Accessibility Matters: Are You Really Going to Get This Entrenched Over $500?

Resistance to accessibility often centres around cost; it’s too expensive to accommodate people with disabilities, so we should make do with whatever we can get. In particular, there’s a heavy focus on the cost burden for small businesses, by which people usually mean owner-run establishments that may have a handful of extra employees. While it might be nice to accommodate people with disabilities, it’s just not practical, people claim, and it’s ludicrous to expect businesses to embark on expensive renovations of old buildings[1. And, of course, there’s the historic preservation excuse, that it would ruin the historical character of a building to provide accessibility, despite the fact that there are numerous discreet and nonintrusive ways to make buildings accessible.] just to ‘cater to’ the disabled community.

A survey on the costs of accommodations shows that 71% of accommodations cost $500 or less, and 82% cost less than $1000. This is not an unreasonable burden for all but the poorest of businesses; small businesses should have enough money to enact accessibility recommendations, especially when a lot of them are free. A clothing store, for instance, could be physically accessible in the sense of having a ramped doorway of sufficient width, dressing rooms of adequate size with railings and seats, etc. It might just need to rearrange some racks to make the aisles wider so it will be more comfortable to browse. Possibly move a chair or bench near the register for someone to sit on. This doesn’t cost any money.

There’s often a strong resistance to mandating accessibility through legislation. People argue, for example, that it should just naturally be done, because it’s a right, so there’s no need to legislate it, and having mandates opens up a can of worms; I recently heard someone vigorously argue that churches shouldn’t have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act because then they might have to pay taxes[2. I know, it didn’t make any sense to me either.], for example. There’s an idea that accessibility is somehow threatening once it’s enshrined in law.

In fact, as our society illustrates, ‘right’ or no, you have to legally mandate accessibility because otherwise it does not happen. Left to their own devices, designers of new structures would not make them accessible. Under the law, they have to include accessibility in their designs. Likewise, in renovations, when buildings need to be made code compliant, no matter why the renovation is occurring, most people would not think to address accessibility problems. People do not naturally provide accessibility because it’s the right thing to do, they need to be told to do it.

Just as other civil rights laws are specifically necessary to protect people who would otherwise be discriminated against, even though discrimination is wrong and should not happen. We should not have to have a law to protect, for example, the rights of Black people to vote in the United States. But, it turns out, we do, because if we didn’t, voter suppression would happen. Voter suppression is still happening, but now at least we have a law to enforce when we want to tackle people, organisations, and agencies that engage in it. Without that law, it would be much, much harder to defend what should be, yes, a right granted automatically to everyone without the need for special permissions.

People do not do the right thing because they think it’s right and good, for the most part. As individuals we may do the right thing on occasion, especially when it requires no extra cost to us and is easy to do. But, institutionally, doing the right thing needs to be legislated because otherwise, it doesn’t happen. If we do not create a legal mandate for accessibility, it’s not going to happen. And that mandate is only enforced when someone actually files a lawsuit, which is difficult to do with limited resources. All these claims that small businesses will be ruined by the ADA are hard to take seriously when they require someone filing a complaint and it actually making it all the way to court.

Entrenched opposition to accessibility and other civil rights is repulsive enough on its own. It’s doubly repulsive when people attempt to hide it behind financial worries; it’s too expensive to accommodate ‘them.’ And even more so when those expenses, in actual practice, are not very high. People really do want to let the bigotry flag wave high and proud over $500. When informed about the average costs of ADA compliance, the response is rarely ‘oh, I didn’t realise it was that much, I guess that’s really not a big deal at all, is it?’ No, the response is usually further entrenchment, an insistence that certain businesses and organisations should be given a right to discriminate.

They don’t say that, of course. They say that ADA exemptions should be provided because accessibility is too expensive, this despite the fact that compliance costs are actually very low, and the ADA itself includes specific exemptions when providing an accommodation would present an undue hardship to a business and it can prove it. Saying ‘these businesses should have an exemption,’ though, sounds much nicer than ‘these businesses should have a right to discriminate.’ So that’s what they say, often repeating incorrect and misleading information about accessibility, about ADA compliance, to create fear and hatred of accessibility. That mythical disabled person who wants to sue the world into compliance, who is out looking for ADA violations, is very much alive and real to these people, who really do want to get this entrenched over $500.

It’s not about the money, you see. It’s about the idea that people with disabilities deserve full access to society.