What is Accessibility and Why Does it Matter?

Did you know that the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by the 101st United States Congress and went into effect July 26, 1990? It has now been 30 years since that happened and accessibility is still a pervasive issue.

In its purest form, accessibility is a system in place that provides an equitable experience for all users. Most often when we think of accessibility, we think of a push button on a door or a ramp, but those are two of the most common among hundreds of forms of accommodations. 

When we talk about accessibility, we have to consider more than just conventional disabilities such as people with mobility impairments, blind, deaf, or hard-of-hearing folx. We have to consider any sort of impairment from getting a seat at the table. Is the table too tall? Too short? Are there enough chairs? You always have to ask yourself, "Am I being as inclusive as I can be?"

Being inclusive doesn’t mean you need to be a social justice expert; it means you are thinking critically of the people that are here and doing your best to meet any of their needs, or preparing to meet needs you might not expect. One way you can often increase accessibility without even realizing it is through captioning content. Video is a medium that relies on the ability of the user to see and hear everything. By adding captions, you expand the audience of your content and make people feel more welcome. Another way to be more accessible is to speak out when you notice something that doesn’t work. Insist that things get fixed, and insist that it's fixed quickly. People with disabilities shouldn’t have to wait to enter a building, use a bathroom or computer, or struggle to get basic needs. 

When we discuss how to be an advocate and aid in expanding accessibility, it is also important to think about your own role in the issue. The enemy of accessibility is ableism. Ableism is the bias towards able-bodied people and discrimination against disabled bodies. Ableism is one of the least protected but most pervasive forms of discrimination still allowed. While you’ll often hear that ability is a protected class, what we see in practice is very different—partly because ableism is not understanding what makes a space inclusive and accessible. Ableism is a subliminal form of discrimination that is so difficult to fight because it is ingrained in our culture. There is a societal push to be productive or be irrelevant, and that creates a toxic ableist space. One of the best examples I can share about how to spot implicit ableism is by comparing these two quotes:

“The worst thing about a disability is that people see it before they see you.” - Easter Seals

“The only disability in life is a bad attitude” - Scott Hamilton

One of these quotes is really thought-provoking; the other is really problematic. If you thought the Scott Hamilton one was problematic, you’d be correct. Mr. Hamilton equates the ability to positivity. While it can always be helpful to have a positive attitude, that positive attitude won’t bring someone the ability to walk unaided, to see or hear, or end any sort of disability. That isn’t how it works, and it is important to remember that. Also remember it isn’t your place to ask about the nature of someone’s disability, and they don’t owe you an answer. They are a person just like everyone else and deserve that respect.

So when you are thinking about disability and access try to remember these points:

  1. You are not entitled to know the medical history of someone else.
  2. We all have to work together to advocate for real accessibility.
  3. Unconscious ableism is everywhere, do the work to help unlearn those ideals and become a better supporter.

To learn more about the ADA, visit https://www.ada.gov

To learn more about accessibility and resources at the U, visit https://disability.utah.edu

Sam Dalton
Outreach Housing Ambassador