Accessibility is an incredibly important issue, and one that’s often poorly understood. What is accessibility, and how does it play out in a small town context? How does our municipality address it?

What does Accessible mean?

Accessibility, at its core, is about who gets included. The Brighton Accessibility Committee, which just had our first 2023 meeting, has this vision:

All people in Brighton, regardless of age and abilities, have barrier free access to full and equal participation in the community including opportunities to work, shop, travel and play.

-Brighton Accessibility Committee Vision Statement

Think about your favourite activity or place. Can everyone enjoy it? Not necessarily: sometimes disabilities prevent someone from going certain places or doing certain things. The question is, are they prevented by their disability, or by the design of the place?

An easy example is our beloved stage in Memorial Park. Thankfully it’s accessible to people with impaired mobility, but imagine for a moment that it wasn’t. Now, there’s nothing about a mobility impairment that prevents someone from singing, but what if their choir was to perform in the park and they couldn’t get on the stage? “Sorry, Betty – this choir performance is for people who can walk up stairs only, there’s no way to get your chair up there. Steve, you too? I didn’t realize you couldn’t take the stairs! Sorry buddy, we’ll have to go on without you until you get that hip replaced.”

If that sounds offensive to you, it should. It made my skin crawl just to write it. But many people with disabilities still experience that kind of callous thoughtlessness and exclusion pretty regularly. And notice in the example that Steve’s disability wasn’t visible: there are many types of disabilities, not just people who use wheelchairs (despite the fact that the wheelchair is the universal sign of disability). In Steve’s case, his mobility impairment wasn’t as noticeable, but his need for a more accessible stage was just the same as if he was in a wheelchair.

Disabilities, Visible and Invisible

The wheelchair symbol to represent disability is misleading in a few different ways. First of all, we tend to associate the symbol with mobility impairment, which is only one type of disability; when we see someone with a disability symbol hanging from their car mirror and parked in a designated parking space, but they walk out of the car, sometimes our first thought is that they must be faking because what we see doesn’t align with what we expect from that symbol. With a little awareness, we can change our reaction from feeling cheated to thinking “I wonder if they have an invisible disability.”

A wheelchair symbol, hands performing sign language, a symbol of a person walking with a white cane, and a symbol of a brain indicating a cognitive or developmental disability.
Some alternate symbols for disabilities.

When I was growing up, I remember thinking that disability referred to a mobility impairment that required a wheelchair or walker; blindness or deafness; or a developmental disability such as Down Syndrome. Most of these (though not all) are readily apparent, even marked by special equipment that, in some cases, is designed to draw attention to the disability (such as a blind person’s white cane or service dog’s harness). I also tended to think of disabilities in terms of strict categories (physical, sensory, developmental), and unfortunately, as definitive of the person. But the concept of invisible disabilities begins to break apart all of those assumptions and categories.

An invisible disability is a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities.

Invisible Disabilities Association

Invisible disabilities include neurological conditions, like epilepsy; or significant allergies that limit their capacities, including things like scent sensitivity; or learning disabilities, like dyslexia; or mental/emotional conditions, such as depression and anxiety or PTSD; or cognitive differences, like ADHD and autism; and on and on. If a disability is any condition that can limit or challenge your activities, then it doesn’t take long to realize that most people fall somewhere on the list.

Some people are offended at the notion of being called “disabled”, and some effort has been made to use alternate language such as “differently abled”; I think this has more to do with the stigma that surrounds disability than anything else, because there’s nothing inherently offensive about truthfully describing a condition, unless that condition is stigmatized. I can’t believe it needs to be said, but there is nothing about being disabled that makes a person less valuable. A big part of Accessibility is affirming the dignity of every human being as they are. And that’s just being a good person, folks.

Flipping the Script

The second way that the blue wheelchair symbol is misleading is that it implies that disability is a special status that diverges from a norm.

The old mindset about accessibility was centered on the idea of making accommodations for the few disabled people while still designing for the many “normal” people. I heard a podcast about the Americans with Disabilities Act, which described a mobility-impaired person who was the first to attend a certain university in the US; they “made accommodation” by getting football players to carry her up the stairs to her classes or to the bathroom, rather than just scheduling her classes on the ground floor. (The description of these “accommodations” starts around the 17-minute mark, but listen to the whole episode, it’s powerful!)

Once we get the point that we need to affirm the dignity of every human being, and that every human being is “differently abled”, the task of “making accommodations” makes less sense, because there’s no such thing as a “normal person” or “fully abled” person that we can design for, and there’s little hope of making small accommodations for every different disability. We need to spend more time thinking about this differently. (Of course, we must always accommodate people if our system is designed in ways that make it inaccessible without accommodation – but it’s better to change the norms to make them universally accessible, more on that below.)

Clipart image from International Day of Persons with Disabilities, showing various people holding signs saying that not all disabilities are visible.
Image borrowed from CUPE from December 3.

If we do think about it differently, we end up with a whole different concept of what a disability is. Rather than it being a divergence from “normal people”, we can see disability as a social construct, something that our assumptions and design choices create. In the example above, Betty and Steve are prevented from singing because of their physical disability; is it their legs that prevents them from singing, or the inaccessible design? The designer’s choice is what created the disability there: the requirement of being able to climb stairs created a barrier for them.

Think of sensitivity to scents, or flashing lights. By the definition of invisible disability above, having this sensitivity is not itself the disability; the disability is the fact that having this sensitivity prevents them from activities. If we have a scent-free environment, and if we refrain from using strobe lights, people with these sensitivities are not prevented from participating. They are no longer disabled by their sensitivity, because of the choices and standards the rest of us make. By the same logic, anyone can be disabled by the choices the rest of us make.

Our goal, then, should be to design spaces and activities that everyone can access. This is called Universal Design, and it’s increasingly becoming a standard, but there’s still a long way to go to see it implemented everywhere. It follows seven principles:

  • Principle 1: Equitable Use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  • Principle 2: Flexibility in Use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use.  Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  • Principle 4: Perceptible Information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  • Principle 5: Tolerance for Error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  • Principle 6: Low Physical Effort.  The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

If we follow Universal Design principles when we make standards for things like buildings, websites, consumer products, and even customer service interactions, we not only make these experiences more accessible for more people, but we make them better for all of us.

Accessibility Standards in Ontario

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) was passed in 2005, making Ontario the first jurisdiction that requires accessibility training in workplaces. It also sets targets for accessibility measures to be in place by 2025:

We aren’t far from 2025 in terms of time, but we’re quite far in terms of how much work we have to do! It’s also worth noting that these standards only affect public spaces, while accessibility is worth pursuing in private spaces too. Imagine how isolating it is to not be able to visit your friends in their home because their home’s front steps and narrow hallways can’t accommodate your mobility impairment. Now imagine how hard it is to find a home of your own if you have those requirements! And if you don’t have those requirements yourself…wouldn’t you rather have level-entry and wider door frames anyway? The standards for private homes are based more on what we’ve always done than on what we actually want or need.

But back to what it looks like to implement accessibility in Brighton by 2025. It could look like:

  • Ensuring level entry or ramp access to every public space (including government and businesses) in town;
  • More walkability, including consistent and well-maintained sidewalks and crosswalks, and traffic-calming measures, to ensure that everyone can move around in safety;
  • More accessible transit: because someone who can’t get to town can’t access it, period;
  • Improving municipal and library websites and social media feeds;
  • Providing closed captioning for recorded events, and interpretation for live events;
  • Providing warnings about content at events that might negatively affect people, such as fireworks at a sports event or strobe effects in films, so that they can plan accordingly;
  • Continuing to generate awareness of accessibility standards and training;
  • What else am I forgetting? I’m sure there’s more!

In some cases, installing accessible physical infrastructure has been a long-term project, both controversial and expensive. In many ways it’s the low-hanging fruit, with the most obvious barriers to accessibility being literal, physical barriers, and changing that has become the focus of many efforts toward accessibility, and of many reactions from those who resist change.

The good news is that not every accessibility change is to built infrastructure. That’s often the most important and obvious, but making changes to our mindsets is even more powerful, and free. Even in a built environment that isn’t particularly accessible, having people who don’t stigmatize disabilities, and who normalize being considerate toward them, can go a long way toward making people with disabilities feel welcome, wanted, and valued. Choosing things like lighting and scents carefully doesn’t take much money or effort, just a bit of awareness and respect. Learning to speak respectfully to people with cognitive and developmental disabilities requires some effort and practice. These are all things we can all do, and if we do them, the physical infrastructure will follow without controversy or complaint.

What would you like to see Brighton do to become more accessible? Leave a comment below!

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