Accessibility and why it matters

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Patricia Hall is a queer mum of a 6-month-old, who has been working in the Creative Disability sector for some years. This year Tricia is a participant in the Be Leadership programme, which focuses on creating a more accessible society for everyone.

This was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Urban Revolution and the Right to the City.

All humans have fundamental needs to which they have a right:

  • Food and clean water
  • Warm, dry shelter
  • Connection
  • Meaningful contribution (paid or otherwise)
  • Access to affordable, appropriate healthcare

We are also diverse and have various specific needs, which are no less important and should also be human rights. Historically those with higher basic needs, whether based on physical or sensory disability, gender, or being part of a minority culture within a larger more dominant society, have had to pay dearly and fight hard to have these needs met. Some may even have been institutionalised or otherwise isolated from society as too difficult, and sadly this still happens for some people.

However, if we turn this around from placing the onus on those who are “different” and instead focus on designing our world and cities to cater for all people, we begin to make lives more liveable for all of us. Statistics tell us that currently twenty percent of the New Zealand population is living with some form of disability. Even if we ourselves are not in that twenty percent, we do not live in isolation, all of us have friends, whanau, neighbours and all of us benefit from a more accessible world.

To give an example of how this is applied: improving access for wheelchair users also makes public (and private) places more accessible to parents with small children in pushchairs, to those with varying degrees of mobility issues, older people, and those with chronic illnesses. Accessibility means we can all enjoy the same spaces together, irrespective of these needs. Note also that not everyone’s needs are visible. For example, someone may be entitled to use an accessible carparking space for reasons not immediately apparent to a stranger, and nor should they have to explain or defend this need.

Much attention has been drawn in the media, particularly in the United States around restrooms and gender. Providing clean accessible gender neutral restroom facilities benefits not only those on the trans* spectrum, but also provides for those who may need to assist someone else (who may, or may not be the same gender as their carer) with their toileting needs. This may be parents with small children, or an aging family member who requires assistance. We should repeat here not every access need is a visible one, and we should not judge those around us on face value. A person who appears able-bodied may require the use of a disabled restroom due to a hidden issue; perhaps Crohn’s disease or another digestive problem. Again, people should not feel they must explain to a stranger their personal reasons for needing such a facility.

Accessibility matters not just in our real-world spaces, but also virtual and digital communities. As our lives become increasingly technologically assisted it is important that these are accessible too. Videos that are subtitled, alternative texts provided for images, and the ability for text to be converted to audible resources all help a wider audience of us to interact with each other and with the digital world.

Accessibility matters. It is no longer good enough to simply add a ramp to an existing structure, or add in a hearing loop, and say we have ticked the boxes and no longer need to think about being an accessible space. Retroactively creating accessibility to existing spaces is expensive. However, when we specifically design with accessibility in mind, it ultimately creates a more liveable world for all of us.

With rebuilding after the Christchurch earthquakes, and in our biggest growing city Auckland as it evolves in the era of the Unitary Plan, we have the chance to think about how we will develop our city as it grows. We in New Zealand have the opportunity to ensure that our future spaces for living, working and enjoying our leisure time are fully accessible to all people, no matter their needs.

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