This month’s “The Waiting Room” is the final installment of the three-part essay “No, You’re Not Moving to Europe.” If you missed the first two installments, catch up on Part 1: Brexit Britain, here, and Part 2: The Parallels are There, here.
Squeezed Out and Warehoused
With EU member states sliding so far to the right, and with EU Chancellor Angela Merkel (whose recent calls for bans on Muslim women wearing full-face veils in Germany have raised serious questions about her commitment to an inclusive Europe) up for an uncertain reelection bid, many have begun to fear that the EU’s stabilizing presence will collapse entirely. Such a disintegration would have far-reaching consequences, including the effective halting of the free movement of people across all European borders. It could also have disastrous consequences for disabled people—a group that, both here in the US and in Europe, needs perhaps the most legal safeguards, though it receives the least.
Already, the UK is no welcoming place for disabled residents, who face increasing pushback against their right to access public space. Just this past January, Anne Wafula-Strike, UK paralympian whose contributions to sports in the British Empire earned her the distinction of MBE (a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire—Americans can think of this as somewhere in the general zip code of knighthood) was subjected to a humiliating ordeal on a long-haul train. Wafula-Strike was well into her journey home from a meeting of the UK Athletics Board when she was informed that the train she was riding had no functional disabled bathrooms (this despite the fact that riders needing accommodations must pre-book their journeys to alert staff to their needs). Without appropriate facilities or even assistance to an accessible bathroom at the next train station, Wafula-Strike was forced to urinate in her clothes. She was offered some free tickets by the rail company by way of an “apology.”
Around the same time, UK resident Doug Paulley wrapped up a multi-year legal battle for bus access—one that he and activist groups fought all the way through the Supreme Court. In 2012, Paulley was denied access to a bus because a mother refused to move her sleeping infant’s stroller out of the zone reserved for disabled transit users, leaving Paulley, a wheelchair user, stranded at the curb. The absurdity of having to take such a claim—a claim that disabled people should have priority in disabled spaces—to the highest court of law is one that a nonplussed Paulley summed it up like so: “Who would have thought that five years on I would still being discussing the day I had that problem going across to see my parents for lunch?”
Despite the Court’s ruling in Paulley’s favor, just weeks later, some bus drivers were openly flouting their responsibilities to disabled riders. Wakefield resident Kristy Shepherd was denied entry to a bus because—you guessed it—a parent with a stroller had chosen to occupy the area reserved for wheelchair access. Shepherd demanded access (and the parent agreed to move to the empty, stroller-priority space), but the driver insisted that he would not allow Shepherd on. Instead, he asked passengers to disembark and reprimand Shepherd, saying that it was her fault that the bus journey couldn’t continue on to its destination. The other passengers were all too willing to comply, and stepped off the bus to give Shepherd a lecture on her selfishness.
If it weren’t bad enough that disabled residents are increasingly squeezed out of public space, a recent double-down on austerity measures mean that disabled people who now live independently may be forcibly institutionalized. The activist group Disability United recently blew the whistle on England’s National Health Service for its plans to warehouse up to 13,000 British residents unless those individuals can privately raise the money to pay for continued in-home care. Beyond the obvious injustice of shaking down disabled people, their families, and their communities for cash under a socialized system that purportedly guarantees free and equal care for all, the move is tantamount to threatening patients with violence; care homes in the UK are notorious for mistreating those forced to live in them. The innocuously-named Winterbourne View, to give just one example, was the site of such extraordinary patient mistreatment that, after an undercover BBC investigative report, six workers were tried and sentenced for abuse and neglect. I could recount here the scores of injustices that patients faced in Winterbourne View, but a single detail perhaps sums it up best: one worker reportedly enjoyed pretending to be a Nazi soldier, and put on a German accent while beating the residents.
The situation doesn’t stand to get any better in a post-Brexit society. The EU has been one of the greatest drivers of legislation to protect people with disabilities from abuse, discrimination, and limited access throughout Europe; without the EU’s center of legal gravity surrounding disability, residents face growing uncertainties about their basic rights and inclusion in society. Once the UK finally severs its ties with EU, citizens could very well see rollbacks of EU-constituted disability rights laws, such as the Framework Directive for Equal Treatment in Employment in Occupation, which prevents employment discrimination. Prior to the EU’s intervention, the UK held a smattering of anti-discrimination laws, but those laws allowed small companies—ones with 20 employees or fewer—to discriminate against disabled employees without repercussions. The EU further legislated that member states cannot discriminate against employees due to their relationships with disabled people—no one could be fired or harassed in the workplace because of a need to care for a disabled child or spouse.
Even if the UK doesn’t rescind the current EU legislation—though there is no reason to believe that it will retain any EU laws—disabled people in the UK will certainly miss out on proposed EU legislation that will, when ratified, improve access to public buildings, transport, banking, and digital services across all member states.
Should the EU face complete dissolution (a scenario that seems increasingly probable as figures like Wilders and Le Pen continue to grow their electoral bases), all European residents could see further setbacks to disability rights. The EU-ratified Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the first and only international agreement designed specifically to uphold the rights of disabled people, legally binds member states not only to ensure non-discrimination policies, but also to provide the support and services that disabled people need in order to fully participate in and contribute to society. Among its many provisions, the Convention obligates member states to invest in assistive technologies, mobility aids, and accessible information, and to eliminate discriminatory policies in public and private enterprises. Without the EU as a watchdog, individual nations will have no oversight holding them to their legal obligations.
So this is it: this is the state we’re in, and escapist fantasies about moving to Europe aren’t going to help us.
We Americans have a tendency, fostered from an early age, to view the US as unique. When we’ve looked at our nation as uniquely good or even uniquely qualified to lead the world, that attitude has led us to disastrous foreign intervention, to willful injustice and inequality at home, and to the waving around of the name of God as though he personally endorsed the worst and most unethical of our policies and leaders. Yet there exists an equally unhelpful B-side to the notion that America is special: when our national attitude slides toward intolerance and hatred, we assume that we’re alone in our sorrow and fear. We nurture the idea that our position—and our ability to do anything about it—is worse than it is anywhere else in the global community. In our grief over our present and concern for our future, we give ourselves the unearned luxury of ignoring the burdens carried by the rest of the world.
The fact that our political and social climate is just one part of a broader global shift may feel, at first, like a comfort. We all know the adage about misery and company. Yet we’d be merely indulging ourselves if we didn’t turn that commiseration into action; instead of looking toward the rest of the world for shelter, perhaps we Americans might try to learn from the examples all around us. Which tactics work and which fail in resisting demagoguery? What initiatives actually help vulnerable populations, and which take unintended tolls on the groups they are designed to safeguard? How can those who share goals work together despite ideological differences? What social patterns can we identify and learn from as we combat hate and intolerance?
It’s tempting to say that it’s never been more important to resist hopelessness and instead focus on action—putting our resources where they will have a cumulative, positive effect on our world. But in truth, it’s always been this important to turn toward our responsibilities as human beings. Maybe now we’re simply reaping the consequences of our long inaction.
Kelly Davio is the Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. She is the author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013) and the co-editor of the anthology The Poet’s Quest for God. Her work appears in venues including The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Best New Poets, and more.
READ MORE WORK BY THIS AUTHOR:
- No, You Aren’t Moing to Europe, pt. 2
- No, You Aren’t Moving to Europe–An Essay in Three Parts
- The Smell of Tempered Glass
- On Representation
- The Service of Lesser Gods
- Mindfulness Is for Healthy People
- If We Learned Anything From David Bowie
- James Brown and I Go to the Lab
- Kylie Jenner and Her Golden Wheels
- I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio
Kelly, this series has been so important.Thank you. You present a needed perspective (on many levels/issues) — with such eloquence and strength. Thanks again for your advocacy for disabled individuals – a crucial voice that we all need to hear. These things that have happened, they break my heart…but continue to propel me forward in fighting for equality, and justice for us all…
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