Earlier this year a wheelchair user named Joel Sardi was refused access to a Melbourne restaurant, because the venue’s staff thought his wheelchair would take up too much space. Every wheelchair user I know has similar stories. Even in venues where there are turning spaces, accessible bathrooms and no steps at the entrance, attitudinal barriers can still exclude us just as effectively as physical obstacles.
Making a space more accessible is a multifaceted and sometimes contradictory endeavor. Often measures to provide physical or wheelchair accessibility are taken after the fact – rather than being built into structures and processes from the start. This is generally less effective and more difficult: it’s a lot more expensive to build a hydraulic wheelchair lift over a few steps than to build in a ramp to begin with. While we’re on the topic, hydraulic wheelchair lifts are also notorious for intermittently breaking down and are often locked while not in use – forcing wheelchair users to request permission for access from staff who are often inside the very venue we can’t get into.
Often an underlying logic is that accessibility is about kindness, not responsibility. As a wheelchair user I know not to assume that public spaces are built to accommodate me. When I can get into a building, I am expected to be grateful. When I can’t, I’m expected to move on and not make a fuss. Calling ahead to ask if a venue or event is accessible is often met with defensiveness, excuses or outright hostility – none of which are as useful to me as clear information about whether I can or can’t enter a space.
Designing for accessibility involves consideration of many different access requirements, not just wheelchair and mobility access. It’s equally important to consider access measures such as providing Auslan interpreters and even lighting; removing strobes or high-frequency flashing and creating low-sensory or sensory-friendly environments; scheduling breaks; providing adequate seating; and ensuring that all event information and communications are provided in accessible formats (including large print and Easy English).
After kerb ramps were introduced in Australia (also known by the American term “curb cuts”), people working in policy and design noticed something called the “curb-cut effect”. What was intended to give wheelchair users a way of safely accessing pavements was also useful for many other groups, including cyclists; people with prams, luggage or trolleys; ambulatory disabled people who have trouble with steps; elderly people; and people using any other kind of wheeled device. This is what’s called universal design: planning spaces to make them as accessible as possible for as many people as possible.
The pandemic has radically changed the way we move through, and interact with, public spaces. Suddenly access measures like Telehealth and remote digital access are relevant for everyone, not just disabled people.
Theatres, writers festivals and arts programs have moved events online or introduced hybrid programs merging in-person and digital events. The National Young Writers’ Festival, for example, will once again be wholly digital this year – meaning its program of free events will be accessible to anyone interested in attending.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney has brought two of its exhibitions into a free virtual format. Red Room Poetry has provided an incredible line-up of digital events throughout August for Poetry Month. Melbourne International Film Festival has 60 feature-length movies on its digital platform.
Writer, editor and access advisor Carly Findlay tells us, “More online events mean disabled people have access to art in a way they’ve never had before”. But, she says, “the onus to create accessibility is more on disabled people and disability-led orgs than on non-disabled people. Accessibility provisions need to be made a standard, without disabled people needing to ask for it.”
The digital shift has brought its own set of access concerns. In addition to access to internet connectivity and tech literacy, we also have to consider accessibility for people with sensory disabilities: designing for screen-reader compatibility, for example, and access for blind people and the d/Deaf community. There is currently a national shortage of Auslan interpreters, and many d/Deaf people have spoken about the impacts of Zoom fatigue. Although Zoom has introduced the option of adding automatic captions to calls, these are often inaccurate. Another option is pre-recording material with closed captions or transcripts.
“Ensuring your website is WCAG compliant and providing relevant access information about your venue on your website are two very simple, but very important, things you can do to help ensure your space is accessible and inclusive for audiences and performers with disability or who are d/Deaf,” says Liz Martin of Accessible Arts.
“If you’re not sure about how to do either of these, Accessible Arts can help by conducting a website audit or providing advice on access content development.”
We are in a moment of great trauma, but also great change. The pandemic has highlighted deep social inequities – and it has also provided us with an opportunity for profound social transformation. Let’s use that opportunity to build toward a better future.