Accessibility is Not An Individual Problem

If you spend a lot of time talking or writing about accessibility, someone will eventually tell you this apocryphal story:

When Steven Hawking (and it’s always Steven Hawking) started teaching at Cambridge, they needed to put in ramps in all of the buildings, since they all had those beautiful huge sets of stairs as the only way in. One security guard (and it’s always a security guard) protested. “What are you doing that for? I’ve been working in this building for 30 years, and not once have I seen anyone in a wheelchair come through those front doors!”

(I know when people tell me this story I’m supposed to laugh. It’s kinda hard, though: I’ve basically been told exactly that by university administrators; professors; graduate students; student representatives; municipal, provincial, and federal candidates and elected officials; bus drivers; taxi cab drivers; small business owners; large business owners; Fox news commentators; bloggers of a variety of political stripes; apartment building managers; independent book store staff; national chain bookstore staff; people who run on-line campaigns, tea shop staff, coffee shop staff….)

I think what I’m supposed to get out of this story is the ha-ha, look at the ignorant person.1 What I end up getting out of this story is that the burden of pushing for something to be accessible pretty much consistently falls on people with disabilities themselves. We have to ask because no program, no building, no website, will be willingly designed with the idea that people with disabilities are part of a broader target audience. Only websites, buildings, and programs aimed right at people with disabilities will do so. 2 (Until laws are passed, of course. And even then the law will be only grudgingly followed.)

Accessibility is often treated like a favour that non-disabled people do for (or even to) disabled people, one that is given out of the goodness of one’s heart. It’s an individual’s problem to bring up, and the solution is for individuals to come up with.

This attitude comes up in lots of different ways, both online and off. To focus specifically on what larger entities do:

– The issue of subtitling the political ads on YouTube is brushed aside because D/deaf people apparently don’t complain enough about subtitling for politicians to bother subtitling their ads.

– I am on the planning committee for a conference and was told that if actual disabled people signed up for the conference they would bother moving one of the events to a wheelchair accessible space, but otherwise they’d keep it in the room down a flight of stairs because it’s a nice room.

– As I have also pointed out before, having your requirement for receiving funding to complete your education being “student leadership” while simultaneously telling students with disabilities that they’re not able to attend events that are sponsored by the university (which is what having your event up two flights of stairs not suitable for “the very elderly or disabled” is doing) is telling students with disabilities that they can’t get the funding to complete their education. And yes, student funding in Canada is increasingly tied to poorly-defined “student leadership.”

When I point out these issues, I’m often told that these are individual problems: D/deaf people need to complain more! More people with disabilities need to attend conferences! Here, let me give you a list of individual solutions! It basically asks people with disabilities – people who already have a lot on their plate – to do more. And it often puts people in the situation where they may find a solution for themselves, but it’s one that leaves everyone else – whether friend, ally, or fellow traveler down the road – to sort out their own individual solution. To re-invent the wheel every time.

This isn’t the way this needs to work.

How it needs to work: Assume people with disabilities exist. Just like we assume people without disabilities exist.

So, politicians should make their political ads with both disabled & non-disabled people in mind, and thus the idea of subtitling isn’t one that’s new or unusual to them, it’s one they thought of all along. (Bonus points: maybe they could think of actual disabled people when making their platforms, too.) Plan events without assuming that everyone attending is going to be non-disabled. Then no one has to say “I’m disabled, I can’t go down a flight of stairs.”

We don’t act like putting a door in the front of our building is a favour we are doing. We assume that doors are necessary. And yet, people treat having a ramp to that door as a favour they are doing, when the ramp serves the same purpose: it allows people to come inside.

  1. I’m not particularly exploring the class issues here, but that’s only because I’m focusing on disability and not because I don’t think they’re there. Of the dozen or so times I’ve been told this, roughly half have had the teller start mimicking a “lower-class” accent when repeating the security guard’s words.
  2. Before the website upgrade last month, the only page on my entire university website that passed an accessibility challenge was the Student Accessibility Office website. Because of course that’s the only website that a student with a disability will look at, right?


  1. This reminds me of something my boyfriend said a few days ago. We have a national law as of 2010 requiring public transportation to be accessible to disabled persons, so all buses now have some kind of wheelchair accessible way of entry. However, the driver has to roll out that entrance for wheelchair users (don’t know how to properly explain), and oftentimes, they drive by when a wheelchair user wants to get on the bus. My boyfriend used this as an argument why the law is useless. I use it as an argument why legislation is not enough.

  2. They drive by???? Wow. (Not that I should be surprised – here they stop and just come up with excuses not to do it.)

    But yes – it’s obvious to me that the problem isn’t with the law.

  3. Not surprised to hear they drive by, since they’re pretty crap about other accessibility stuff in buses here too. Also reminded that so many apartment buildings here don’t have elevators: they don’t put one in until the building is over a certain number of storeys high. We live in one of these buildings without one and it meant that in the last few years of his life, my grandpa couldn’t come visit us here mostly because he couldn’t walk up several flights of stairs anymore, for example. These buildings aren’t that old.
    Norah´s last blog post ..Confession

  4. In London nowadays, all buses have to be of a supposedly wheelchair accessible type, which usually means the middle doors have a roll-out ramp and it can be automatically deployed by pressing a button. This caused some problems initially (late 90s), as the buses have low floors so they can’t be used on roads where there are speed bumps, so they have to be removed. They certainly look bigger than the old 1980s “Olympian” double-deck buses.

    But I often notice that the wheelchair space is already full with luggage, baby buggies or just standing passengers, and often the space between the door and the wheelchair space is occupied as well. There have also been complaints that bus drivers just go straight by (the same has also been true of cab drivers, as black cabs — official London taxis, usually but not always black — have wheelchair ramps but some drivers cannot be bothered to use them). There is also the issue of whether a bus driver will or can compel an obstructive passenger to move their backside or their buggy. I very rarely see the wheelchair space used for its intended purpose.

  5. Speaking of busses and buss drivers who just drive by. Earlier this week I saw one worse. The bus driver pulled up to one of the more busy stops and there was a man in a wheelchair. She stopped, let the abled passengers board and then told the man in the wheelchair that he had to wait behind because the “bus was too full” and she was “running behind” and that she “already had a chair in the bus anyway.” (note, the bus could hold two wheelchair users, and I love how it’s a chair and not someone in a chair)

  6. ilu & this post.

    I had no idea how amazing my undergrad’s disability accommodations office was until I got to, where a complete lack of accommodation was one of the major factors in my dropping out.

  7. I don’t attend events where things are not accessible. This has caused me to lose a lot of what was on my plate but in turn i do tell these people that they have lost an advocate, a source of funding, and the things that they wanted me to do for them. When they fix it, then they can tell me and I may swing round again.

    Just to make you smile a bit, I am in the process of planning a convention with people locally (a comicon) and not only was it NOT presumed I would handle accessibility, it has been presumed that a significant portion of those in attendance will be disabled, therefore we will be finding an accessible location. I have the option of volunteering for that process if I am up for it. This group is taking into account pain, exhaustion, etc when it comes to not just the attendees but the planners themselves.