Sunday, December 4, 2011

What is accessibility?

When most people think of accessibility, they think of several things: ramps, elevators, lack of stairs and so on. But while physical barriers can be broken down, it is only half of it. Ultimately what matters the most is whether breaking down physical barriers is complemented by breaking down social and societal barriers.

You really cannot have one without the other. I have encountered situations where a place is physically accessible but the staff working at the location were not very accommodating or accepting of people with disabilities. This includes public transit, where I have had some poor treatment from drivers more than a few times.

Simply placing ramps while holding an opinion that able-bodied people are "better" results in inaccessibility – while you are physically able to enter, you are socially locked out.

Today, I came across an interesting video from Hong Kong that talks not only about physical accessibility (including on public transportation) but also inclusion in society.

While Hong Kong is half a world away, some of what he says sounds familiar here in Vancouver, especially about how accessibility features do not always work with one another. Not too long ago, HandyDart was handled by several different agencies within Metro Vancouver before it was united under a single company. A few years ago, diesel buses were accessible but trolley buses were not. As well, at least a few SkyTrain stations were inaccessible, including one in downtown Vancouver.

In a recent discussion, I found out that TransLink is constantly in a struggle with Metro Vancouver's municipalities in their goal of making more bus stops accessible, but many cities are not as enthusiastic about the plan since it involves municipal funds and crews (as the sidewalks are under the municipalities' jurisdictions). It seems that while physical barriers are being broken down (slowly), social barriers are still rigidly in place and attempts to remove them are placed on the backburner.

Many people like to ask me, "What is accessibility to you?" Everyone would have a different answer to that but the video and the examples I just gave would be material to back up my answer – to me, accessibility is a situation where physical barriers are removed, complemented by the willingness to remove social barriers.

Of course, that is only my answer.

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