Access (some) areas

What does the word access or accessibility mean to you?

Whenever I ask this question, people seem to focus more on physical access. But is it a purely physical thing or does it go deeper than that?

Personally, I tend to see the issue of access far more holistically. For me, it’s a case of: Can I do the things I want to do in a manner I’m happy with?

Sometimes the thing I want to do will be achievable independently, sometimes it won’t. Where this independence is concerned, what’s acceptable in one case, may not necessarily be in another.

I’m relatively fit, despite having a severe disability. My wheelchair is pretty compact, and the combined weight of it and me is probably no more than 80 kilos so people can assist (lift) me relatively easily if I choose. The size of my chair means I can fit into very small spaces or through narrow gaps (i.e. bathrooms without disabled access) and also makes me handy at moving through a crowd.

Add to this that I’ve had my disability over 20 years and have been in literally thousands of access-related scenarios; and you’ll understand I’m not easily fazed.

Andy Barrow in Japan

Andy squeezed into a tiny bar in Shinjuku, Japan!

Everyone with a disability will have their own personal set of criteria that represents the idea of access to them. These criteria, for me, vary from situation to situation, according to the circumstances in which I find myself.

For example, if I find that the main entrance to a building doesn’t have ramped access, I’m happy to use an alternative entrance with an accessible path of travel, or even prepared to be assisted in accessing that building if it ultimately means I can get inside.

(For the record, I’m far less offended if the latter eventuality occurs in a historical building, than if a brand-new place has failed to consider my needs.)

The dilemma I have is this…

My way of thinking generally works for me because I believe that, as a confident person, asking for help with a particular task is a positive action I’ve taken. My ability to communicate and utilise the resources available to me to achieve my goal is, in my opinion, empowering.

It’s not just physical access

However, when I consider the wider, attitudinal concept of access, rather than just the physical aspect, I’m not so sure!

By accepting help to achieve my goal and not complaining that this particular solution isn’t good enough, am I inadvertently telling the powers that be, not making all public spaces 100% physically accessible is acceptable?

And even more worryingly to me – Are my actions in the short term perpetuating disempowerment of others longer term?

As I said at the start of this blog, access is often boiled down to a purely physical thing without factoring in the attitudinal changes that are needed for the physical ones to hold any real meaning.

This attitudinal change is actually an issue that dwarfs the physical one. It represents the crux of any conversation around access. Yes, of course physical changes are important but sometimes, they simply paper over the cracks of inequality.

An example of this could be a small, wealthy country/state that is able to provide a largely accessible physical environment by virtue of its recent formation (modernity), wealth, and geography.

Infrastructure can be designed and implemented from scratch rather than retro fitted. Its buildings can be all be fully accessible as well as its public transport system. It may even be able to provide its citizens with government-funded housing.

But what’s the point in being able to physically access a school, for example, where you’re excluded from mainstream learning due to your physical condition? Or being able to enter a place of work where you’ll never gain a position beyond a token admin role?

Changing attitudes

These invisible (attitudinal) barriers are still far too prevalent. They prohibit access to many sections of society – Not just people with disabilities.

To sum this up, access is about far more than simply installing ramps and disabled toilets in buildings. It’s about a continuing dialogue between people in minorities (whatever that minority happens to be) and those in the majority with the overall aim of making a meaningful change… any meaningful change!

Because access isn’t just a “top-down” thing… Why wait for sweeping government policy changes before doing something yourself?

The truth is policy changes never happen without “bottom up” changes creating a groundswell of public opinion. Just look at the civil rights movement, women winning the right to vote or same-sex marriage.

The whole “every journey starts with a single step” analogy rings true for access. Ask yourself “What small thing can I do today to break down that barrier to attitudinal change?”

Because this is the meaningful, attitudinal change that I speak of and I value that far more than any ramp!

What do you think? What does access mean to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so drop me a line at the address below!

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