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“Accessibility” Means What, Exactly?

August 27, 2019

I was recently involved in a surprisingly heated (not on my part, I hasten to add, virtuous paragon of non-excitableness that I am) discussion with regard to a friend who setting up a new business ( – I so want to go!) arranging bespoke tours of Puerto Rico, and she states on her website that themed tours (guided or unguided) can be arranged to be fully accessible.

Umbrage was taken by a non-disabled person with regard to use of the term “accessible” because it did not state “wheelchair accessible” but did use the word “disabled”; this was taken to be offensive by said commenter.

Check your privilegeMy friend had surveyed many people with disabilities before this word was chosen, from people with disabilities, and this term was not deemed offensive by them (I include myself in the ‘them’).  Much discussion ensued (by which I mean one-sided, not-listened-to, not-heard commentary from said umbrage-taker) as to the terms, and it was impossible to get UT to understand disabled does not mean wheelchair user.

This made me wonder; how many people assume that disabled access means wheelchair access?  Far too many if my and others experiences of living with disabilities are taken into account.

For example, on the London Underground the accessible lifts are generally placed a long way from each other, necessitating long walks to access them.  Fine if you are in a wheelchair and have sufficient energy and do not have chronic pain, and are comfortable getting to them.  Rubbish for everyone else.

Another example; I attended a show at the O2 in Greenwich, London, for which we used the disabled parking.  Disappointingly these parking spaces are at least ½ mile (600 metres-ish, I’m estimating) from the entrance to the complex.  I have chronic pain mobility issues and use a walking stick.  I struggle to walk distances.  By the time I reached the complex I was very angry, in a lot of pain and almost in tears.  Yet this is considered to be a decent provision of accessibility for disabled people.

Disabilities-what they look like

Disability not discriminate; people do.

The problem is that it is assumed by a huge amount of society including those who are architects of society (in every sense of the word) that accessibility means wheelchair accessible.  As a result, when accessing booking for tours, holidays, buildings, public and private transport, anywhere really, the assumption is in order to make something accessible you need to make it accessible to wheelchairs.  Yes, you do, and everything should automatically be created to be wheelchair accessible, but that is not the only accessibility that is required.

Those with chronic pain need short distances or some form of transport to get between long distances.  Moving walkways such as at airports are fantastic.  On my recent trip to NZ (I know, I’m a lucky gal) I found a fully accessible glow-worm cave tour but as you can see, this still says wheelchair accessible.  Happily, they have thought of other problems and provide regular stations where people can sit and rest, and extra wheelchairs for anyone who has mobility problems during the tour.  I was incredibly impressed by the tour, yet did mention how the wording did not help those of us who have disabilities but do not use wheelchairs.

Accessible is a catch-all term which all too frequently excludes the myriad forms of disability that don’t require wheelchairs.

To be truly accessible, the myriad effects disabilities can have on individuals need to be taken into account.  This does not mean a list of all the possible disabilities that might exist, this means clarifying the accessibility issues that might cause problems to people with myriad forms of disability.  Chronic pain can have many causes, as can mobility problems, but the effect is the same and therefore the solution would also be the same.

Similarly people with sight or hearing problems can be on a sliding scale and/or caused by many different problems, but in order to make somewhere accessible it is the sight/hearing difficulty that causes the problem that needs to be addressed, not the underlying cause of the sight problem.

So how should accessibility be defined?  I have a few suggestions:

  • By not assuming wheelchair accessible is all that is needed, and by building in total accessibility for all manner of symptoms at the start of any project.
  • By contacting disability activists and groups run by those who experience the symptoms for comment and advice at the inception of projects.
  • By policy that ensures all projects should be fully accessible at inception.
  • By changing social attitudes towards those with disabilities.

We are all (hopefully) going to get old.  We are all going to develop problems with accessibility in some form or another.  Address the issues now, don’t play catch-up, it’s too easy then to blame costs for denying those of us with disabilities the possibility of participating in society to the best of our capabilities and potential.

No Access

I have written before about how people with disabilities are disabled by society not being accessible.  This can only be addressed by focusing on the actual problems causing accessibility issues.  The definition which has been adopted by the dominant able-bodied society needs to be changed, otherwise millions are still going to be disenfranchised, because they don’t have the right sort of problem.

For further reading on disability issues (activism and experience), try these blogs:

  1. Melanie McFadden permalink

    As per your O2 experience, I too suffered a situation similar to this after having DVT and being unable to walk without crutches (couldn’t sit for long, couldn’t stand for long, couldn’t walk unaided). However, as my condition was not permanent (lasted about 6-8 months along with wearing fancy white full length TED stockings … sexy…NOT LOL) we couldn’t access the disabled parking so I had to struggle walking the long distance from the car park to the hospital building, followed by the long walks along corridors to get to where we were going. There were no wheelchairs for visitors to use, so I didn’t even have that option. It was a true eye opener for how difficult it must be for people who need quick, easy, short distance access to places. More and more needs to be done to improve people’s perception and understanding of what living with a condition that renders your environment disabling is truly like and to remove this image of someone being wheelchair bound. The same with developers and architects too. Buildings need to be accessible to all and more thought should be put into this as the time of design. Making somewhere accessible makes it inclusive and available to all individuals regardless of age, ability, gender, sexuality… etc.
    With regard to your friend, the old adage “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time” comes to mind. There will always be someone who takes offence no matter how hard you try. xx

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  1. Accessibility – Susannah Bourke

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