Why Do You Fight Accessibility?

When issues of accessibility are raised — in physical environments, online, in the design of homes, restaurants, public spaces, websites, books, classrooms — the response is often defensive. Justifications for inaccessibility spill out of endlessly running mouths, there’s always a good reason (or seven), there’s a sense of needing to swat down any request, of triumph when the list of reasons is trotted out and presented. You see, it’s simply impossible.

I can never really tell if people are just defensive because they’re embarrassed about the fact that they’ve never thought about the issue, have done no research, and have not invested in welcoming disabled people to the spaces they maintain, or if they’re indifferent to disability issues, or if they just straight up hate disabled people. But I keep coming back to the same thing: Why are people so resistant to accessibility that they actively fight it? They whinge and complain and post passive-aggressive signs and beat their chests and tear their hair and rend their garments at the very thought of making an environment more accessible.

It’s just too much. I mean, really, what will they be wanting next, this has gotten all out of hand and beyond reason. We can tolerate a certain amount of fussing, but this is excessive. Special treatment, that sort of thing. Really, this lot can’t just expect the world to revolve around their needs.

I have a number of arguments in defense of them, of course, starting with my astonishment that this even needs to be an argument, because we are all human beings deserving of equal rights, including the right to be in public and to navigate the same spaces everyone else does. But, beyond that, when I see people being resistant to accessibility, I point out the benefits of universal design and the fact that modifications to an environment benefit everyone, not ‘just’ disabled people (though even if it’s a disability-specific modification, it’s still appropriate, worthy, and should be implemented). I remind people that accessibility is the law, and that in the US, people have had over 20 years to enact the ADA. I point out that most accessibility modifications to a space cost less than $500, and that the majority cost less than $200, to implement. I suggest that making spaces more accessible will increase business and lead to concrete financial benefits (those, by the way, will help to make up for the massive costs of installing accessibility measures).

None of these arguments seem to really hold sway, though, in the fact of people who are really entrenched.

Again, many people get defensive when they are alerted to something they have never considered before, or were never aware of because they didn’t need to be, for a variety of reasons. Thus you have situations like city councillors signing off on plans for public buildings with no ramped access, because it doesn’t occur to them that some people in the community (including current and future city employees!) might use wheelchairs, walkers, canes, or other mobility aids that are hard to impossible to maneuver up stairs. You have web designers making pretty, pretty things that look gorgeous and are totally not functional because they’re focused entirely on a specific school of aesthetics, not on the execution and user side of things; they step back and are pleased with their work as an artistic creation, but don’t realise it’s a struggle for users (whether or not they have impairments that could interfere with their ability to navigate the site).

It’s easy to get defensive about what is, often, a genuine mistake stemming from lack of knowledge. We live in a society where disability is pushed to the back of the room, where the voices of disabled people are silenced, where disabled people are not part of the conversation about infrastructure unless we specifically assert ourselves and refuse to back down. Despite the work of disability activists and the pressure we exert on a variety of environments — from government websites to community beaches — we’re often not in the public eye, briefly considered and then forgotten. There’s a great deal to pick apart there, in terms of ableism and how it interacts with the way people perceive and engage with society, but it does mean that many people are genuinely ignorant of accessibility issues, even if they know and recognise that disability exists and that disabled people are discriminated against.

It doesn’t occur to them that they may be participating in this very discrimination, that if they know ableism is a problem, they might want to consider doing research on how they can fight it in their own lives. The gut response to making a mistake is usually to deflect it, sometimes actively turning that deflection into anger, instead of to walk away, reflect on it, and come back. Thus, the disability activist who asks that the plans for a building be restructured to accommodate disabled people is met with open hostility, just as the activist who asks a business to install a ramp, a website to get more screenreader friendly, a pool to install a lift, is given the cold shoulder. This resistance to accessibility comes from people who may just need to take a moment to consider the issues brought up and to ask themselves how to accommodate them — and, in turn, that person may need to reach out to the disability community for advice and information.

For those who actively resist accessibility because they hate disabled people or think it doesn’t apply to them, well. May your soufflés forever fall, your Jello never set, and your shoes endlessly mysteriously smell like dog poop even when you haven’t been outside.

Image: 2, Juho William Tauriainen, Flickr