Access-refusals cause anxiety – psycho-emotional disablism

Inspiration for today’s blogpost

“Accessibility alleviates anxiety”

A quote shared by disability activist Liam O’Dell on Twitter today. People quickly commented and quote tweeted with their own experiences of anxiety arising from access refusals. Especially those experiences which happen over and over and over again.

I know that repeated and seemingly endless experience of having access refused and being made bad and as if that is our fault, is very familiar to many disabled people. It’s certainly something I experience a lot and have spent a lot of time, thought and practice trying to deal with in my life, paid work and activism.

What is psycho-emotional disablism?

While doing a postgraduate diploma in Disability Studies in 2015, I came across a concept called “Psycho-emotional disablism“. This was originally developed by Carol Thomas and expanded upon considerably by Donna Reeve. Here is an introductory paper about psycho-emotional disablism and mental distress for example.

What struck me about Reeve’s writing beyond it being very accessible and relate-able to mine and other disabled people’s real lives, was Reeve identifying disability legislation such as the Equality Act itself as a source of psycho-emotional disablism. The way things work in the UK (and similarly in the USA and many other places). Disabled people still have to ASK for access (repeatedly), and consequently, still have to risk refusal and the anxiety that results from that (often repeated) mental distress. Reeve talks about the role of internalised-disablism in how we perceive externalised disablism (access refusals and discrimination). She also points out how the Equality Act may also cause and perpetuate “indirect psycho-emotional disablism” in itself with examples given in the above paper of separate back entrances for level access users.

Dr Amy Kavanagh uses the term trauma to describe the impact of repeated access refusals while quote-tweeting Liam: “The trauma comes from the repeated feeling of asking for support and being told you don’t deserve it. It eats away at your confidence and self-worth.”.

Psycho-emotional disablism’s influence on the founding of Reasonable Access

Before Reasonable Access was founded by Doug, Esther and myself, we had had many long conversations about the psychological impact (mental distress) of dealing with access refusals. Additionally, the legal system often adds more distress as the people within it do not understand the experience of being denied access.

Recognising the existence of psycho-emotional disablism in our own and other disabled people’s lives and activism was a significant influence in Doug, Esther and I co-founding Reasonable Access. We wanted to find ways we could bring people together to support one another with the experience of access refusals and where appropriate, help people learn how to challenge them effectively or strategically. One practical tool we have for that is the Reasonable Access website with information and resources including our Disability Access Bingo tool.

Another plank of our aims is to help people look after themselves while experiencing discrimination, challenging discrimination – or in some cases, making a reasoned decision not to challenge, but to get away from the source of mental distress as a greater priority. We (Esther) recently covered some of those issues in a recent blog post about when not to keep fighting a case. We also know from experience that discrimination is so widespread, that none of us can challenge even a small percentage of what we face, and have to make (sometimes) hard choices about what we do and do not do.

Implications of minimisation of mental distress in the legal system

Within the legal system itself, minimising of the mental distress of discrimination is also widespread and problematic. We know at least one person who has had a judge say something along the lines of “you must just get used to discrimination so it isn’t as detrimental to you when any incident happens”!!!

We asked our disabled friends and contacts whether frequency of discriminatory experiences made things easier or harder. Overwhelmingly disabled people said they did not find it easier and that repeated discrimination became harder to deal with, and more physically and mentally distressing over time.

If largely non-disabled judges are able to assume that repeated discrimination is less harmful to us, then our legal cases will have less legal clout because the amount of compensation is related to the level of detriment the judge believes a claimant has experienced. At worst, it could be deemed that whatever the disabled claimant experienced, did not meet the disability discrimination legal test of being “more than minor or trivial”, and therefore wreck the case entirely.

Make the distress of access refusals known to ourselves and others

We need to find ways to make it clear to non-disabled people that access refusals and discrimination are distressing and harmful and that repeated discrimination does not make it easier.

We hope people reading this will find the idea of psycho-emotional disablism helpful in your own lives and where appropriate, activism and challenging discrimination. Sometimes putting up with discrimination is no longer viable, and that overcoming our reluctance and initiating a formal complaint gets the attention of important enough people that positive change can start to happen.

We hope you’ll find Reasonable Access’s website resources helpful and we can all build communities of support around us to help manage discrimination and sometimes-activism.