Accessibility is a word that I hear all the time. Accessibility refers to the design of products, services or environments for people with impairments. It’s often though of as a fixed standard, either something is accessible or it isn’t. When you start looking deeper though you realise that isn’t really true.
How can something be yes/no accessible if every single persons needs are different? What is accessible to me could pose major problems to someone else. Lowered cash points are great for wheelchair users but terrible for tall people with back pain.
I prefer to see accessibility as one big grey area. It’s important to continually strive towards best-practice in terms of access. It’s also important to realise that the majority of products and services are probably never going to be 100% accessible.
I don’t mean to be negative but the reality is that ‘accessibility’ has to deal with every single variation of the human condition. That’s a LOT of needs, preferences and features to squash into any single product or service.
For now lets keep it simple. Accessibility is about making everything as easy as possible for as many people as possible.
Accessibility is often thought of as making allowances for people with poor mobility, usually those in wheelchairs. The wheelchair user has, for a long time, been a logo for all disabilities but to be honest this is pretty misleading. Blue badge parking bays are labelled with a wheelchair logo but you don’t have to be a wheelchair user to qualify for a parking permit.
The reality is that accessibility covers a whole range of health conditions and impairments. It’s also worth bearing in mind that many people don’t have just one access need. There is no rule that says a wheelchair user can’t also be visually impaired or that someone with social anxiety can’t also struggle with back pain.
To take things a step further, the following list covers a small selection of features that can cause or exacerbate medical conditions…
Artificial lighting, reflective surfaces, striped patterns (including pin-stripe clothing), geometric patterns, the colour white (and pretty much all other colours), itchy fabrics, silky fabrics, artificial fragrances, natural fragrances.
The presence of foods (peanuts, gluten, shell-fish etc), lack of dietary requirement info on menus and not catering for allergies at all.
Being too warm or too cold, air conditioning, people smoking or vaping, crowded areas, empty areas, not having somewhere to sit, not having the right kind of chairs.
Carpets, wooden floors, tiled floors, gravel, having plants and grass, not having grassy areas.
Not allowing assistance animals Vs being allergic to them. What about people who need sterile rooms for medical reasons? Changing tables for adults, somewhere to dispose of sharps and medical supplies, automatic lights that don’t stay on long enough in bathrooms or showers… I could go on.
I’m hoping you now begin to see why ‘accessibility’ is such a complicated matter. The access needs of some people are completely conflicting with the needs of others. To be truly accessible to as many people as possible a lot creative thinking and flexibility is needed.
Flexibility with designs and services allows for changes to suit the needs of different people, temperature is a good example…
Heat intolerance is pretty common for people with Postural Tachycardia as well as other conditions like Multiple Sclerosis. When too hot I find concentration difficult, I start to slur my words, feel fatigued, confused and ultimately end up semiconscious. It’s not uncommon for people with heat intolerance to pass out from being too hot. The issue here is that ‘too hot’ for someone with autonomic issues is generally well within the acceptable temperature ranges for people with working autonomic systems.
Now we look at the too cold side, many people with conditions like Complex Regional Pain Syndrome simply cannot tolerate cold on their affected limbs. People with Raynaulds might totally lose the use of their hands in a room cool enough to keep me functioning. Our needs are totally at odds with each other.
Usually in situations like this it’s down to the individual to manage their own temperature regulation but there are a few ways that others can help. If you’re hosting an event or providing accommodation the please ask if the temperature is ok. Let people access the thermostat, offer a range of both hot and cold drinks, provide a range of seating next to open windows or heat sources.
If you are providing hot and cold drinks add straws, just because I’d like to drink ice water doesn’t mean I can hold a cup that cold!
Providing lots of options might seem like a hassle for business owners and event organisers but believe me, customers appreciate the effort. The little things that make life manageable for complicated people actually don’t harm ‘regular’ people either. Providing drinking straws helps people who have limited dexterity but it’s also fun for kids and stops glamorous types from spoiling their lipstick. This is especially appreciated by those with limited dexterity who also struggle to re-apply lipstick!
Having a grab rails can help people with mobility impairments and it doesn’t hamper people without them. It might even come in handy for sports injuries or the morning after a tough trip to the gym.
Because accessibility is fluid and complicated information is key. Plenty of adventurous people are happy to visit somewhere inaccessible as long as they are prepared in advance.
For this reason, I would urge all businesses to provide a good access statement. An access statement provides detailed information about your venue or service. Even if the property doesn’t seem particularly accessible at first glance, a good access statement can help people plan their trip. It also shows a commitment to supporting customers with impairments and added needs.
Access statements usually cover the basics but for the complex customer it’s important that more information can be obtained. Staff who respond to enquiries need to be aware of the access information about the building or service you’re offering. The more the know the better. What kind of flooring is in conference rooms? What cleaning products to the staff use? Can menu’s be obtained in advance? Having staff who can accurately explain key features and make the effort to find out more information helps customers with impairments plan their stay. It also makes it clear the company is committed to supporting everyone.
Accessibility isn’t just for those with impairments and those who work with them. It’s something everyone should be involved with. I very rarely wear stripes, it’s visually distressing for a lot of people. Certain fabrics, especially itchy ones can be unpleasant for people with sensory process issues so I avoid those. Perfumes, I only wear on on special occasions (and if I’m sure nobody is allergic). I never use heavily scented cosmetics. I recently bought an allergy face mask to help me avoid airborne allergens but I’m aware that wearing it prevents people from lip-reading, so now I carry a notepad and pen too.
Accessibility can seem totally overwhelming so if you don’t know where to start just ask. Speak to the people around you and see if you can help them in any way.
If you’re truly committed to making big access changes then you can always hire your friendly neighbourhood Occupational Therapist to help out!