This is my post for Blogging Against Disablism Day, 1 May 2009. Go check out Diary of a Goldfish to see who else has posted.
Before I start, I’d like to apologise if I unintentionally plagiarise anyone. This is an issue I’ve been thinking about for some time, and it’s highly likely that I’ve drawn subconsciously on the work of others. If you notice some specific influence that I should be linking or citing, please let me know.
I don’t think that making accommodations is, necessarily, enough to reach equality.
The concept of “accommodations” is most relevant to discussions of disability and accessibility. For that reason, and because this is Blogging Against Disablism Day, I’m focusing on accommodations for disabilities to provide equal access, even though there are other situations where the issue of accommodations may be relevant.
And, as I said, I don’t think that simply making accommodations is enough – not if you want to have an equal society, anyway.
Or, let’s say “more equal”, since it’s just about impossible to define what “equal” means. And also because I’m going to focus on the concept of choice.
I think that one of the things that makes people feel that they are being treated unequally or unfairly is when they don’t have an equivalent range of choices compared to other people.
Accommodations may be necessary to provide choice (and therefore some kind of equality) to people with disabilities, people who need enhanced access, but accommodations may not be sufficient.
To illustrate this, I’m going to use the example of stairless access to buildings. I’m using this example because it’s an obvious, highly-visible one, but I think that similar reasoning can be used to consider less obvious and less-visible inequalities.
There are two entrances to the building where I work. The entrance I use most has a set of about 10 steps going from street level to the building’s “ground” level and no ramp or lift. If I couldn’t use the stairs, I’d have to go several hundred metres out of my way, around the building to the other side, to use the stairless entrance. I’d then have to go up one floor in the lifts on that side of the building, through a rabbit-warren of a corridor, and up in the lifts on my side of the building to my office.
You might say: at least there is a stairless entrance. That’s something. Accommodation has been made – people who cannot use stairs are able to use the building. However, people who need to use a stairless entrance don’t have the same level of choice that I and others who can use stairs have. This could be very significant for, say, someone who moves slowly and with pain and/or fatigue.
That doesn’t look like equality to me.
In making an accommodation, someone, somewhere, has at least recognised the existence of people who require that accommodation (lack of access implies that the existence of people who require access has been overlooked – and that, frankly, is unacceptable). However, the fact that there is only one stairless entrance to the building highlights the fact that it is an accommodation, not simply “the way things were done when they built the building”. It suggests that someone has gone “out of their way” (that is, they’ve thought they’ve put more effort in) to ensure that people who require a stairless entrance can access the building.
It’s a bit of a tick-the-box game: ok, we’ve put in a ramp over on that side of the building, so we can do what we like on this side. They haven’t put the real effort into ensuring that people who require a stairless entrance can access the building in a more-or-less equal way as compared with people who can use stairs easily.
That suggests that the people who require a stairless entrance are seen as unequal, as less deserving of a range of choices.
Sometimes I feel that people are too eager to overlook the importance of choice in providing what they see as “equal” access (on the basis that access is possible).
But I think that it’s not enough that you can access the building, what is necessary is that you have much the same set of options to enter the building as everyone else.
If we lived in a world where building designers (etc etc) automatically thought, not “how do I ensure that everyone can get into this building?”, but rather, “how do I ensure that everyone can use every entrance (or even most entrances)?”, then there would be a much wider availability of choice for all – and we would then be on the road to equality.
However. making accommodations encourages the first question rather than the second.
I’m not sure what can be done to encourage the second question. Or, more to the point, I’m not sure what else can be done. I suspect that partial access comes about as a compromise between no access and equal access.
Also, I realise here that there’s a bit of an elephant in the room, and the stairless entrance can again be used to at least show us its silhouette: the whole discussion of stairless entrances assumes you can get to the entrance in the first place. Once we realise we’re making that assumption, we realise that simply having stairless entrances isn’t enough, and providing accessibility and choice requires lateral thinking about alternatives (an example of a lateral alternative with respect to the stairless entrance: can we make it unnecessary for you to access this building, ie can we allow you to access the services in some other way? Should I come to you? Can we have a teleconference or consult via email or over the internet in some other way?).
Having said that: the more visibility that we provide (as a community) for people with disabilities, the more air-time we give to the concept that everyone should be equal (not just accommodated), the more we will move towards a world where people ask the second question rather than the first.
This post is an attempt to help raise awareness and increase visibility.