Access is a Twofold Issue

I talk about access a lot, and the mechanics of making environments accessible to as many people as possible. Concepts like universal design, and the idea that starting from the premise that all spaces should be accessible results in more powerful, useful, flexible design. One thing I don’t address as much is the other side of access. Access is not just a physical need, it’s also an emotional and social one. In order for a space to be accessible, people need to feel welcome in it. This is not as easy as slapping a ramp up at the front door.

This second aspect of access, the need to welcome people into spaces, seems much harder for people to grasp. As the pushback to attempts to make spaces physically accessible clearly illustrates, there’s a lot of resistance to the idea that people with disabilities belong in public. Access is associated with resentment and anger in many cases, and these are things that people can read. It is easy to tell when you are not welcome; even if the door is open and the person standing there is smiling and saying ‘come in,’ the body language says otherwise.

It’s not enough for spaces to be physically safe, although this is important; aisles need to be clear, floors need to be free of sharp objects, people need to be careful about bags to avoid injuring service dogs. Service dog teams people to not bother their dogs while they are working because it could physically endanger them. A distracted service dog is not able to focus on tasks and while a huge part of public access training involves teaching dogs to ignore distractions, no dog is perfect.

But it goes deeper than that. A space can be completely physically safe; people are being careful around the dogs, the ground is suitable for them to walk on, there are no bags or carelessly placed chairs in their way, but it’s still not accessible. Because people are pointing and staring. Because everyone’s going ‘look at the doggie!’ They may not personally bother the handler or the dog, but they are still making the space inaccessible by remarking on their presence, reminding them that service dog teams are alien and strange and must be commented upon.

They have failed the twofold access test. The space is safe, but it is not welcoming. Just like anyone else, service dog handlers want to be able to go to work, visit the grocery store, go to class, hang out with friends, perform tasks. When spaces are not accessible, it makes these things hard to do, which translates into making it harder to leave the house. It becomes isolating. Do you want to meet your friend at the coffeehouse? Can you deal with the fact that it may be physically and/or emotionally inaccessible? That while you may not be hassled by the counter staff, someone will point and stare and talk about the dog in a loud voice? Or would you rather just stay home and drink tea on the couch?

Remarking on disability is only one of the ways people can make a space inaccessible. There are so many subtle cuts people can use to make it clear that the crips are not welcome, whether it’s talking in a patronising voice to a wheelchair user, or facing an interpreter instead of a Deaf person, or telling your children not to point and stare[1. I can’t speak for other disabled people, but when I’m out being visibly disabled, I don’t mind answering questions from children. And in fact vastly prefer a kid coming up to me and saying ‘why are you wearing an eyepatch’ to overhearing ‘hush, Sally, that nice lady (double cringe, here, thanks to casual misgendering) doesn’t want to be bothered.’ I’d rather curious children get information from the source than a garbled version tinged with fear or possibly hatred of disability.] because that’s rude while talking in a loud, penetrating voice about ‘the disabled.’

Accessibility is a social responsibility; we collectively must address the twofold aspects of accessibility, whether we are tucking our bags under our chairs at the coffeehouse so a person using a walker doesn’t have to ask us, or ignoring a service dog in the grocery store. It is not enough to not actively pester or bother people about their disabilities. That is a good start, but the second level requires not making disability into a big production. Not telling a wheelchair user hailing a taxi that she’s ‘brave.’ For, what, hailing a taxi at rush hour? It’s not gazing thoughtfully at the service dog team. Not even if you mean well. Not even if you really just want to go over and say that you think it’s so great that someone is using a service animal.

Resistance to disabled people makes the world inaccessible for us. The most beautifully physically accessible space can be so hostile that we don’t want to be there. And then everyone can talk about how they built a ramp and no crips came, so what’s the point. Everyone, every person in society, has a role to play when it comes to accessibility and making people feel welcome. Making disability unremarkable, not making a point of pointing or staring or commenting when it comes to people who may think, move, and behave differently from you, is a critical part of hanging out the ‘crips welcome’ sign. Considering the fact that the people around you may be disabled in ways that are not apparent to you, that they hurt when you express hostility about disability. This, too, is part of accessibility.

Imagine, if you will, having your every move in public closely scrutinised by people. Some of whom will point, or talk about how brave you are, or say that they think it’s so sweet that ‘the disabled’ go to the grocery store just like everybody else. Imagine that it never lets up, everywhere you go, not for one minute, that leaving your house requires turning yourself into an object on public display.

And then, ask yourself if there is, just possibly, something you personally can do to make the world a more accessible place.