I was born with a rare neuromuscular condition, impacting the joints and muscles in my arms and legs, limiting my range of movement and subsequently requiring me to use a powered wheelchair for mobility. Accessibility has been a fundamental part of my routine every single day.
Navigating my daily activities has never been as simple as just getting up and going. Planning for accessibility – in a society which is frequently inaccessible – involves calculations, schedules, phone calls, emails, equipment, questions, problem-solving and creative thinking. Great skills to have on a résumé.
This planning often starts before I leave my house, or even days beforehand.
Come with me on a night out in town. I’m going to check out the Adelaide Fringe Festival, and see a show with my friends. The show starts at 8:20pm. Do I have enough spare money to pay for a taxi, or do I want to save by catching a bus? Bus. When is the next bus coming? Is it going to be accessible? The app on my phone says no. Taxi it is.
I meet my friends, and we enter the festival site. The crowd is huge, and moving in every possible direction. It’s difficult to see where the path is, so I can stay on a flat surface for my wheelchair. We find the box office, and line up for tickets. There’s a step up to the counter. My friends speak to the staff behind the desk for me. I yell responses to questions from a few metres away when required. We have our tickets. It’s 8:10pm. We move towards the venue for the show and go to the front of the line to talk to the staff about wheelchair access. They lead us to the accessible entrance and to our seats.
A sigh of relief – I have approximately an hour to enjoy the show and not think about access. The show is fantastic. Applause. We stay seated, waiting for everyone else in the venue to exit before we can. Outside, we look for somewhere to sit and have a drink and something to eat. The lighting is dim, and the ground uneven and grassy. We make conversation, but I’m distracted as I focus on where I’m driving, making sure not to run into holes in the ground, or tree roots, power cords across the walkway, cracks in the pavement, small children running around, etc., etc. We have seats. Time for a drink! The bar is cute – a funky mobile van, high up off the ground. Steps to get up to order. My friends order for me. Same with food. I need to go to the toilet. We find the accessible portable toilet. An able-bodied girl is lining up outside it. “Can I quickly go first? I really need to go,” she says. I oblige. I wait. My turn. Small bathroom, but it doesn’t matter, at least there is one, right?
A few mojitos and nineties tunes later and we’re ready to head somewhere else. A club? We want to dance. What’s nearby? What’s accessible? Not much. We find a place with a lift. We go down in the lift. The lift doors open, and I am greeted with the sight of tables and chairs stacked in front of it. My friends go to find someone to move it. “Sorry, there’s too many things for us to move”, says the security guard. Back up the lift we go. Where to next? Dancing is out of the question. Let’s go to the pub for a drink. We find a table. Another sigh of relief. “Can we share your table?”. We share our table with some drunk parents. “How long have you been in a chair for? Do you get out much?”. Yes. “Good for you!”. The tone of condescension is strong, but I am too exhausted to call it out. I’m still pissed off about the security guard. Time to go home.
I book a taxi. How long will it take? It’s 2am. Lots of drunk people are going home in maxi taxis. The taxi arrives at 2:30am, and we pile in. We arrive home. I fall into bed. A sigh of relief.
Here is a challenge: notice the spaces around you today. Are they inclusive? Are they accessible?
Choose an environment – your house, a shopping centre, your local coffee shop, the library, your work space or office, school, university, anywhere.
- Is the footpath or ground outside flat or paved? Is the walkway clear?
- Is there a car park? Accessible parking spots?
- Are there steps you didn’t realise you walk up or down when you enter this space? An alternate access entrance? Is there an elevator?
- Is there carpet? Floorboards?
- What is the lighting like? Is it adequate? Dim? Are there strobes or flashing lights?
- Is the space open and easy to move around in or is it cramped and chaotic?
- How high are the counters, tables, bars or cupboards?
- Are signage, text, menus, font easy to read? Is there Braille?
- Is there lots of background noise?
- Is there a loop system or subtitles for people with hearing loss?
- Are service animals welcome? Are there facilities available for them?
- Is there an accessible toilet? Rails on the wall? Sanitary/nappy disposal? Safe syringe disposal? How wide are the doorways? Are doors automatic? Do they open inwards or outwards? Are they heavy?
It seems like a lot of questions, doesn’t it?
These are just some of the questions people with a disability often have to consider in everyday environments in their everyday lives.
If even one of these aspects of an environment is not accessible for me, for example, it can mean the difference between inclusion and exclusion, between accessing services and products that I need and missing out, between independence and reliance on others.
‘Why do you only have one arm?’ Paralympian Jessica Smith lets us know how best to speak to kids about disability, and how she answers their most curly questions. Post continues after audio.
Findings from the 2015 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that in 2015, almost one in five Australians reported living with disability. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single Aussie person who does not know of a friend or family member with a disability of some sort. So if disability is so prevalent in today’s society, why are our needs – one as simple as access – not taken more seriously?
Many people ask how they can become a better ally for people with disabilities. Often we rely on the support and voices of able-bodied people to make change happen, and access is no exception. If people start to become more aware of the spaces around them, seemingly small aspects of access listed in some of the questions above may become much easier to identify, question and alter.
Access does not need to be an afterthought – there is noone that disability access can inconvenience. Once more people begin to realise this, it can pave the way for designers, architects, builders, businesses, organisations, education institutions and government sectors to incorporate access seamlessly into their planning, construction and management of environments.
Improving accessibility shouldn’t be a job left solely to those who rely on it.
You want to be a good disability ally? Start noticing the world around you.
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