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Accessibility: A conversation we need to have. (1/2)

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

By Beth Dillon

So, what is accessibility. The dictionary definition of accessibility is ...

‘The quality of being able to be reached or entered’

However, accessibility can often be defined by what ‘inaccessibility’ means. Inaccessibility means being unable to go out alone due to cobbles, kerbs with no drop downs and degrading pavement stones. Inaccessibility is saying that you ‘don’t need’ the toilet because there’s no accessible ones nearby and you don’t want to make your family trek to find one or dreading going home in university holidays because your house is so much harder to get around. Inaccessibility is being unable to go to lessons due to underfunded school buildings that lack lifts or avoiding train journeys for fear of train drivers that give you ‘that look’ when you ask whether there’s a possibility of using the ramp. Inaccessibility is missing nights out due to flashing lights or clubs that make you queue for hours to get in. The list is endless. For every person with any kind of disability unwelcome, and perhaps more infuriatingly- unnecessary, challenges seem to spring up around every corner. When everyday tasks seem to require just that extra effort these obstacles are often the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Beth is sat in her wheelchair with a small dog on her knee. There is the text "accessibility: a conversation we need to have" next to her.

Why is accessibility so important?

Accessibility is not just the physical obstacles and the act of doing things. When things are inaccessible it leads to social exclusion and isolation and that deep aching loneliness as you feel yourself slowly spiralling off the grid. It becomes an oddity to see you at social events but that’s not for lack of wanting to attend or dislike for the company in question, the decision is literally taken out of your hands by no more than a flight of stairs ( I’m looking at you 1st yr Medic Pub Crawl!). Yet this is when you need this support and the fun times the most. A health condition can be emotionally draining enough without feeling like you are missing out and becoming alienated from your social support network. The feeling of longing to be able to do things and take part becomes so familiar you barely even notice it any more Inaccessibility creates a severe lack of confidence and a diminishing sense of self-worth. You manage to muster the confidence up enough to try something new or go somewhere alone only to bump into a needless step that’s just there for the aesthetic or the sympathetic face of someone ‘ regrettably informing you that unfortunately this venue is not accessible’ and you respond with a fake smile and a ‘no worries’ but inside you just want to crawl into a ball and never leave the house again. You begin to ask yourself ‘what’s the point’, ‘can I really do independent living’ and ‘ it would be much easier for all involved if I didn’t go’ and the good old favourite ‘ everyone will have a better time without me.’ None of which are helpful for your mental health. Equally it’s fair to say that not all activities or places are accessible in the same way that Everest is inaccessible for the vast majority of people. However, the problem with inaccessibility when it comes to disability is the lack of choice. Your decisions are entirely governed by the landscape and other people’s actions which also falters self-confidence, raises anger and fuels the emotional mess that this is quickly becoming.

A final think to say regarding accessibility is that the scale of what is ‘manageable’ changes depending on the company and the situation at hand. I’ve happily piggybacked up four flights of stairs when a Colin the caterpillar cake was at stake and a friend refused for me to not come along. Equally interrailing potentially posed a huge challenge – get the train across Europe with tragic language skills almost seemed like a recipe for disaster. But once again the fact that my friends were so supportive and had the attitude of ‘ let’s do whatever works’ and had the ability to laugh at things made it so this seeming mountain of inaccessible became accessible. ( now is the time to start singing a bit of Miley Cyrus) However I was fully daunted by a mere six steps at prize night, the idea of falling ( which usually I just have the attitude of ‘ let’s get back up again’) in front of all of those people terrified me and those stairs became a no-go.

Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. There are so many people out there bending backwards to try and make things as accessible as possible. The English teacher that moved all of your class downstairs, the politics teacher who worked out the Parliament trip so you could go, the family and friends that push you, stand by you, catch you when you fall. When your family think about what would be easiest when a new bathroom was needed. They are all the people making things as accessible as possible. They are the people that there needs to be more of in the world.

And things are changing, the Equality Act of 2010 went a long way in ensuring that people had to “take such steps as it is reasonable” to make things accessible. It’s now not even a question whether new buildings will have a lift ( whether its working is another question, or, better yet whether it only goes to every alternate floor- yes, I’m looking at you Adam Smith building?!?!? ) which is fantastic. But more needs to be done, and can very easily be done, the resurfacing of particularly bad pavements and the introduction of drop-down curbs would make an incredible difference to those with mobility, neurological or visual impairments. The fact that some museums have seats on hooks which you can take down and use when needed is a fantastic scheme, but why not take it a step further and operate a ‘radar key’ type system with seats on the streets. There are many other solutions bobbing around in my head but otherwise this is going to turn into a 50-page document so I’m saving all of that for a later date.

(Originally published 14/10/19)

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