[This is my admittedly belated post for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012. Be sure to check out the other posts linked in the master post as well---there's some great stuff there!]
I’ve noticed quite often lately that when people think about accessibility, it’s often in one particular form: making things usable for people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices. Now, of course, that’s not a bad thing; any effort toward making things accessible to anyone with disabilities, assuming it’s actually done well, is a much needed improvement.
But as important as this is, it’s not the be-all and end-all of accessibility. And yet, so often, I see people acting as if just making things wheelchair-accessible is enough to be considered accessible. I’ve even seen a number of disability-specific businesses and event planners who, although they took wheelchair access into account, still failed to offer basic accommodations that would’ve benefited actual people with disabilities.
Remember my BADD post from last year, about the disability advocacy conference runners who failed to actually make the planning process accessible to real people with disabilities? The sorts of things I described there are not rare. They’re…all too common, actually.
It’s when this isn’t the case—when people really do consider more than just a single facet of accessibility—that I’m truly surprised. And I can think of a couple of recent experiences that have demonstrated this to me.
First, as I’ve discussed here previously, I’ve moved from small-town Georgia to the inner suburbs of Boston for my employment. I’m also quite open about not feeling safe as a driver due to a variety of weird perceptual issues that come with my autistic spectrum disorder. And one thing that continues to impress me here, even after living here for several months, is that there’s such a large variety of stuff that is easily accessible via public transit.
But it’s not just the fact that these places are accessible via transit. After all, plenty of places could be reached by bus when I was living in Georgia. Some of them were even easily walkable from the bus stop, rather than requiring traipsing through a parking lot the size of a football field just to reach the front door (which, incidentally, is another pattern that I’ve found much less prevalent here). And it’s not just the fact that transit service simply runs more often here, and at more times of the day, than where I was living in Georgia.
No, what I’ve found most refreshing is that businesses and event runners will actively promote their accessibility to transit service, something which I rarely, if ever, saw in Georgia. Brochures, flyers and web sites—sometimes even for places and events in the suburbs!—will outright specify which subway stop to travel to, and which bus route to take from there if necessary. And if they don’t, it’s not a complete loss; the MBTA‘s site is there to help, with a trip planner that will provide a list of all the necessary stops and routes that one needs to use.
It’s all such a refreshing change from the sorts of reactions I often got when I asked places about their bus accessibility back in Georgia. (“I think it’s on route 20? Maybe?”…if not telling me the wrong route entirely.)
Speaking of transit service, I went to a hearing several months ago on the planned cuts that the MBTA was considering to bus and train service in the area—an important concern, since one of these proposed cuts was a complete elimination of the bus route by which I commute to work. Normally, such an event would’ve been utterly overwhelming for me, particularly after a busy day at work like the one I had just finished. I was a bit worried, in fact, that this would be more of the same when I first arrived. But once I got into the room where the hearing was being held, I realized this one would be different.
You see, not only was there a sign-language interpreter at this event, but there was also live captioning. A stenographer sat in the corner, transcribing everything that was said at the hearing. And rather than straining to decipher what was being said as I usually have to do, with the added distortion from a microphone and with ambient noise interfering from all around, I could just read it. Sure, there were occasional typos and omissions, as anyone who’s watched live captioning on TV should be familiar with—but even so, I could still pick up on so much of what my dodgy auditory processing couldn’t. Even when ambient noises got in the way, even when the speaker’s accent was difficult for me to decipher, I had written text to fall back on.
This sort of advocacy usually leaves me quite exhausted by the end, from having to process so many different speakers’ speech patterns in a short amount of time with so many random factors interfering. But this particular hearing didn’t do that for me. When I got back on the subway after the event to catch my transfer back home, I was just as clear-headed as when I had walked into the hearing.
And it really does seem like the availability of captioning was the factor that made things so different that time. I’ve gone to other disability-related events since then where such an accommodation wasn’t available, and I felt the same sense of fatigue afterward that I usually do.
Of course, not everyone can afford to hire a live captioner for an event (although if a publicly funded transportation system that is running low on funding can manage it, the cost can’t be too incredibly prohibitive). Not every business can manage to be extremely convenient to a bus route, or even in a city with a reasonably good transportation system.
But accommodations don’t even need to go that far. There’s one particular accommodation that surprises me precisely because of how many businesses I find that can’t be bothered to implement it despite its simplicity.
Specifically, it is honestly surprising to me when an organization with which I want to get in touch actually offers some sort of online method of contact—whether it’s a live text-based chat, a secure contact form, or even a good old-fashioned e-mail address—in addition to a phone number. And it surprises me even more when that e-mail address is actually answered promptly, because so many businesses that I’ve dealt with simply don’t give online communication remotely the same priority as phone calls.
And in the year 2012, when internet access is so pervasive that even some of the most bare-bones mobile phones can send and receive e-mail…this really shouldn’t be as uncommon as it is.