Step Right up…to the Moon

Several years ago I had the privilege to direct a summer program in which children and adolescents with special needs were mainstreamed into a sleep-away summer camp. During staff orientation one summer, the parents of one of our campers, a girl with cerebral palsy who used a wheelchair to ambulate, spoke to the staff. These parents spoke of the challenges they’d encountered in a world not designed for people on wheels and poignantly described the simple act of crossing the street. The father explained that, for his daughter, asking her to ascend from the street to the sidewalk with no accessibility ramp is akin to asking anyone else to take a step up to the moon.

I try to hold this image in my head – this girl sitting next to the curb, helpless to reach her destination. I think of this, both literally and metaphorically, in terms of our responsibility to build ramps for those outside the box of “typicality” that society has constructed. (More thoughts on this box in a future post.)

One could argue that we’re getting better at building these ramps. We have autism-friendly theatre productions, a push to improve accessibility of mainstream media and a general movement towards a more accepting approach toward differences. But we still have much to do.

As a case in point, one of the first things we noticed upon moving to our lovely neighborhood in Israel this past summer was that many of the crosswalks do not have ramps. Pushing our infant daughter around in her stroller, this was (and is) a mild annoyance. We, however, have the luxury of begrudgingly tipping back the stroller and carrying on our way. Individuals in wheelchairs must find alternate, circuitous routes to their destinations. I’ve spoken to the relevant departments of our municipality but have no expectation for ramps to appear overnight or, to be honest, anytime in the near future.

How can it be that we are comfortable building cities in the 21st century that are adapted solely to able-bodied individuals? The lack of ramps is a concrete (pun intended) example that illustrates the fact that, generally speaking, we continue to construct our world in a manner appropriate for those making the decisions. When making these decisions, however, it is our responsibility to consider all of society, including those with differences of all kinds.

About the Author
Judah is Assistant Professor of Clinical Child Psychology and Special Education at the Seymour Fox School of Education at the Hebrew University. He is associate director of the Autism Center at Hebrew University and is chair of the graduate division in Special Education.