by Miles Townes
I am a disabled person, and also dad to a boisterous daughter. She is three—both her age and hurricane strength.
On a recent chilly morning, I took her to a park near us, so she could run wild for a couple of hours. The playground is a model of accessibility: two acres for children “of all abilities,” with equipment specifically for kids who use “wheelchairs, walkers or braces, or who have sensory or developmental disabilities.” It is an amazing place.
We are potty training, but she resists because toilet seats are always too big and too cold for her. I figured this park, for all its accessibility outside, must have something pretty special in the stalls. So I ducked into the restroom.
Instead, I found stainless steel toilets with no seats. The park’s designers chose the coldest, scariest toilets possible—prison toilets. To use these toilets, I need a separate seat for my child. Since I did not bring that seat, I made sure she had a diaper on.
The toilets crystallized something for me: my daughter is technically disabled, simply because her world is not built to be accessible for people her age and size. She is excluded in ways very similar to, and very different from, my own bodily exclusion.
I am an advocate and activist—I was arrested in civil disobedience in 2017—and I pay attention to what other disabled people say online. We often suggest abled people need to understand disability justice because they might become disabled as they get older. This bothers me because my disability is often geriatrized: I’m always “too young” for my impairments, even though some people experience them from birth.
I also know that most people are not good at predicting their future needs. They are no better at imagining their own disability than they are at imagining ours.
So what if we ask them to remember, instead? By the social model, our disability is the consequence of society’s decisions to exclude and ignore our needs. As a disabled dad, it is clear to me that society largely excludes and ignores the needs of children.
Some exclusion is reasonable, for sure: I don’t want my daughter to unlock doors or unbuckle her car seat, or have access to sharp knives or toilet cleaners. But there were also a lot of changes we did not make to our house that would have made it more accessible to her. Like most parents, we excuse our inaccessibility with the expectation that our kid will grow up.
Outside our home, things get worse. Zero public toilets are accessible to small children. Even “family toilets” do not accommodate small bottoms. More than once I have kneeled in front of a toilet, holding my child up as she pooped, eyes watering with pride, disgust, or both. Most transportation is inaccessible and profoundly dangerous to children. Feeding small children in public places is often difficult. She will face these sorts of barriers until she is more or less adult-sized, a long time from now.
I have been disabled for twenty years or so. I guess I am inured it. I am used to working around and through the ableism I face, used to downplaying the barriers I face. But I find I have zero tolerance for the barriers my daughter faces. Where steel toilets would be inconvenient before, in dad mode I find them inexcusable.
It is not that I think we should rebuild our society around the needs of children. But my experience of being disabled primed me to see her experience in terms of disability. More and more, I see in her childhood a genuine experience of disability, at least by the social model. Temporary disability is real disability.
When I realize that every person in our society has that experience, more or less, I wonder if that gives disabled people leverage in our work for justice. Rather than asking abled people to imagine old age, could we ask them to remember when they were young? The same way we warn them society is not made for the old, we can remind them that society is not made for the very young.
Of course, the experience of childhood does not generalize to all experiences of disability; this is not an all-purpose tool. And there is a risk that talking about the disability of children might help infantilize disabled adults, and abled people need every discouragement from that. But geriatrizing disability is just as problematic, in my experience.
The answer, I think, is to confront infantilization head-on and even turn it around: if abled adults refuse childhood’s limits, why should disabled adults accept them? Shouldn’t our society be built so that all adults have the same autonomy and agency?
Because of my disability, I can rarely find restrooms that are comfortable for me. Some day my daughter might ask me why I hate public toilets so much, and I will remind her of those times I held her, grunting and wiggling, over a toilet bowl she was too scared to sit on by herself.
I will tell her: the same way that restroom was not built for you, it was not built for me. And that, more or less, is what ableism does. Being a dad helped me see that much more clearly.