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What Does "Accessibility" Really Mean?

I recently went to a weekend workshop held in a venue advertised as "fully accessible." It wasn't. My experience at the workshop has prompted me to actively resume my quest to make RC accessible for disabled people. It has become clear to me that the word "accessible" is open to a great variety of interpretations.

There is a wide gap between what "accessible" means to me as a disabled person and what it means to other people. "Accessible" does not mean just ramps and toilets. Even amongst disabled people there is much difference of opinion; a place that is accessible for one person won't be for another. To me, "accessible" means two things:

  1. That I can take part in an RC event as freely and independently as any non-disabled person,


  2. That I can expect not to have people rehearsing oppressive attitudes ("disablism") at me.

The first part means that I can get from one place to another by myself. I should not have to depend on another person to push my wheelchair (although it's nice to have that available if I want someone to push me). At the workshop we slept in one building, ate in another, and attended classes in yet another. There was one accessible toilet which was in the dining hall. These buildings were far enough apart that to get around I had to wait until someone else was ready to take me. Also, we could not get from one building to another without going up or down a very steep slope. Hardly anyone could push the wheelchair up this slope, which meant I had to keep getting out and struggling to walk. Yes, the venue itself is "wheelchair accessible," but it most certainly is not a suitable place for disabled people to stay.

The second part is more difficult to carry out. It requires other people to take time to find out what I'm asking for. I want to be treated well and with thought and respect. In RC we do not tell racist jokes nor make racist comments. We are thoughtful and aware of each other and aware that language plays a part in perpetuating racism. Disablism is no different. Our language is still extremely disablist. Although in RC people do not use words like "cripple" or "spastic," terms like "the able-bodied" and "people with disabilities"-both well meant-are equally disablist. In Disability Equality Training, the first session is usually built around the phrase "people with disabilities," what it really means, and how it has become a divisive term amongst disabled people and a distraction from the bigger issues.

The Disability Movement has come up with a definition of "disability" which we call the "social model" of disability. It defines society as the disabling factor in our lives. It is society that needs to change and to adapt to the people who live within it-some of whom have particular "impairments" such as spinal injury, deafness, blindness, etc. As disabled people, our biggest task is to promote awareness of this definition. Change can only take place when people stop trying to change us-disabled people-and start changing their perception of what is the disabling factor. We don't want painful, expensive "cures" or to be eradicated through genetic engineering. We just want to live in a society that considers our needs as human beings who have some kind of impairment.

Most people, without even knowing that there is such a thing, conduct their lives based upon the "medical model" of disability. This is the (distressed) definition we have all grown up with, internalised, and accepted as "reality." This model defines a person's impairment to be the disabling factor in his or her life and implies that the person needs to change and adapt so that he or she can fit into the society in which he or she lives.

The two definitions are very, very different. By referring to myself as a "disabled person," I am making a statement about the discrimination I face: "I am a person with "X" impairment who is disabled by my society, not only by inaccessible buildings, but by not having access to education, health care, employment, etc., and by an irrational attitude which says I am not a full citizen with full civil rights because I have an impairment which means my needs are different from those people who do not." Another way of illustrating this is to say, "My impairment does not stop me from traveling on the bus or going to the theatre, library, etc.-it's the way the bus/theatre/library is designed which stops me from using it." I am purposely separating my impairment from the word "disabled" because my impairment does not disable me.

By referring to me as a "person with a disability" you are perpetuating and reinforcing the "medical model" of disability, i.e., you are saying, "Here is a person who is disabled by impairment." You are saying that the impairment is the disabling factor, but my impairment is not my disability . . . society is. Obviously there is a lot more to it than this, but I am trying to simplify the definitions and briefly explain them. "Able-bodied" is similar in that it implies that disabled peoples' bodies are their problem. We prefer the term "non-disabled." This may all seem pedantic and "politically correct," but it is important to understand the thinking that lies behind the language disabled people prefer if we are to eliminate the oppression. Please don't be afraid to say the wrong thing, and please don't be afraid to ask me to explain the thinking behind certain words and phrases-I will be happy to talk about them.

There are many things I need you to do to help liberate me and my fellow disabled people, but more than anything else at the moment, I just need you to listen to me, and listen well. Listen in any way that would help you to hear what I am saying. Historically, disabled people have never been listened to, which is why so many disabled people-especially those trying to reclaim power-are now rehearsing patterns of anger and frustration. Even when you are listening well, we will sometimes not be able to notice that you are.

By insisting that we think about access and what it means, I am not asking for the impossible, and, although it may sometimes feel this way, I am not even asking for a lot. Finding an accessible building-and I know only too well how difficult this is-is not what this is really about. What good is an accessible venue if, when I get there, it is filled with people rehearsing their distress at me. I don't need to be in an accessible venue to have this happen. What I need are allies, real allies, people who are committed to working on this with me because I cannot do it alone, much as my feelings of isolation would have me believe otherwise. I have few answers. I have as much internalised distress as everyone else. I just get pushed against it far more and have discharged a little bit of it. People often ring me and ask me what they should do, and I just do not know. The most I can do is share my best thinking at the time. That's all that any of us have, and we have to risk getting it wrong sometimes. I am delighted to have people around me making lots of mistakes. It is so much better than no one doing anything at all.

Accessible venues are still a must, but they aren't enough. I sometimes wonder if they are even a start unless we are working on and discharging our distress along the way.

On 7 November 1995, in the United Kingdom, a bill drawn up by disabled people, which would have gone a long way towards redressing the situation within our society, was lost forever. It was deliberately scuppered and replaced with a government-written bill which has wiped out years of campaigning for civil rights and now makes it perfectly legal to discriminate against disabled people. If I am sitting in my wheelchair in a pub and just one person objects to my presence there, this bill makes it legal to evict me from the premises. Thousands of disabled people congregated outside the Houses of Parliament to object; it was the biggest demonstration of disabled people ever in the UK, but we could not stop this from happening. We won't succeed whilst we continue to campaign alone. As a self-organising group, the Disability Movement is growing rapidly-there are, after all, six million disabled adults in the UK alone-but we need non-disabled allies. We need, particularly within RC where we aspire to think more rationally, at least the same consideration as black people, as Jews, as women, as every other oppressed group, and we need to be heard.

A few weeks ago I realized that I cannot force people to discharge their disablism, but I can interrupt their rehearsal of the distress, and that will often lead to discharge. I do need your help though. I am not just asking for help for myself, but for you, too, because we can never truly re-emerge whilst we remain so separated from each other.

Debbie Newton
St. Agnes, Bristol, England

Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00