Norming Access

Imagine attending an event where accommodations are provided without fuss and comment; the speaker steps up to the podium and a sign language interpreter follows her seamlessly; the space is ramped and seats at the front are silently cleared for wheelchair users; seating for people with service animals is provided; descriptions of visual content are smoothly integrated into the presentation; there are no flashing sequences or loud noises; colours have been chosen with care; and no one is wearing scent.

Too often, accessibility is considered an add-on to an event or space, rather than an integral part. It’s assumed that it’s only necessary to provide access if someone asks for it; and of course, no one asks, because everyone assumes it isn’t and won’t be provided. Announcements typically don’t provide information about what kinds of accommodations will be available, and people who are tired and stressed out don’t want to have to call to get information and then cross their fingers in the hopes that ‘accessibility’ means the same thing to the person on the other end of the line as it does to the caller; the migraineur calling to find out about video content isn’t just concerned, for example, about flashes that might trigger seizures in people with epilepsy.

Access is an add-on, it’s something special, and it’s something remarkable. In this sense, it becomes a way of singling out people who aren’t normative; ‘ah, you’re the one who needs the sign language interpreter.’ ‘I see you’re using a wheelchair.’ It is another reminder that a shared space is not truly shared, because some people are in it by tolerance only, and it would be easy to take that tolerance away and exclude them from the space. When accommodations are something special, they draw attention to the people who need them.

My father remembers going to a two-room schoolhouse in Appalachia in the 1950s, where there was a daily milk delivery for the students. Students needed to pay two cents for a half pint of milk, and not everyone had two cents, so some students went without for lunch. The teacher, facing all these students who clearly needed more nutrition, had a dilemma when it came to dealing with this problem.

My father presents his students with this problem every semester and asks them: In the teacher’s position, what would you have done?

Most students respond: Buy them the milk.

What the teacher did, though, is announce on the second week of school that the school’s funding had changed, and milk would be provided free of charge to all students for the rest of the school year. Many of my father’s students don’t understand why this is the better solution, but I instantly got it when he told the story: because the teacher knew that singling out the poor students for attention would other them, would highlight the fact that they were poor and needed charity; that their survival was contingent on the kindness of others. Instead, he addressed the entire classroom by paying for everyone’s milk for the year, regardless of need, knowing full well that the poor students would feel uncomfortable accepting charity and would become targets if they were singled out.

The milk story might not seem to immediately be about accessibility, but it is. Access to a public space is not guaranteed for all people, because for some, it’s contingent on that space being made welcoming for them; some people have the two cents they need to buy milk, and other people do not. Accessibility provided only grudgingly is a handout from the teacher: ‘here’s your two cents, and the whole class will watch you accept it from me, but this is the price you need to pay if you want milk.’ Accessibility provided as a matter of course, as a normal and perfectly natural thing, is the teacher’s announcement that all milk will be free for the rest of the year.

No one is singled out as ‘being in need,’ no one is singled out as other or peculiar or something to be stared at.

I have to make a point, when preparing for appearances in public venues, of making sure the venue is accessible, that a ‘terp is provided, and that information about the event makes accessibility information available. Yes, even when I’m being asked to speak about disability—the thought that a disabled speaker might need accommodations often doesn’t come up, let alone the thought that a speaker on disability might attract a disabled audience that might need accommodations as well. Providing accommodations before people have to ask for them should be routine, but it’s often not—and that’s why they need to be advertised, both to alert people interested in an event to the fact that they will be available, and to alert other people to the fact that they should always be available. Conversely, event details should explicitly indicate when events are not accessible.

Inaccessibility is the norm, right now. It’s assumed that all spaces are inaccessible until proven otherwise because this is usually the case. In fact, the reverse should be true; it should be highly abnormal for a space to be inaccessible, and it should be extremely unusual for someone to have an accommodation need that isn’t covered in routine site preparation. It should be remarkable and an object of comment when a space is inaccessible; instead, I see nondisabled people staring at sign language interpreters in confusion, searching the audience for the person who needs the ‘terp, or nondisabled people being confused by seats cleared for wheelchair users in the front of the room, or nondisabled people not understanding why the visual content of a powerpoint slide is described—after all, everyone can see it, right?