By Ally, Beth, and Ross
A note in June 2021: The need for accessibility is a common undercurrent in the lives of disabled people and something that never leaves conversations surrounding disability. Two of our earliest blog posts (published October 2019) were on this very topic, and much of what we talked about then still feels (frustratingly) relevant! However, the events of the past year and the world slowly uploading to a place we can access with our fingertips has given us renewed hope that we can have a more accessible world. We wanted to bring you back an edited version of those two earlier posts. They are now one and discuss what accessibility is, the mental health impacts of inaccessibility, and the way you can help push change as a friend and ally.
The dictionary definition of accessibility is ‘The quality of being able to be reached or entered’. To understand what accessibility truly means, it is conducive to think about what its absence means. Inaccessibility. Inaccessibility means being unable to go out alone due to cobbles, kerbs with no slopes and degrading pavement stones. Inaccessibility is being unable to go to lessons due to underfunded school buildings that lack lifts. Inaccessibility is avoiding train journeys out of fear of train conductors giving you ‘that look’ when you ask to use a ramp. Inaccessibility is missing nights out due to flashing lights or clubs that make you queue for hours to get in. The list goes on.
Each of these things may seem like a small thing, but when these challenges spring up every time you leave your home, any one of them very quickly becomes the “straw that breaks the camel’s back”. This is because inaccessibility does not end with physical barriers, but instead has huge mental health impacts – social exclusion, isolation, and a deep aching loneliness as you feel yourself slowly missing out on more and more. This is a feeling we have had some kind of a respite from over the past year – as socialising has been online or sat down in gardens, but as life returns more and more like before, it is a feeling that is creeping back.
It is not all miserable and impossible though. Whilst we need systematic change, there is rest bite to be found just now, and it’s often people who offer this. It is the family and friends that push you, stand by you, catch you when you fall, brush you off, and encourage you to keep going. For the friends who have been these friends, thank you. This support can only be described as a light in the storm. Anyone can be this friend though, and here are some of our thoughts on how.
Listen and tune into the way the world is for your friend
Accessibility is this incredibly diverse and multifaceted concept, and what an accessible world looks like for each Disabled person will be different (and sometimes contradictory with the needs of other Disabled people). It is, therefore, really important you listen to your friend. Sometimes, this will mean just tuning into what they are saying – they may already be talking about accessibility problems as and when you face them, but you may not have realised this. Equally, it may be that they haven’t felt able to talk about them before out of fears of being “a burden”, and so you could start the conversation, making it clear you want to listen and learn.
Listening is an incredibly important first step, but take a minute to imagine how exhausting it would be to constantly have to be explaining your accessibility needs. You as a friend can take some of this burden away by doing some of the learning on your own. The internet is full of information and accounts of accessibility/inaccessibility that people have shared. So if, for example, your friend is a wheelchair user or struggles with sensory overload, have a search and see what other people’s experiences have been with that – what works for them? What doesn’t? What are the biggest challenges? This will help give you an insight into the way inaccessibility poses challenges to them without burdening them with having to educate you. When you start to think about accessibility it’s almost like a switch flicks in your brain, the way you see the world changes completely – when in a cafe you will have clocked the unnecessary step up to it, and the too-close-to-get-a-wheelchair narrowness of the tables before you have even picked up the menu. This new lens through which you are seeing the world is how your Disabled friends experience it. It’s a lens that allows you to screen outing suggestions before you propose them, or suggest alternatives that you have noticed are accessible, and therefore remove some of the burdens of accessibility from friends who are exhausted by it.
System change and being part of the solution
This is about zooming out from your friendships and looking at the system as a whole. Take a look, and be angry. This is where you want to direct your anger and your frustrations, never at your friend who “can’t” do something but at the systems of inaccessibility that are stopping them.
Anger is important, but you can’t let it stop there. Use it to fuel you in challenging and changing the system! We are big believers in “bottom-up” change, and whilst it can be easy to feel powerless against the seemingly all-pervading force that is inaccessibility, you do have power! Whatever space you are in, and whatever skill set you have, you can both make a change and encourage those around you to do the same! On social media? Use captions and image descriptions, and explain that you’re doing this to make social media more accessible! Got some spare time and access to the internet? Learn skills such as seizure first aid and what to do if someone goes into anaphylactic shock! By having these skills you are making spaces more accessible for people who have seizures or allergies because you are creating a safe space for them and others. Organising a meeting or a get-together? Think about how accessible your venue is! Is it accessible by public transport? Are there accessible loo’s? Wheelchair access? Use your non-disabled privilege to make changes where you can!
Another way to push for change is kicking up a fuss! Write to your MP! Like it or not, MP’s are the ones with the power to enact changes. Disabled people are massively underrepresented in both Westminster and Holyrood, and therefore the majority of MP’s/MSP’s have likely not encountered accessibility challenges themselves, and therefore writing to them and giving them an insight into just how important an issue this is invaluable. Way back in 2017 “Transport for all” ran a campaign in 2017 where they got constituents to invite their local MP to take a journey with them to give them a real insight into inaccessibility problems associated with public transport. The MP’s that took part went on to describe it as “an eye-opening experience” and they went on to take these issues back to parliament to make positive changes to do with accessibility.