Michael Holden: “I Don’t Feel Disabled in the USA”

Michael Holden: “I Don’t Feel Disabled in the USA”

The independent living activist from Northern Ireland Michael Holden shares with us what it is to go back to your home country and instead of feeling warmly welcomed, to meet the cold barriers of the physical environment that isolate you from normal life in the community. This is just another call for action – we need to fight for our human rights! We need to be united, strong and visible and make a reality what has already been achieved in other countries. If better (even not perfect) accessibility is possible somewhere, why not realising that possibility at our home countries as well?


I hadn’t been back in Northern Ireland an hour before I felt differently. It wasn’t the jet lag, nor the currency change, not even post-holiday blues. No, it was the depressing realisation that I had become disabled yet again.

This might seem like a stupid concept to an able-bodied person, in fact the notion that I consider myself an able-bodied person. I just use wheels instead of legs – this is a difficult concept for most people to get their head around.

When I try to explain that it is the environment which I exist in is what disables me, the fact that I cannot walk is immaterial. If I am able to do the same things as everyone else, then where is the disability?

Okay, so I might take a little longer or have other issues, such as I cannot text and walk (okay roll) at the same time, but then I enjoy playing skittles with those that do. I’ve scored a fair number of points in my time and could have earned a small fortune on ‘You’ve Been Framed’ if I’d have had a Go Pro Camera.

But believe it or not technology assists with this, being able to ‘talk to text’ with a Bluetooth set makes this function possible. A change in the environment reduces my disability in this area. Does that make sense?

I digress and return to my feeling of returning to disability upon the realisation that I am no longer in the USA. Yes, it was an extended holiday and yes the grass is always greener, but I need to counter that with some facts that are, were very real and made me feel very much a part of the human race again.

I could get on every bus and train without having to give prior notice of my intention to travel. This means like everyone else I could change my plans at the last minute. At airports and train stations porter services were readily available for me which meant I didn’t have to struggle with luggage, nor did I have to worry about the size, weight or number of cases (within limits) I could carry.

It’s not just about transportation either, restaurants, day tours, access to theme parks, museums, monuments, hotels and their bedrooms all completely accessible via a ramp, elevator or level access. The only thing we have that America doesn’t is the Black Cab, but they certainly have alternatives.

Are they more enlightened in the USA? Well I’m not convinced about that on a corporate level, but with such a powerful piece of legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, which came into force in 1990, they’re certainly forced into it.

There are obviously two sides to every story and I’m sure that people who live there permanently have their own gripes with the systems available to them, but in my many conversations with Americans, not one of them was impressed with what they encountered in Europe in comparison. Of course they stated isolated areas of excellence such as the Colosseum in Rome, the Metro in Barcelona and the Black Cabs in London, but on the whole they were underwhelmed.

I suppose this is why the US Administration is pushing the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). The Secretary of State, John Kerry, feels that all Americans should have the rights and freedoms abroad as they do at home. Who could disagree with that sentiment as long as they are willing to accept that our toilets are better than theirs and we should expect the same standard when we visit the USA!

As for now, I am adjusting myself back into my life as a disabled wheelchair user in Northern Ireland and longing for the day I am able to go back to the USA or that my home country will allow me the system of independent living that I have enjoyed there.”


Photo: USA and EU flags in one

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