What It’s Like To: Change the System

Photo credit: Emily J. Davis

Elizabeth Campbell of Irvine fights for accessibility and independence for all.

Disability doesn’t discriminate. It’s pretty much the only minority group you can join at any point in your life.

The medical model was how disability was viewed up until the 20th century. You kept the person with a disability at home or in an institution. It was something to be cured, an ailment, a burden on society. We’ve evolved to the idea that society is what’s disabling you, not your body.

My formal title (at the Dayle McIntosh Center) is systems-change advocate. I study and analyze systems of oppression within society that are preventing people with disabilities from leading independent and fruitful lives. So I study physical space, architecture, and building codes, among other things. A lot of what I do is going up to someone and poking them and saying, “Hey, this is going to affect me, this is going to affect somebody you know, this is going to affect the community. Have you thought about this?” That’s the humorous way of putting it. It can actually be quite tense and very technical.

My disability is achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. I’m recognized under every single disability rights and civil rights law because my achondroplasia affects my ability to walk.

But I’m also ambulatory. I can get around relatively easily, whereas somebody in a wheelchair isn’t going to be able to cross the street if there isn’t a curb cut. Somebody who’s deaf or hard of hearing isn’t going to be able to interact unless there’s somebody there to use American Sign Language. My disability is different because my ability to interact stops as a result of other people’s assumptions about me.

Disability is a very wide net. Where somebody falls on it depends on how society views that disability. So when you think of somebody with dwarfism, usually somebody in entertainment comes to mind, somebody you saw on TV or in the movies, often fictional characters, a lot of gnomes and dwarfs, a subhuman attitude. Understanding my privilege, I’m still able to drive my car. Other folks have a very different experience. Within my role changing the system, I’m not just fighting for my access; I’m fighting for all different kinds of access.

My love is really civic engagement. It’s a very powerful experience to be able to cast your own ballot independently. The first time I voted in person was extremely gratifying, and I remember getting chills. Our executive director (of the Dayle McIntosh Center), who is blind, the first time she cast a private, independent ballot, she wept. For the majority of her life, she had to hope that the ballot was marked as she said. Finally, with advances in technology, that’s attainable.

I run the advisory committee to the Orange County Registrar of Voters on accessibility. There was a large section of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 specifically for voters with disabilities. Unfortunately, a lot of policy and regulations will say, “We want it to be accessible,” but it’s really not—until somebody goes, “Well, this doesn’t work for me, and you have to change it.” I can definitely say the Orange County Registrar of Voters takes accessibility very seriously, mostly because we’re there.

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