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No Universal Concept of Disability

This is the second #TheDisabledBlackMagellan blog by Agent of Change, D’Arcee Neal who is a fellow in ECNV’s Ford Foundation Disability Justice Initiative. Over the next year, D’Arcee will share his thoughts and experiences about disability and intersectionality with BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized identities.

By D’Arcee Neal, Agent of Change

An outside view of D’Arcee’s hotel room

November: Copenhagen, Denmark

As I sit under the flashing lights of my hotel fire alarm, caused by a small box of burning French fries— which burned coincidentally because the microwave rests behind my shoulder in a room too narrow to turn around in—I had to keep repeating this mantra:

A standardized concept of disability is not universal.

When the front desk manager demanded that I pay a fire fine for calling the department to the tune of $6,000kr (or what amounts to roughly almost $900 U.S. dollars) directly because of the inaccessible room I was put in, or while they threaten me with homelessness lest I come up with the money in a single evening, I had to keep repeating the mantra:

A standardized concept of disability is not universal.

An inside view of D’Arcee’s hotel room

Despite the fact that this hotel was built relatively new back in 2019 and has hundreds of rooms, there is no accessible room here. In fact, I was told the only way a wheelchair user could actually get around comfortably was buy a larger room…at 3x the nightly rate. Impossible for someone traveling and living on a graduate stipend who still needs to pay bills, buy food, travel, and accommodations a month at a time. But does anyone here care?

Not at all. Why? Because a standardized concept of disability is not universal.

And because I understand this concept, I often have to take variations in expectation into consideration when traveling. As a person who’s been doing this since I was 19, at 36, the idea of still being shocked about the level of disability awareness continues to surprise me, mainly because often, I come not to expect it. The problem you have, is when a place purports to loudly declare how great they are at it, and then turns around and utterly fails through sheer incompetence.

Take Denmark for example.

As a progressive country that’s supposedly the envy of the world for its deft handling of the welfare state (taking care of most of its citizens in ways that ensure their health, safety, and wellbeing to some degree), I was privy to their election night a few weeks ago, as the far right political spectrum overtook the government stoked by fears of Ukrainian immigration woes, and calls to restrict aid. They claim to be some of the some enlightened people in the world. But I’ve since discovered that under the façade of competence, lies a sinister disregard for particular types of people they’d rather not care of at all.

To quote the Danish Shakespearian play Hamlet, “Something is rotten in Denmark.”

Chiefly, it remains to be their total apathy in relation to disability as the environment changes and/or adapts. To put this another way, I found myself taking the train to get my hair done a few weeks ago. Could I get to the train? Sure. Is there a system for chair users to take it? Yes. But signage? No. Assistance to board. Nope. Consideration of space and comfortable travel accommodation? Absolutely not. The wheelchair space is carved out of the bike section at the train’s front, and bikes are very obviously given priority. To have been told to move to make way as more and more bikes entered the train (despite the fact that I was there first, and IN the seat I paid for) is testament to this. So too, are the circumstances that surrounded how I ended up there in the first place. Without human guides at the majority of their metro stations, Copenhagen operates under a village mentality of ASTOUNDING ignorance, assuming everyone simply knows where they should go, or how to use their app to get around.

A person with a disability boarding a red train using a ramp.

While American metro stations most certainly have their problems, I never really understood the role of the attendant in the booth until now. What is the adage? Something something water…in a dry well? The idea that someone would merely occupy a space to assist in the event of, well anything doesn’t really occur in Copenhagen. You are simply expected to go about your way. Can’t find a map? Oh well. Need to figure out how to make a particular connection or find a shortcut? Better ask Google. Perhaps this relies on the Danish idea of “no diversity for diversity’s sake” as I was told on a date. It’s the Republican sentiment of the fabled bootstrap analogy applied to a societal hive mind, and for the life of me, I can’t understand or endorse it. Frankly, it sucks. I find myself musing about how the state of intellectual disability would function here at all. Before I came to Copenhagen, I had written and put together an excellent proposal for the Fulbright competition where I found that the Danish Human Rights Institute in their 2019 report, found that disabled Danes were worse off in 9 out of 10 areas of life here. But….

But….how Sway?

How is that possible? In a country that very loudly announces itself as the envy of the progressive world, that shouldn’t make sense. But I’m here to tell you that it absolutely does. Here, for example, they don’t have curb cuts for the architectural equity established through the American with Disabilities Act. It’s not about the idea of making barrier free movement accessible to the widest swatch of citizens and visitors. They install mounds of concrete to randomly affixed areas of the curb to create ramps for…wait for it…bikes. In the name of bike culture. That is the only reason ramps exist. And it is one tiny example in a litany of justifications they’d offer for why such things don’t exist.

I’ve been told here in the 5 weeks I’ve been here that disabled people aren’t a priority because they simply don’t really exist in this society. But in the Inaccessibility Cycle created by instagrammer PacingPixie, she points out the hypocrisy of such ideas as a never ending circle of excuses that manifest in public policy with devastating consequences.

I’ve learned that while other places like the UK, Germany, or Australia will do whatever is necessary to help disabled people in certain capacities (because everyone everywhere has limits), there exist places like Denmark who in fact will say one thing, and do quite another. And such ideas destroy the idea of trying to make the world a better place, when they’ll tell you it already is. Lies like that, are the most insidious, and equally the most harmful, nestled as they are within supposedly good intentions because as I’ve said:

A standardized concept of disability is not universal.