Tuesday, 31 March 2009

What is Accessibility?

Accessibility is a general term used to describe the degree to which a product (e.g., device, service, environment, building etc.) is accessible by as many people as possible. That is easy isn't it?

Well, no, it is not that easy. I want to explain what accessibility is all about, and why you need to think carefully about it.

I was looking to book a B & B for myself. So, like most people, in the modern world, I fired up my web browser and began to search for accommodation in the area where I want to go. It is a popular area, and I shall be travelling there out of season, so there was plenty of choice. Or at least it appeared that there was plenty of choice. As I am a wheelchair user I need to find accommodation which is accessible. Now, according to regulations, and establishment offering more than 25 beds has to be accessible…but we all know that laws like that are not enforced, and just plain forgotten about here. So once I narrowed down my choice, I had to contact each of the establishment to find out if they are accessible.

This goes back to the understanding of what is accessible.

Me: "Excuse me, I would like to come and stay with you, are you accessible to wheelchair users?"

Them: "Yes, we are, can I take your booking?"

M: "So you have an accessible room?"

T: "Yes, we do. It is a large room, with a large bathroom, with enough space for a wheelchair."

M: "Great, so the WC has grab handles, so I can transfer, and the shower is a roll in shower with a seat then?"

T: "……………..oh……..err……..no. There are no handrails, and the shower is up a step"

M: "so I guess you are not accessible then?"

T: "no, I suppose we are not."

M: "thank you for your help, but unless I am able to use the loo, and take a shower when staying with you, I shall have to take my money elsewhere. It is a shame, as looking at your website, we were looking forward to staying with you."

This basic conversation has no been repeated at 6 different locations…with basically the same outcome. And this is the problem, that many people face on a daily basis not just with accommodation, but restaurants, shops, transport, houses, etc. I am not writing this, looking for sympathy, or as a sob story, but to try to explain how accessibility may effect any of us, at any time.

  • Accessibility comes down to a way of thinking, it is about giving a shit about other people.
  • Accessibility is not just a tick box.
  • Accessibility is a mind-shift.
  • Accessibility is a personal issue.
  • Accessibility is a business issue
  • Accessibility is a human rights issue.

There are some excellent laws in place (such as the Equality Act) which outlaw discrimination such as this. But I would hope that people do not always have to be forced into providing accessibility. There is a clear business case. Each one of these establishments has lost my business, and the business of my family. Had one of them been able to accommodate me in comfort and safety, then I would have told others (as unfortunately, it is still unusual to find accessible facilities in South Africa).

Can I give you all a challenge? For the rest of the day, imagine that you join the 10-20% of society who live with a disability? Imagine, that you lose your sight, or the use of your legs, or your hearing, or whatever. Take a look around you. Could you continue doing what you are doing now? Could you even get to where you are now? If the answer is no, then does that loss of ability have a direct bearing on your activity, or could that activity be adapted so that you could still carry it out with a disability? If the answer is yes…then double check. Have you made the same mistake as the example above and assumed accessibility. Is there a step at the entrance to your building? Is there a toilet that a person in a wheelchair could use? And this even applies if you are at home, and not at work. Maybe a family member or a close friend becomes disabled (86% of people with disabilities were not born with the disability). Could they visit you? Do you give a shit??

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