by Serena Bains, Staff Writer
Predating my disabilities, I still faced a multitude of inaccessible infrastructure and practices. Whether it’s having to go through a maze to reach the nearest elevator or not being provided the option of closed captioning for videos, I found inaccessibility everywhere. Irregular breathing and preferring to learn by reading (rather than listening) were never adequate excuses for these kinds of accommodations. Now that I have the label of disabled, which I use exclusively in writing pieces and begging for accommodations at SFU’s Centre for Accessible Learning, it seems just slightly easier for people to understand my needs.
But what’s in a label? Prior to my diagnoses I was treated as though my needs were not relevant to anyone else. If I decided to not seek a diagnosis, which many people do, does my health not matter? People should not have to seek out a diagnosis to prove that they have accessibility needs and require those needs met.
Consider this: everyone has accessibility needs, therefore, greater accessibility and accommodations are beneficial for all abilities.
First, I’d like to introduce the idea of disability justice. A disability justice framework recognizes that all bodies are essential, have their own strengths and needs, and their complexities give us strength. This framework also acknowledges that all bodies are defined by gender, sexuality, race, ability, religion, amongst other factors of identity, and that these intersections are inseparable. All bodies have different necessities in order to survive and thrive, and what is needed to meet these necessities are examples of accessibility needs. Thus, all people have accessibility needs. Although, due to oppressive structures around ability, some identities have more significant needs.
For example, physical environments are made for and by abled people. During the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, stickers to keep two metres apart were placed on the floor of public spaces. This didn’t take into account low-vision or blind individuals and how to accommodate them. The pandemic has produced countless examples of how those most vulnerable are being excluded from prevention strategies. Disability justice is a collective struggle to create a world where everyone can flourish, not just those who are neurotypical and physically abled enough to thrive with limited struggles.
So, any system should account for all abilities, not only abilities which are present at a given time. Anyone can have their abilities change slightly or significantly due to a specific event, or even from day-to-day changes. If someone feels well one day and has a headache the next, their accessibility needs have changed. If someone doesn’t want loud auditory stimulus from a film or video one day, their accessibility needs have also changed. Rather than going through the painstaking process of retrofitting accessibility to an existing system, it is more efficient, and even empathetic, to build in accessibility to all systems and structures from their inception. For example, when a new crosswalk is made it should include tactile paving, auditory indicators of when to cross, and a raised symbol on the button to help with what direction to walk in.
This isn’t a question of whether someone who is disabled will be present to make gaps in the system more apparent and communicate their needs for change. Their labour shouldn’t be used to fix something that should have already been done. This is about understanding and accommodating all abilities from the get-go so that no one has to struggle to operate in life; whether accommodations are made for styles of learning, differences in executive functioning, or just general living differences.
It’s like the motives behind implementing universal healthcare. There is an investment made in peoples’ health because we all understand that it is a human right and it can deteriorate at any time through no fault of a person’s own. Providing healthcare to all is not only cost-effective, but it saves everyone the hardship of not knowing if they will have enough resources to address their healthcare needs.
Similarly, we should invest in accessibility. Everyone has accessibility needs and we should invest in supporting them so they can thrive and live according to their requirements not according to what is (not) provided to them in public infrastructure. Acknowledging and accommodating everyone’s accessibility needs would not only be effective in preventing undue burden in terms of seeking a diagnosis, but it would be the right thing to do.