and other minorities) so that every single person may have opportunity.

And lest one thinks such a model of inclusion is not feasible, we are not left without models to follow. The work of organizations such as AAPD, whom I have had the honor of meeting this summer, along with others provide us with tools and platforms to continually improve upon. I stress the word continually, for equity is never a state of completion but rather an on-going process of nurturing inclusion.

For those of us with privilege and power, we do ourselves a disservice when we ignore those in the minority in our innovations, planning, designs, and teaching because privilege is often invisible to those who have it, and in this lies the irony of privilege.

It is often said that progress can only be made when we find common ground; however, I would like to challenge us that progress can only begin when we embrace difference, more specifically, when we learn that our best innovations and measures of progress will only arrive when we learn to learn from afterthoughts, from those who have been told (whether implicitly or explicitly) time and time again that they do not fit in, and that they should not be in spaces where the majority reside not because of anything they have done or failed to do but because of what society thinks they cannot do before society has even met them.


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Max Soh is a 2017 AAPD Summer Intern. This summer he interned with the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD).

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