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  • Posted on August 9, 2013 at 10:00 AM

When we first bought our house, we chose it in part because we loved the lay-out and we loved the woodwork. Enter the front door and go straight to go upstairs or turn left to enter the living room. But right there, between the living room and the front door, is a heavy wooden door tucked away in a pocket in the wall. Slide that door out and put a barrier between the upstairs and the downstairs, which can be very handy for our family.

A lot of people think that because we have three children with autism we have three children with the same needs. They don’t realize that the boys’ needs often conflict. For example, there are times when Ben needs quiet and Alex needs to make noise. We put barriers between them so both boys can have their needs met. Otherwise, fighting ensues. At times like these, that door is a blessing.

Other times, however, the door just seems like a barrier. Like when I come home with my arms full of groceries and I manage to enter the front door, only to be blocked further by the sliding door. Or when I’m coming downstairs, still more asleep than awake, and (almost) walk in to the sliding door, because I don’t quite see that it’s closed to me.

We have another sliding door on the main level. This one is between the playroom and the bigger boys’ new room (formerly the den). To keep his younger brothers out, Willy often shuts the door at night during those rare times when he goes to bed first. The problem is that we only have one bathroom on the main floor and it’s on the bedroom side of that sliding door. And that door has gotten rather noisy and uncooperative after Brandon and Willy roughed it up. So, when I have to go to the bathroom, I have to disturb Willy getting through that barrier.

It occurred to me that there’s a metaphor in these doors. Disability advocates are concerned with barriers. As advocates, we talk about how barriers most people in society can navigate easily can become overly limiting or even hazardous to people with disabilities. As advocates, we talk about tearing down barriers.

Once again annoyed that I had to navigate the sliding door with an armful of groceries, I resented the barrier. Once again annoyed that I had to navigate the sliding door when I needed to use the bathroom rather urgently, I resented the barrier. But after a day of resenting these barriers, I remembered that they serve a purpose. Not only that, but we bought this house because these sliding doors—these barriers—serve a purpose, a very important and valued purpose in our family.

Maybe it’s because I’m reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which is a strangely enlightening look at neurotypical thinking. Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking so much about what I’d like my future non-profit organization to do for people. Whatever the reason, it occurred to me that all these things we advocates refer to as barriers are also sliding doors. They serve a purpose. They are navigable to the people who designed them.

The barriers are a problem, because they are not inclusive and because they do keep people out. Our society is full of such barriers/sliding doors and the sum total is more disabling than the disabilities of those people who are kept out. But keeping people out is not their function. It’s not their purpose. Navigating barriers like these asserts a level of control over events and puts that control in the hands of the people who designed and used these barriers. So, when we talk about tearing down barriers we are rejecting not only the barrier, but the purpose the barrier was designed to serve and the people who designed what is from their own perspective a sliding door.

In short, it’s an attack. We’re saying they are wrong, selfish, thoughtless, and exclusive. Whether that’s true or not, from our perspective, it’s not true from their perspective. Even if they recognize that there is truth to the attack from our perspective, they’ll have trouble admitting it because we’ve put them on the defensive.

Instead of tearing down barriers, maybe what we need to do is work together to build better sliding doors.