When I joined the disability activism community, I learned a new frame of reference that changed how I engaged with the world at large: Accessibility. I had no idea that this concept would expand for me from a branch of activism to a life philosophy and identity: How to be an accessible person.
What is Accessibility?
If you know this word, you’ve probably heard it within the context of resources that are offered to disabled people: Accessible parking spots, ramps that allow for wheelchair access, captions on video content, sign language interpreters at conferences. Even if you know nothing about the world of disability, there’s a good chance you’ve run into those forms of accessibility.
But the idea of “access” is much larger than these examples, and is even much larger than the world of disability. To understand what access is, you need to understand the water you’re swimming in now– the world that doesn’t prioritize accessibility.
Scrutiny of the Disabled Community
Disabled people of all shapes and sizes encounter the same issue at some point in their disabled lives: They seek out resources that will enable them to live a functional, healthy, fulfilling life specific to their disability, and someone says, “Do you really need that?”
It may not always be that specific phrase, but whether it’s buying allergen friendly food, using the elevator instead of the stairs, taking a medication, or driving around the grocery store in a motorized shopping cart, at some point, the fact you are doing things differently in order to relieve your suffering will be the subject of scrutiny and distrust.
For many people, behind the question, “Is X considered a disability?” is actually a different question: “How badly do you need help?” The social norm implied by this question is that only people who really really need help should ever ask for or receive it. As a result, large populations of people grow up believing that their needs are not sufficient for seeking an alternative means of meeting them.
This societal scrutiny lines up with what is known as the “medical model of disability” in which a disability is a problem to be fixed. It is a lack of something. It is evidence that something is broken. It is also the default way that disabilities are viewed in our society. And when your existence is seen as a problem to be fixed, people tend to see your disability as evidence that you have thus far failed to fix yourself and are therefore not qualified to identify what you do or don’t need.
The Social Model of Disability
In the “social model of disability,” a disability is not defined as a flaw or a defect. Disability is defined as an incompatibility between your mind and/or body and the structure of society you live in. If everyone used a wheelchair, our entire society would be built as wheelchair accessible by default. But because society is largely built for people who can walk, the existence of a wheelchair can significantly inhibit someone’s ability to move through the world.
In the social model of disability, you aren’t focusing on changing the mind or body to fit the society. You change the society, or the available tools therein, to match the needs of the minds and bodies.
An accommodation is a tool or adjustment that bridges the gap between what somones mind/body naturally does and what society expects it to do.
Let’s say I want to work a job where standing for long hours is the typical way it is done. But my body isn’t capable of standing for long stretches of time. If I follow the default expectation, I will be unable to do the job. But if I am given a tall stool to sit on, suddenly that accommodation allows me to do work without destroying my health. It changes how I approach the goal of doing my job, and thereby enables me to do my job.
When something is “accessible” that means someone’s variation in ability does not inhibit them from participating with the subject in the intended way. A ramp transforms an insurmountable structure of concrete (aka, stairs) into a doorway for wheelchair users to enter the building. It makes the entrance accessible.
Disabled people move through their lives constantly navigating aspects of the world that are not accessible and finding ways to make them work. Disability activism is founded on the idea that all people are deserving of safety, autonomy, and emotional fulfillment, and building accessibility into the structure of society is necessary in order to assure those rights are granted to disabled people.
Accessibility Outside of the Disabled Community
The longer I integrated the concept of accessibility into my world-view, the more widely applicable I found it to be. I’m of the belief that there’s no such thing as a body or mind that is 100% able. To be clear, there does exist a dichotomy between how people who are perceived to be disabled, and people who are perceived to be abled, are treated societally, and they each have relevant sets of un-merited privileges and obstacles.
But all bodies and minds become unwell or tired or wounded, at some point in their lives. All bodies and minds have idiosyncracies that deviate them from “the average” or “the expected”. All bodies and minds have needs that, if ignored, will cause them to function less effectively. And if all people are deserving of safety, autonomy, and emotional fulfillment, then all bodies and minds deserve access to the tools that help them reach those goals, regardless of their current physical or mental state.
This point also speaks to the common topic brought up by disability activists that implementing accessibility into society’s structure by default benefits everyone. A ramp enables a wheelchair user to enter the building but it also provides a path for the walker user, the cane user, the mom with a stroller, and even the young person on a bike. Accessibility acknowledges the natural variation in people’s needs and seeks to meet them.
Accessibility shifts the default expectation from one of tolerating pain and suffering until your breaking point, to an expectation of having your needs fulfilled. Accessibility as a philosophy asks the question, Why shouldn’t you ask for help? Why should you do it the hard way? Why shouldn’t you remove the obstacles in your life if you have the option to do so? The goal becomes freedom and fulfillment, not resource efficiency. Resource efficiency is the goal of a capitalist society, not a happy society.
The Intersection Between Accessibility and Social Justice
Let’s go back to the definition of disability as defined by the social model that I mentioned earlier: An incompatibility between your mind and/or body and the structure of society you live in. The “structure” of society is easy to see in things like the size of bathroom stalls or the presence of braille on ATM buttons. These utilities had to be designed with accessibility in mind from the beginning.
But the structure of society also includes societal expectations and social norms. If you live in a community that shames you for sitting down to take an extra break from a physical project, the expectation of how your body “should” work is being socially enforced on you, preventing you from accessing the rest you need. This incompatibility only exists if the people in the social group hold specific beliefs about how a mind and body should function and if they socially punish or reject you for failing to follow those beliefs. Suddenly the act of creating an accessible world includes changing minds as well as buildings and laws.
Accessibility then becomes relevant to the relationships we build with others and whether we are offering accessibility to others depends on how we interact with other people.
This is about when I realized that my philosophies around accessibility and my philosophies around social justice advocacy were the same thing.
The work of social justice and civil rights is essentially focused on the ways that society has made itself incompatible or downright hostile to the existence of marginalized groups. If you are marginalized, it means society was not built for you, in specific ways. If you are privileged you have access to a wider range of choices (autonomy), protection (safety), and potential success (fullfillment) than marginalized people do. Social justice is in the business of removing the obstacles that prevent marginalized people from, what? Accessing those rights.
Social justice is, essentially, creating accessibility of all kinds for all people, and the incompatibilities that are being addressed are no longer limited to being relevant to the body or the mind as they are in disability access.
With this insight, I’d like to propose the idea of being an Accessible Person: being dedicated to bridging the social and structural incompatibilities that prevent access to autonomy, safety and fulfillment, for yourself, for your loved ones, and for society as a whole.
How to Be an Accessible Person
For all three levels of practicing accessibility, I see two primary categories of obstacles and resulting work: Internal obstacles and external obstacles.
An external obstacle is what most of the examples given in this article have been: My disability means that I cannot drive and I’m limited in how far I can walk in a single day. A trip to the grocery store is far more resource intensive than it is for most people and on some days, I don’t have the resources to spare on a trip, but I need food from the store in order to eat. My inability to get to the store is an external obstacle.
The accommodation for this obstacle is that my partner is happy to go to the store for me if I ask him. Instead of forcing myself into spoon-debt, someone who finds shopping easy does the shopping.
Internal obstacles are your beliefs, your thought patterns, your unconscious reactions, that interfere with your goals for accessibility, either for yourself or for others. So, let’s say I needed food from the store but I decided not to ask my partner for help because I felt ashamed of needing help. The obstacle is of my own creation (or rather, society’s for teaching me but it’s my responsibility to deal with it now).
Getting around this obstacle might entail asking my partner for emotional support or reassurance that it’s not a problem for him to go. The accommodation is whatever it takes for me to feel at peace with asking for the help I know is available to me, so that asking for help is easy and natural.
In any case, you’ll find that these are the two different types of obstacles you will encounter in the three main levels of striving to be an accessible person: Self, Relationships, and Society.
Being accessible with regards to your relationship to yourself is about meeting yourself where you are and structuring your life and relationships to support yourself and your needs.
It involves identifying the bottlenecks in your own life and finding, easy, intuitive ways to avoid them. Being accessible with yourself is the opposite of just powering through. Your brain only has so many resources every day to dedicate to conscious decisions and executive function, even if you have no additional cognitive issues (such as ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, etc) that interfere with this process. It’s not sustainable to expect yourself to spend your limited resources on a million tiny things when they can be done in an easier way, provided you release yourself of the expectation that “Normal people do it this way.” So what?
Being accessible with yourself also means giving yourself room to grow, make mistakes, learn, and make progress over time. It means respecting the needs of your body and mind and integrating the fullfillment of those needs into your life. It means seeing yourself as worthy of investing in, as you are now, not as a means to an end.
And lastly, being accessible to yourself means identifying the beliefs that society has given you that were designed to make you a resource efficient worker bee, and that are incompatible with the goal of creating an accessible life for yourself. Noticing these beliefs and and letting them go is a lifelong process.
Being accessible in your relationships means striving for everything from the previous section, and then recognizing that your needs, beliefs, and methods are accessible to you but they may not be to another person. It’s about trusting that the people you love have good reasons for doing the things that they do, and that they are the most qualified to analyze their own needs and share that information with you. It’s about taking an interest in the needs of other people and learning about how they differ from your own.
Being accessible in relationships means approaching access conflicts with curiosity and the mutual goal of meeting the needs of as many people simultaneously as possible. It means taking responsibility for your own needs, creating space for other people to be responsible for their needs, and listening when they bring them to you. It also means recognizing your own boundaries around what behaviors you can and can’t tolerate from the people close to you and safely enforcing them when necessary.
Being an accessible person on a societal level is not about expecting yourself to single-handedly change society or to fix all the problems marginalized people face. Being accessible on a societal level entails recognizing your role as part of a collective responsibility to address and remedy the marginalization of vulnerable groups, and identify the specific tools that are in your power to use.
Being accessible societally is about the practice of considering the needs of groups you are not a member of, expanding your own understanding of the world to include the barriers that others face that you do not, and learning how the solutions available to them differ from the ones available to you. It’s about listening to members of marginalized groups and treating them as authorities on their own life experiences and on their adaptive strategies. It’s about re-evaluating your assumptions about the way the world “should” work or the existing structures that appear unchangeable but are intentionally chosen and built that way. It’s about noticing your own reactions or feelings of resistance to lifting up marginalized people and unlearning the ideas that created those reactions in the first place.
Welcome to “Accessible Me”
I don’t expect you to magically know how to integrate accessibility as philosophy into your life after just reading an essay about it. It’s an exploratory process that is always changing, as your needs and life structure change.
But I do want to help you become a more accessible person. And I’m going to do that by offering advice!
Introducing my new advice column Accessible Me: Advice for self-growth, relationships, managing chronic and mental illnesses, living with disability, and social justice.
If you want to know how to life your life more accessibly or how to overcome an obstacle to an accessible life that you are facing, you can ask me a question. And if your submission is chosen, your question and my resulting advice will be published on both Yopp and Medium.
As with all advice columns, they cannot exist without your questions and allowing your questions to be published enabled a much larger audience who may be facing a similar problem, to benefit from the same answers. So I encourage you to ask them!
Regardless, I hope that your journey to accessibility is a rewarding and intuitive one.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. She specializes in educational writing about civil rights, disability, chronic illness, abuse, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, and Splain You a Thing and in 2022, she released a self-published book of poetry, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery“. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Medium, and Twitter.