Physical Accessibility is Not the Whole Problem

Published: Sep 08, 2019

The problem with making a space physically accessible is that it is only one part of the whole “accessibility” problem. But because physical access plays such a prominent role in making a place accessible, people have a tendency to think of it as the only thing needed to make a space inclusive, but accessibility is so much more than that. Access isn’t just about curb cuts and automated doors, it’s also about the power structures, systems, and societal attitudes that keep disabled folks (especially mobility aid users) out of public spaces.

Just because you add an accessible bathroom stall and an automatic door to a few buildings on campus, doesn’t mean your university is accessible. A few floor plan changes aren’t going to fix systemic discrimination built into the education system. What good is an accessible university in a town with no public transportation? What good are scholarships when they force someone to choose between education and healthcare? Claiming that a space is accessible without addressing the systems connected to it is like putting a toilet in the middle of a field and claiming you have working plumbing: you can pretend everything is fine for a while, but eventually people are gonna realize you’re full of shit.

If you want to make a place truly accessible, you need to focus on more than just grab bars and door widths. You need to also focus on the less obvious barriers to access: transportation, housing, health insurance, cost of living, etc. For example: you offer a paid internship at your company in a major city. Rent is expensive, but most of your interns have been able to find a decent place to live in some of the older neighborhoods/buildings in the area. However, these older buildings don’t have elevators and only have apartments on the 2nd floor and up. Your wheelchair‐using intern is going to have to decline your offer because they would have to live in more modern (and much more expensive) apartments in order to have a place to live and they can’t afford to do so on the salary you offer. You can add all the grab bars you want to that bathroom, but your internship isn’t going to be accessible until the systemic issues connected to it (lack of accessibility in housing) get resolved.

The good news is that there is one thing you can do to really help disabled folks: vote. Vote often, and vote correctly. That’s right: I said vote correctly. If you jump into a voting booth and vote against things like public transportation, rent control, funding for special education, government regulation of healthcare costs etc., you’re not being an ally to disabled folk. Instead, you’re furthering the systems that make things like access to higher education, employment, and housing truly inaccessible.