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Being realistic about accessibility

accessibility

Imagine you are invited to be a guest speaker at an event.

You thoroughly research the venue: you check it out on Google Earth and Street View; you call the venue to ask about parking and how to get into and around the building. The answers you get are vaguely reassuring. You arrive, in good time for your speaking slot, to find the parking situation is not quite as easy as promised, but eventually you get sorted and head into the building… or not.

You can’t find a way in. You circle the building from the outside, although you can’t get all the way round because there are obstacles in your path. You are now late for your speaking engagement, and you can’t call the organisers because they have their phones off for the event. Eventually you give up, get out your phone, find the phone number you rang the day before while doing your research, and make the embarrassing call – I am outside your building and I can’t get in.

Now imagine that building is a court building, and inside is your anxious client waiting for you to arrive to represent them. Sound like one of those ‘turn up for the exam and realise you forgot to study for this subject’ nightmares? No, this is everyday reality for some of us.

Imagine you are travelling to a city for work and you need to stay overnight in a hotel. Once again, you do your research, poring over all available information on room sizes and layouts, calling the hotel to ask for more specific information. All looks good… until you arrive, and find the room is not big enough, the layout doesn’t work, you can’t get in and out of the bathroom or you can’t sleep in that comfortable king bed because you can’t get onto it.

You call reception to ask for a different room, but are told they only have one or two rooms for people like you, and they are all the same size and layout. You offer to pay extra for an upgrade to a suite. “Oh no,” comes the response. “The suites aren’t suitable for people like you.”

Alternatively, when you check in to the hotel you are told that although you did specifically book one of those rare rooms, fully explaining your reasons for booking it, the hotel changed the booking for its own administrative reasons, “and you know, we do say on our website that room requests are not guaranteed”.

Imagine that business trip was interstate, and you had to fly there. More research, hours on the phone to make the booking because people like you are not permitted to book online. You arrive at the airport and are told there is a problem – the aircraft can only accommodate a maximum of two people like you, and two other people like you checked in five minutes earlier, so you will have to wait for the next flight.

Or, instead, you are told that you cannot check in because the staff at the airport have a different understanding of the rules and requirements from what you were told over the phone. Maybe the person on the phone understood the rules better, but that makes no difference when the gatekeeper says no.

Or perhaps you are lucky, and you do get on the plane. But when the plane arrives at your destination, you have to wait on the plane for a couple of hours after everyone else has left, because there are logistics problems with getting you off the plane. Then when you finally disembark the plane, you find out that the one key item you travel everywhere with – that gives you mobility, independence and everyday living – either didn’t make it onto the plane, or was broken somewhere along the way, possibly after it was buried under a pile of heavy suitcases.

accessibility

Imagine you go everywhere with a companion or guide who allows you to maintain your independence and do the work you trained for – but, when you go to places, it is a lottery whether your companion will be turned away. Security at the airport try to tell you your companion cannot travel with you, taxi drivers tell you your companion is not welcome.

You tell other people about your experiences and they say “but that’s not lawful, they can’t do that”. You sigh. If actions not being ‘legal’ meant nobody did those things, half of us in the legal profession would be out of a job.

All of these experiences, and many more, are an everyday reality for people with disabilities.

People with disabilities who use mobility aids and/or wheelchairs are excluded from buildings by lack of accessibility, and lack of credible information about whether places are genuinely accessible. Air travel is stressful and sometimes dangerous for them, as their wheelchairs are treated with less respect than the average suitcase.

The websites for most airlines – if they give any information at all about responsibility for damage to mobility aids – refer users to the section of claiming for lost or damaged luggage. Do they really see something that is a fundamental need for a person to move about, to sit in comfort and safety, to exist, as just ‘luggage’?

People with disabilities who need to travel with hoists to get in and out of bed – and other equipment to facilitate washing and basic daily needs – are let down by hotels which promise accessible rooms but in reality have no understanding of what that actually means.

People with disabilities who use service dogs are discriminated against by organisations – and people – who either don’t know, or choose to ignore, their legal rights.

Members of the QLS Diverse Abilities Network have many stories like these. From airlines breaking wheelchairs or failing to provide the requested assistance with boarding (so that the passenger missed the flight); to cinemas offering audio description but failing to train their staff on how the system worked (leaving the audience member enjoying a snooze in a comfortable seat while their partner watched the movie); to lack of clear signage suitable for people with low vision. 

This is not just a question of accessible buildings, or the design of aircraft and public transport. We certainly need a wider (dare I say universal?) adoption of universal design (the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people, regardless of their age, size, abilities or disabilities).

accessibility

More fundamentally though, we need every person to understand their role in this. Maybe you are embarrassed that your workplace is not fully accessible, but to fudge that question when directly asked and give false assurances or misleading information – or question a person’s accessibility needs – is simply wrong.

Making decisions that make your working day easier, while causing stress, disruption, financial loss and even physical harm to others, then justifying it with a fanciful interpretation of a set of rules, is simply wrong.

We deserve better; we demand better; and we are just getting started.

Fiona Yeang is the Principal of Yeang Lawyers and a member of the QLS Diverse Abilities Network.

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