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What is access?

In this video, various people with different relationships to disability discuss the meanings of access.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. What is access?
ROSEMARY KAYESS: People with disability are excluded from participating. They’re discriminated against in terms of physical access, attitudinal access, communication access, information access.
It’s across the spectrum, and it results in high levels of social isolation and exclusion.
DENISE BECKWITH: Access is such a broad term. Because access can be access to services. It can be physical access to the environment and the built environment. But it can also be attitudinal access, which I think is the biggest barrier. I’m not saying that the physical environment doesn’t need to be responded to, but people’s attitudes are the biggest thing. That is the biggest barrier possible, because that is the hardest one to change as well.
ZOE PARTINGTON-SOLLINGER: As a disabled person, I don’t feel like I have to climb to the top of Kathmandu, or overachieve physically. I do feel though that if I want to work in the arts, and I want to work in culture, and I want to work in architecture, that I should have that opportunity. And I do think as a disabled person, you do have to work harder to get where other people get. As somebody that’s partially sighted, if I go into a building where lights, and colour, and contrast, and texture has been used really successfully, I realise how tired I am in other environments. Because I’ll go into that environment, and I will– my whole body– I’ll relax.
And I’ll think, I don’t have to struggle in this building. This is amazing. I want to spend all day here. But If I go into a building where those things aren’t in place, I get very tired. But I forget, because I’m tired all the time and struggling all the time. I actually forget it’s not been built into the design. And I think that’s really important for people to realise. That actually, if it’s right, you don’t have to struggle, and you can just go about your everyday business and get on with life really.
GWYNNYTH LLEWELLYN: I’m not sure what access is really. I’ve just been meeting with someone just before we started talking about universal design. I understand universal design. So for example, if you design a, let’s say, a piece of furniture, or a building– or in this case, what we were discussing was actually online teaching– so the person who has the most difficulty being able to use that online teaching can use it, then that I understand. Is that access? I’m not sure. I think it’s universal design. So the person with the most difficulty being able to use, and learn, and have access to knowledge– that is critical.
So for me, access is more thinking about– I don’t really like the word– but thinking about people who have the most difficulty participating in whatever it might be. And in this instance, I’m talking about knowledge in an online course– that any person could do that no matter what.
WAYNE HAWKINS: One of the areas that I’m working in right now in my professional role is around providing– making sure that politicians, and political parties, and government agencies provide access to their YouTube videos for people who are deaf or hearing impaired. YouTube provides an automated captioned service, so you can automatically generate captions for your video, but it doesn’t guarantee that those captions are going to be readable, accurate, or comprehensible. And if people don’t check them– if they don’t go back and edit their captions on their YouTube videos– then those captions are essentially useless and have no value for people who rely on captions.
So there’s just that level of awareness– people are sort of ticking the box in one aspect, because they’re saying, OK, I’ve done that, I’ve captioned my video. But the reality is, yes, it does have some kind of text running along the bottom of the screen, but whether it’s a fair and accurate transcription of what the verbal content of the video is, is a very different story.
SHOOSHI DREYFUS: So one of the things I feel really strongly about is that if people can’t speak, it’s not enough to just speak for them. Developing a communication system that is focused on them– person-centered, if you want to use the term– that really enables them to communicate as much of their meanings as possible with a resource that’s independent from their most intimate communication partners, is really crucial to them being able to mean, and make meaning in the world, and get on in life.

The presenters in the above video describe how disabled people are excluded across many different forms of access — from employment, to information technology, to communication. We see that there is a great diversity of barriers to access for different people with a range of impairments.

Why is this important? Rosemary stresses that barriers to access are a core element of discrimination which result in social exclusion. And as Zoe says, it can be very exhausting for disabled people when they have to struggle to get access to appropriate services, or cannot use physical or online spaces easily. Often the very people who would most benefit from ease of access are given the hardest time. When designers, planners, lawmakers, employers and others don’t take the needs of diverse bodies and minds into consideration, it is people with disabilities who have to spend precious energy on negotiating and navigating lack of access in everyday life.

The presenters point out that even where access seems to be provided, it is often done as a box-ticking exercise, rather than thinking about what a diverse range of people actually need. Automating captions on an online video or putting up a wheelchair sign may make it appear that access has been provided, when in fact this is not the case. Gwynnyth suggests one way to move forward — by ensuring that the person who experiences the most difficulty can participate in any particular situation.

Finally, the sheer diversity of disability and impairment tells us that access is a really diverse idea as well. In the above video you heard about examples of physical and information access for people with physical disabilities, communication access for people who struggle to communicate their needs, and attitudinal access for people with visible disabilities, but the list extends far beyond that as well. For example, for people with cognitive impairments, access to information and clear ideas is vital, whereas for people with mental health issues, access to safe spaces and relationships might be really important. We will continue to expand on these diverse understandings of access over the week, and we encourage you to share your own diverse ideas and experiences in the comments.

Later this week, we explore how starting from the diverse ways that people with different impairments access the world is an important way to think about access differently.

Talking points

  • What different types of access are there?
  • Why is access for people with disabilities important?
  • Have you experienced situations where access for people with disabilities appears to have been provided, but in fact does not work? Can you share examples?

In the next step, we look at the impact of barriers to access. What do life chances and other opportunities look like for disabled people, compared to non-disabled people?

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Disability and a Good Life: Working with Disability

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