Accessibility Is So Much More Than Ramps

There’s a common idea I encounter among nondisabled people when it comes to discussing accessibility and making spaces accessible to all users. That idea is that as long as there’s a ramp, a space is accessible. That accessibility is solely about ramps, and nothing else, so once you’ve got a ramp in place, you’re covered.

This is, as we know, not true. Not even for wheelchair users; a ramp is only the beginning of accessibility and it’s useless if, for example, all the doorways in a space are too narrow to allow a chair to pass. It’s not helpful if the front entrance is ramped, but as soon as you get inside, there are steps up or down to another area of a building. Or if the bathroom in a space is too small and cramped to use safely. Or if, hey, someone decided to put all the light switches ridiculously high up on the wall.

The universal symbol of accessibility is our old friend wheelie blue:

The 'wheelie blue' symbol of accessibility, an outline of a stick figure in a wheelchair against a blue background

This symbol reinforces the idea that accessibility is primarily about wheelchairs. Now, granted, it would be functionally impossible to come up with a symbol representing all disabilities and all accommodation needs. The goal with symbols like this is to keep them simple, clear, and communicative.

But contrast that with this:

The icon says 'Disability Advocacy: Keeping Doors Open.' Image is of a room, with a floating brain, hands Signing, wheelie symbol, and Braille text

This icon shows the familiar wheelchair user, but also hands Signing, representing the d/Deaf community. And Braille. And a brain, which to my mind (ha ha) reads as a representation of neuroatypicality, for people with intellectual disabilities, for people with mental illness. Suddenly, the concept of accessibility is widened and the concept of different bodies and minds is represented here, reminding the viewer that accessibility goes beyond the ramp.

Wiscon’s accessibility policy is something we often point to here as an illustration of expanding the definition of ‘access’ and trying to work with people with many different kinds of disabilities to make a space comfortable and welcoming for them. It addresses issues ranging from wheelchair-accessible hotel rooms to the need for a quiet space to allergies. It also expands the conversation to talk not just about how spaces can be made accessible, but how people in those spaces can contribute to accessibility:

Offer help–don’t assume it’s needed. Most of us are taught to “help the handicapped” but not “does this person want or need help?” If you think someone needs assistance, just ask. If they say yes, don’t make assumptions; instead listen to the details of what the person with disabilities wants. If they say “no thanks” don’t be offended. What might look overly complicated or inefficient can be what that disabled person finds works best.

Wiscon also thinks about how the programming, the structure of the event, can be adjusted to create accommodations. Making more space between panels, for example, and providing information to attendees about which rooms have florescent lighting. Three facets of accessibility are being considered here: The physicalities of the space, the people in it, and how the programming inside that space is organized. That goes far beyond the way most people conceptualise ‘accessibility.’

Getting people to expand their minds when it comes to accessibility is more complicated than just getting them to think about the fact that there are issues beyond wheelchair accessibility. It also requires people to think about, discuss, and acknowledge conflicting accommodations and how to balance the needs of multiple people with disabilities. Some accommodations automatically exclude people from spaces. Conversations about conflicting accommodations are uncomfortable because we want to make spaces welcome to everyone, but sometimes there’s a fundamental conflict; take, for example, people who need to use essential oils to manage their conditions, and people who can’t be around strong odors or alcohol-based compounds.

Wiscon’s policy includes a statement and discussion about conflicting accommodations, something rather unusual. I haven’t encountered many discussions about conflicting accommodations in the mainstream, although one place I do spot them is online, where some sites have options like switching between a light on dark/dark on light theme or have other configurable options designed to address various disabilities.

Making spaces accessible requires thinking about a lot of things; about how people with a variety of disabilities will interact with a space, about how people will interact with each other in that space, and, often, how to manage accessibility with limited budget options. Many people trying to design accessible spaces may also not really know how to go about it, and they’re not sure about who to turn to. As a result, we end up with situations where spaces are not accessible because no one bothered to ask for input, instead trying to anticipate needs and failing. Often, the burden falls on people with disabilities to demand access and to provide education about how to make spaces accessible, even when that information is already available, with a little bit of searching.

Accommodation should also be provided automatically, without needing to be something that people specifically have to request and ask for. And people need to be provided with information about available accommodations, as this story Anna linked me to recently points out:

One barrier PCR finds is that access officers in universities tend to ask students to tell them what services they require rather than telling the students what is available. The student is at a disadvantage before the first lecture even begins, as they may not know about all the services available.

Considerations about accessibility and accessible spaces should be on the forefront of the mind of anyone tasked with building, arranging, or coordinating a space, not just people who need accommodations, and people need to expand the way they think about accessibility, actively seek out and solicit information to make the spaces they control better. People often seem to think that accessibility is something you add when someone asks for it, which presumes that people with disabilities will always ask for it, when instead, more commonly, we go ‘oh, that space isn’t accessible or there’s not clear information about accessibility, so I won’t bother attending that event.’

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

5 thoughts on “Accessibility Is So Much More Than Ramps

  1. People often seem to think that accessibility is something you add when someone asks for it, which presumes that people with disabilities will always ask for it, when instead, more commonly, we go ‘oh, that space isn’t accessible or there’s not clear information about accessibility, so I won’t bother attending that event.’

    Yes. This.

    I’ve encountered this sort of thing several times myself. On several occasions I’ve seen conference calls advertised, aimed at the disability community, with no mention of whether captioning would be offered for the call. The only way I even knew that was an option was because they gave an e-mail address in the announcement and I contacted them there. And if I hadn’t had the insight to do that, I would’ve just assumed it was inaccessible– because conference calls usually are inaccessible. (Ever tried joining a conference call via relay? It Is Not Fun.)

  2. I really like that accessibility icon, so much more inclusive!

    This is so true. I’m working on a convention right now, and the organizational body has no accessibility policy. It was always assumed that because the hotel has lifts (which break down) and accessible toilets that that’s the end of it.
    So now I’m introducing them to things like Braille programs, tactile maps, audio equipment that can be hooked up to hearing aids, large print, chill-out rooms…

    Long battle, and often so frustrating.

  3. That assumption that we will ask for accommodations is a peculiarly ableist one. After hearing the word “No” in a myriad of forms, or just gotten that blank, uncomprehending look after making a request, I’ve definitely started choosing when to ask and when to forget about it. As a person with an invisible disability, it’s such a pain, because I look so, you know, not disabled, and then I have to work through that block before I can even get to the accommodations part. And there’s so little respect anyway for people who are describing disabilities invisible to the naked eye–as though we’re making it up, or could just overcome the disability with a little more work and willpower–that it’s often exhausting to even begin to engage the issue.

    It is, indeed, a long battle.

  4. And sometimes we’re just too tired to face getting a stranger’s attention and describing what we need.

    My personal gripe is disabled parking spaces allocated but too far from the building. If I’m in a wheelchair, it wouldn’t make any difference to me, but when I’m using my stick that extra few (or few dozen!) yards makes a HUGE difference. The difference between going round the whole shop / garden centre / museum, or just half of it.

    Often I end up using the chair when otherwise I wouldn’t have had to – and I prefer to see a shop (or etc) from my usual standing height, if I have the choice, but the mere positioning of the disabled spaces removes that choice.

    The assumption that wheelchair accessibility covers all kinds of disability is such a big problem for anyone who simply has difficulty with walking any distance, or with stairs.
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  5. Great post! Thanks!

    Part of the mission of Access Fandom is to promote accessibility at events, so if anyone has questions, come to us– we have experience from WisCon. These principles can be applied anywhere, not just at science fiction conventions, and often for less money than you might think.

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