Accessibility, Part 1 – what is accessibility?

Questions of Accessibility

I’m optimistic that most people agree that improving accessibility is a positive and worthwhile endeavour, one that they are in favour of pursuing. But while any conversations and actions to improve accessibility are positive and welcome, I’m not convinced they are always, entirely effective. In order to create a truly accessible service, product, activity or space, I think three questions need to be addressed.

Firstly, what is accessibility? If we don’t know what we are trying to achieve, there is little chance we will achieve it. Secondly, why are we improving it? For accessibility to be effective and sustainable, our motivations for improving it have to be the right ones. Then finally, what can we do about it? While governments and major corporations have a wider reach, the actions of small organisations and even individuals can be as impactful, because one small change can make a big difference for somebody who needed that change to happen.

Addressing the ‘What?’

In this post I’d like to encourage you to think about what accessibility is. I’d like to share my thoughts on what i think accessibility means to different people and also, what it means to me. You see, part of the issue is that it means different things to different people. It’s important we develop a broad view of accessibility and we don’t let our habitual thought processes place limitations on what can be achieved.

Let’s look beyond what we know

I think there are two main camps of people in terms of understanding accessibility. Anyone can fall into either camp, but I think the first is largely people who have experience of, an interest in, or a need for accessibility. I would fall into this camp, along with my friends, family and the professionals who have assessed and supported me over the years. To me, a legally blind mum, the word ‘accessibility’ not only conjures images of high contrast markings and audio descriptions to help me navigate the world around me, but also pushchair-friendly ramps, lifts and automatic doors. Even though I’m aware and perhaps even passionate about the breadth accessibility, the adjustments which affect my own life always spring to mind first. A friend of mine said she never noticed things like good lighting in shops and clearly marked steps before we met. Now she always looks out for these features and is disappointed when she finds situations that I would struggle to navigate. Of course adjustments designed to help the visually impaired are at the forefront of my mind, and of the minds of those who are close to me. If you have a disability, or are close to, or work with someone who has, you are likely to firstly consider the particular set of needs relevant to your experience. It’s only natural, but we must be mindful of it. Our understanding of accessibility cannot stop at the needs of one set of people who have the same condition. It must include as many people as possible, with all the varying abilities that encompasses.

Accessibility doesn’t have to be situation-specific

The second camp may not have direct experience or a personal or professional interest in accessibility issues and they are likely to associate certain types accessibility with specific situations. To some, a building with ramps and accessible toilets has ticked that accessibility box. There is a tendency for people to associate web accessibility with adjustments for the visually impaired. In reality many people with a range of sensory, physical and cognitive impairments may all need different adjustments in order to access a physical space or digital information. It’s important to give equal focus to as many people’s needs as we can. For example wheelchair access makes a building accessible to one group of people, but thoughtful lighting and well positioned, high contrast signs makes it accessible to many others. In the same way, screen reader compatibility and audio descriptions allows some visually impaired users to access video clips on a website, but captions or subtitles allow those with a hearing impairment to access the information too. This mindset that accessibility means different things in different situations can be limiting. Accessibility should mean the same, regardless of context. For me, that meaning is empowering as many people as possible, to participate as independently as possible, regardless of their unique abilities. So instead of asking “how can we improve access for people who are blind or use a wheelchair?”, let’s ask “How can we ensure access is available to as many people as possible?”

Accessibility for Everyone

When an inclusive view of accessibility is taken, we might find that the benefits of accessibility is not limited to those with a long term disability. A truly accessible building for example, will be as user friendly to visitors who are wheelchair users as it is to those who are blind. But the same accessibility features of that building will also improve the user experience for visitors who are not ‘disabled’ in the traditional sense. A person may be injured, pregnant, elderly, a child, or they may be wearing high heels or carrying a large suitcase. A building with ramps, lifts, good lighting and lowered counters benefit all these people who are not considered ‘disabled’. So yes, accessibility is of huge importance to those of us with a disability, but it’s also relevant and beneficial to everyone. If we can agree accessibility is the only way our society can be truly inclusive, then perhaps we can begin to ‘normalise’ it. Let’s try to reset our idea of accessibility. Rather than being additional, optional and for the disabled, let’s see accessibility as integral, necessary and good for everyone.

So that’s what accessibility means to me. It’s only my take on it, but I hope it makes you think about what accessibility mean to you and whether our view as a society is broad and inclusive enough for us to inch closer to creating a truly accessible, inclusive world.

As always, thank you so much for reading. I hope you’ll drop in again next time when I’ll be sharing a few thoughts on our motivations for improving accessibility. In the meantime, I’m interested to hear your views, so please leave a comment below.

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