A Case for Universal Design: Accommodations and Being Singled Out

I am a huge advocate for universal design, because it improves everyone’s lives. If you dedicate resources at the start to making spaces accessible, you save money in the long term in addition to making environments more welcoming to all — and you might be surprised by who will benefit from accessibility. It’s not just ‘those people in wheelchairs.’ It’s parents with strollers, older adults using walkers and canes, cyclists (because hefting bikes up flights of stairs is not terribly fun), and all kinds of other people. If spaces are simply ubiquitously accessible, everyone knows they can go everywhere, and there’s a higher degree of civic and social engagement that benefits everyone.

Since I’ve discussed universal design so much, I don’t think I need to go over a detailed list of reasons why I think it’s a good thing, and why society needs to adopt it. But one thing I do want to point out is that some accommodations can have a way of making people feel singled out, which can be isolating and embarrassing and may ultimately lead people to decide they don’t want to go out and be around people — because they don’t want to deal with the hassle of accommodations.

When I do public events and speeches and that sort of thing, I request an ASL interpreter, and I request that the presence of the interpreter be advertised on fliers and other materials used to promote the event. I want people to know, without asking, that a ‘terp will be there, and that they won’t need to request one or explain why they need one. It’s important to me that the service be provided without commentary, both because I want D/deaf and fellow hard of hearing people to be able to attend events, and because I want hearing people to be made aware that D/deaf and hard of hearing people are part of society too, and have a right to be in public.

Hearing people seem to have a strange fascination with interpreters, fetishising them rather than just accepting them as working people who are facilitating communication, which is obnoxious, but it also highlights why accommodations can make people feel singled out. If you’re the ‘special’ person who needs the lady on stage who’s moving her hands around, you become an object of curiousity, instead of just a person attending a panel or lecture — you’re suddenly set aside from the people sharing your environment.

If you’re a student who needs a laptop for note taking and negotiates with a professor (disabled students should be able to request and receive accommodations full stop without negotiating, though) in a classroom where laptops are not allowed, you again become an object of curiosity and comments about ‘special treatment.’ If you have a laptop, you, with no evident disabilities, why can’t other students have them? Why won’t you explain why you have one? What if you’re using it to play games or mess around instead of focusing on class? Why do you have to be so special?

When accommodations must be specifically requested and they stand out from the environment, they can have the effect of leaving disabled people feeling not just like nuisances or people getting ‘special treatment,’ but also like people who are isolated in what should be an inclusive environment.

If every stall in the bathroom is designed for wheelchair transfers, nondisabled people can go on using any stall as they have been, while wheelchair users, cane users, and other people with mobility impairments can use any stall too, without having to wait for a specific stall to become available. If every dressing room is of sufficient size to accommodate a wheelchair, a service animal, or someone with an aide, people don’t have to wait for a specific dressing room (or not try garments on at all). If every building is ramped at every entrance and exit, people can come and go freely through whichever door they please, without having to wait for doors to be unlocked or having to slink around the side or any number of other things.

Universal accessibility creates a world of greater equality, where people can blend seamlessly into the society and culture around them. Many people do like to stand out, but they want to control the way in which they stand out. They want to stand out because of their great fashion sense, or their fantastic singing ability, or their dancing, or other talents — not because they use wheelchairs and need to be hauled up the ‘just one step’ of pubs to hang out with their friends. Not because they’re Deaf and need an interpreter to enjoy a political rally. Not because they have cognitive impairments and need a laptop in class.

People shouldn’t stand out because of fundamental aspects of their identity unless they want  to stand out — being singled out, being someone who goes against the flow, should be an active choice rather than a necessity forced upon you by society. And that’s why I ask for interpreters, why I ask that events be held in accessible facilities. Because I don’t want people to have to ask to determine if they can come to an event — and I don’t want people to decide not to bother because they don’t want to ask, or don’t want to feel like they’re being singled out when they request basic accommodations.

Image: Lizzie the amazing, McBeth, Flickr