What Non-Disabled People Get Wrong About Accessibility

I’ve been working on this for a couple of months but it can be for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2017

I’m disabled. So are both my partners. And most of my siblings. And 85+% of my friends.
This is partly because there are a LOT of disabled people in the world, with most estimates at somewhere between 15% and 25% of people being disabled in some way. It’s also because of the way that abled (or non-disabled) people Just Don’t Get It in a million tiny huge ways that add up and can make being their friends or partners noticeably more difficult or more tiring than being friends or partners with other disabled people.

It’s not their lack of disability itself that is the problem so much as that we all live in a very disablist (ableist / anti-disabled-people / disabling) society and we’re all unlearning a load of bullshit we’ve been taught about disabled people… and those of us who are disabled tend to unlearn this stuff faster.

Because we unlearn this stuff by hard experience. And abled people have to unlearn it by listening to disabled people and treating us as the experts (in a society that constantly pushes the idea that disabled people are the last people you should ask about disability after our doctors and carers and families…) or by becoming disabled themselves and learning it the hard way.

So: What Abled People Get Wrong About Accessibility

1. Treating access as an optional extra, last minute adjustment or add-on

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to interrupt a discussion of an event being planned to ask “But how can we make it accessible?”

Interrupting because accessibility hasn’t come up yet and doesn’t seem likely to come up any time soon. If you’re deciding what colour the tablecloths are going to be and accessibility hasn’t come up yet, you’re WAY ahead of yourself. Access is something so important that it needs to be addressed FIRST and throughout planning any event. If you’re inviting the public, it has to be accessible to the widest possible range of people. If you know exactly who you’re inviting, it has to be accessible to all of those people (and anyone paid or volunteering to staff the event). Of course, it’s not actually illegal to hold a public meeting upstairs in a building with no lift (expect that, yes, actually it is) but it is disablist and it is most definitely Being A Dick. Don’t do it and don’t claim you have no other options because that just means you haven’t looked hard enough. Disabled people’s groups have meetings too and we find venues that aren’t upstairs-with-no-lift.

2. Expecting disabled people to ask for access

This is one thing I encounter pretty much whenever I leave my flat (everyone inside my flat is disabled and my flat is arranged to suit us). Abled society from individual abled people to small groups, to huge multinational organisations.. almost everyone and everything not created by and for disabled people has this assumption built in. The assumption that if disabled people need anything, we can and will “Just ask!” and the abled people around us will help. This is everything from shops that would definitely put the ramp out if anyone asks (and don’t understand why no one ever asks) to meetings that would definitely choose a different venue without stairs “if someone asked” to “Oh of course you can bring your carer in free, why didn’t you ask?”.
It can be as small as whether or not I can get help carrying the coffee I just bought to whether or not I consider going to a conference or enquiring about renting a house.
If your system’s accommodations for disabled people rely on individual disabled people to ask for help / access, you have already failed to be accessible and you’re being disablist no matter how good and kind your intentions are.
Systems where I have to ask for access and nondisabled people wouldn’t have to are intrinsically disablist. In common with every disabled person I know, my life is full of the question “Are the consequences of not doing this thing or doing it without the help I need to access it equally worse than the possible consequences of asking for access?” Would I rather risk spilling hot coffee over myself in public or risk being told to “stop being lazy” and forced to carry it myself? Would I rather book railway assistance 24+ hours in advance and have only a 75% chance of it actually appearing and a 75% chance of being interrogated about “what’s wrong with you then?” on either end of my train journey or just not travel outside of the city at all? Would I rather ask about wheelchair access to an event I’m considering going to and risk finding out “oh, sorry, we didn’t think about that” or just pretend to myself that I’m not that interested anyway and not ask? These are all real things that have happened to me multiple times.
Every time a disabled person asks for help, or access they have already weighed up the possible consequences of asking vs not asking. They’ve already made that calculation about a thousand times that day – and every day before it for as long as they’ve been disabled. We have, collectively, all experienced what happens when abled people tell us “No” when we want access or makes our access needs about how nice *they* are or about how sorry they are or about their curiosity about our bodies.
When we are put in the position of having to ask for access, we are forced to decide to trust you. We are all very aware that abled people as a collective have done little to earn that trust and much to break it. We can’t know if you’re different. If you’d totally give up your seat on the bus to someone who asked, we can’t see that you know. If you will personally meet us at the station to help us get to your event, we can’t know that without emailing you to ask. Which leads straight to my next point…

3. Having decent disabled access and not telling anyone

I used to live near a gym and swimming pool. It had gender-neutral, wheelchair accessible changing rooms.It had both standard and Changing Places accessible bathrooms It had a hoist for the swimming pool. It had step-free access to everything and lifts to all floors. It had personal trainers and staff all trained in disability and sports as well as LGBTQ and sports training. Do you know what it didn’t have? It didn’t have ANY of that information on it’s website. The word “disabled” wasn’t on that website. If I hadn’t lived down the road from it and if my girlfriend hadn’t joined it, I would never have even thought of entering it. As with my point above, disabled people generally don’t assume anything is going to be accessible to us. We’ve all had too many experiences of turning up to something only to find we can’t get in, can’t join in or can’t stay long because of access issues. Without clear, upfront access info that’s easy to find, we will mostly just not turn up. Even to places with great access! Even to groups that actually do want to include us. We can’t risk just assuming we’ll be okay.

4.  Claiming to be “fully accessible”

This again follows neatly from the previous point. SO MANY places and events and groups claim on their websites or flyers to be “Fully Accessible” or “Accessible”. And don’t expand on that. What on Earth do they expect us to understand by “Fully Accessible”?
Usually they are trying to mean “Wheelchair Accessible” but in my and other’s experience they often aren’t even that. If you’re stepfree once inside but there’s two steps up to the door and you’ve no accessible bathroom, you’re not wheelchair accessible and you most certainly aren’t “fully accessible”.
“Fully Accessible” doesn’t exist. It can’t exist because people’s needs can be in conflict with each other – one person might need low lighting to prevent sensory overload while another might need brighter lighting to be able to lipread for example. This is why accessibility needs to be very flexible, accommodating every possible disabled person at once isn’t possible but every disabled person should be able to access at least most of the time. Again, I know this sounds hard but disabled people manage it all the time.

If there are access needs that can’t currently be met at whatever thing you’re doing, make sure that information is available to us. Just like the gym above was failing by not telling anyone it was accessible to us, other places fail or succeed by what information they give us. Somewhere where I know I can only see half of the museum exhibits that tells me on their website what the access issues are is more accessible than another museum where I could access all the exhibits but the information isn’t easily available to me (again, real life examples).

5. Assuming you know who is and who isn’t “really” disabled

And then only offering access to those people you think are “really disabled”. This is standard almost everywhere and it’s a dick move. No matter how many official looking pieces of paper you ask for as “proof of disability£, you’re excluding real actual disabled people who haven’t got them or can’t get them. Believe me, extra time in exams doesn’t help people who don’t need it (it’s been tested). Loaned wheelchairs or seat-sticks at your tourist attraction won’t be taken up by people who won’t benefit from them. Nobody is pretending to need large print or EasyRead. No one is asking for stepfree access out of “laziness”. Believe people.
And assume that every person who asks for a seat on public transport needs it. Because every disabled person I know has a good half a dozen horror stories of the worst times they asked for a seat they needed and were ignored or belittled. You can’t look at someone and see whether or not they can stand up for the duration of their journey safely. And you can’t look at someone and see whether or not they could take the stairs instead of the lift or whether they could carry their own tray of coffee.

6. Assuming everything we need is provided

*sarcastic laughter* Ahem. So, there’s a lot of things that would make my life as a disabled person much easier and more equal with my not-currently-disabled peers. Assistive tech, support workers, physiotherapy , care workers, mobility equipment etc etc. Some of these things I’ve managed to get, none of these things are free or easy to acquire – even though the UK has free health care and free social services, getting even a few things to make my life even slightly closer to equal with my peers has costan awful lot of time (mine) and money (also mine). People crowdfund their wheelchairs, Assitive and Alternative Communication devices, pain management and even treatment. Yes, here and now in the UK in 2017. Abled people seem to think we get all of this provided quickly and easily and free – we don’t.
So often “accessible” events and places are only accessible to those of us who are better off financially because they’ve built in assumptions that we have assistive stuff we can’t afford or otherwise don’t have. For example, my next point:

7. Assuming we all have an abled person with us at all times

Some but nowhere near all disabled people need another person with them all the time (I’m one of them!) but that other person isn’t necessarily a nondisabled person. In my experience, the people we tend to have around us aren’t nondisabled people who are paid to help us (see the previous point) they’re much more likely to be partners, family or friends who aren’t paid – and as least as often as not are other disabled people with a different set of strengths to our own. And of course, lots of disabled people either don’t need or don’t have another person with them at all. Yet almost everywhere I go people assume that I and other disabled people have an abled people with us. Someone to make our phone calls, to open doors, fetch our food and drink, ask for the ramp… do everything and anything I can’t do myself basically. People frequently assume that my boyfriend isn’t disabled because I clearly am disabled and he’s with me. This ignores the fact that he is actually disabled too and sometimes he’s more disabled in some situations than I am – just he can walk all the time and I can’t.

If you have a set up that requires someone to help people who can’t move around / speak / carry things and you don’t provide that help (by pre-emptively offering help, not waiting to be asked, see above) you’re not being accessible.

8. Assuming That Separate is Equal

NO IT’S NOT. I can’t believe I’m still having to say this.
If your access solution is to have a special time or day or event  or space for disabled people separate from a similar thing for “everyone” that isn’t as accessible… that’s not a solution and I can’t believe that I still have to say so.



23 thoughts on “What Non-Disabled People Get Wrong About Accessibility

  1. YES YES everyday every time everywhere – I blogged ten years ago or so on BADD and still we battle every day with this massive problem. But it does need to be said loudly again and again so thank you for saying it so well. I am going to direct my housing officer OT social worker concert venue organiser NHS consultation meeting organiser (and every other service provider I can think of) to this post and to BADD 2017
    Keep on keeping on and Fighting the Good Fight
    From Sally

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