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It’s Time to Rethink the Language of Accessibility. And to Imagine a More Equal World

5 minute read
Ndopu is an award-winning global humanitarian and social justice advocate. He serves as one of the UN Secretary-General’s SDG Advocates and sits on the board of the United Nations Foundation. His new book is Sipping Dom Pérignon Through a Straw: Reimagining Success as a Disabled Achiever

Accessibility is a slippery, deceptive word that belies its own emancipatory meaning.

Let’s demonstrate this through a simple thought experiment.

Imagine being a wheelchair-user. You are a twenty-something professional who fearlessly navigates the world, determined in your resolve to live a barrier-free life. You just want to get on with it. All that stands between you and the uninhibited life you crave is the seemingly impermeable reality of the inaccessible built environment you encounter on a daily basis. You use your lived experience to compel the world to do better. You advocate for accessibility wherever, whenever exclusion rears its unwelcome head. The law meets you halfway by mandating businesses, hospitals, and schools to make their establishments accessible to you. Consequently, ramps are installed. And, voila! Accessibility has been achieved in the eyes of society. Your friends, family and colleagues are thrilled for you because, thanks to the ramp, you are now able to get on with it and live the unencumbered life you deserve. But you don’t feel triumphant. There is something about equating the installation of a ramp with the attainment of accessibility that feels like a technical truth steeped in a material lie, hollow and partial.

This is the complicated relationship we as disabled people have with accessibility.

I myself am a wheelchair-user in perpetual pursuit of a barrier-free life. I have been advocating for accessibility on a global scale for over a decade now. And what has become apparent to me over the years is that when activists like myself talk about accessibility we are actually talking about something far more profound than what the word itself suggests and something far more transformative than how the word is used.

For all of its symbolic value as an institutional gesture of accommodation, the ramp does not make a space accessible. It facilitates entry into a building for people who use mobility devices to get around. What makes a space accessible is the empathy, connection, freedom and possibility it engenders for people of all abilities and identities to come together.

Accessibility should be a catalytic force for something more.

But the word gets stripped of its emancipatory meaning, and vision, because as a society we insist on boiling accessibility down to logistics. For example, when I think back to the pre-COVID-19 days, if I ever found myself out past a certain time in London or New York (cities I spent time in for business), panic would ensue because the handful of wheelchair accessible cabs that operated during the day would mysteriously vanish after midnight, as if the cab operators all received the same memo forbidding disabled people from having a night life. Of course, thanks to the pandemic, we all don’t have lives, at least for the foreseeable future. But I digress. The point is, a conception of accessibility that centers on the bureaucratic administration of disabled bodies – when we go out, if at all we do, and with whom – is not a conception of accessibility that advances our liberation; on the contrary, it is one that forecloses it.

To move beyond the ramp, the sign-language interpreter, the braille pad, and reclaim accessibility to mean more than the bureaucratic administration of disabled bodies, we must move beyond the logic of compliance.

Beyond zero, a term I coined to describe a new way of thinking about accessibility, means going beyond the notion that inclusion can somehow be drip fed to people who need it, one tick-box exercise at a time. If we are committed to leaving no one behind then we must stop thinking that ticking boxes leads to accessibility and inclusion. This is predicated on a truth I hold to be self-evident, that just because people whose lack of access to the bare minimum of a dignified life position them at negative ten if we were to quantify their place in society, doesn’t mean that our aspiration for their lives should be capped at zero. Because to cap our vision of accessibility at zero is to cap our own capacity to see them – to see ourselves – as full human beings with agency.

With the world turning to accessible modes of staying connected in the age of social distancing, modes such as video conferencing, which disabled people were previously shamed for wanting in the workplace, society is now presented with an opportunity to unleash the transformative potential of accessibility in how we build back better from the rubble of the pandemic.

Disabled people have always known that one can work from home and still be productive. Taking cue from this resourceful and tenacious segment of society, there is no reason why we all can’t embrace more flexible arrangements and fluid working conditions. Perhaps it’s time to accord employees the freedom to determine their own working hours, while maintaining a commitment to results. Perhaps it’s time to match our appreciation for essential workers with better pay. The economic fallout of lockdown has revealed not just the stark reality of financial precariousness but also the extent of financial exclusion. My heart bleeds for the unbanked disabled population, people who can’t put down a signature because they don’t have arms.

As we strive to restore the economic dignity of those who have been left behind, we might want to deploy technology and innovation in service of social justice, and not just the development of new filters for our selfies. We need to stop insisting on a uniform approach to making sense of human difference. Human resources, and human beings in general, need to get over the idea that equality means sameness. It doesn’t. Equality means our individual and collective differences are not deal-breakers, at work, at the grocery store, and when we seek medical care. Perhaps a renewed commitment to accessibility – that confusing, strange and vital word – may help us see this more clearly.

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