What does accessibility mean?
It can mean a wide range of things to a broad audience, but the essence of access is finding ways to include people in community who might otherwise be left out because of differing abilities or needs.
Differing from whom?
There will always be an average person in the crowd, someone who doesn’t require more or request less. Structural ableism establishes this person as “normal” throughout society, leaving the rest of people, who are differently abled in any way, not just slightly less able, not just variant in the way that all humans are different from each other, but disabled, and that with a capital D. Both our bodies and our structures betray us.
What’s the story here?
This door opener is in use at a Unitarian Universalist church. It doesn’t matter which one; it could be yours. The door opener could be viewed as a means of inclusion. It’s a gadget that makes it possible for people whose ability varies from the average person’s to open the door and enter the building. There are a few important things to remember about door openers. One is that they only open doors; they don’t create welcome. Only people can do that.
The second important idea is about the wording on the sign. The door opener only works on weekdays during business hours and Sunday mornings. This gives rise to a few questions:
- If I attend an adult education class in the evenings, does this mean that the opener won’t be available?
- If I linger after coffee hour, am I going to get stuck without door opener assistance?
- If someone forgets to make it available, does that mean my disabled arms are out of luck? There’s no back-up or emergency contact on the sign.
Why can’t someone just open the door for you?
Maybe they can, if they are there at the same time I am. Maybe it’s all right, if they don’t have other responsibilities to attend to. What if no one is there? Does that mean I should wait outside the church until someone comes, assuming there weren’t a door opener? I would say that waiting outside the building, in front of an unmanageable door is the opposite of welcome.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha puts it this way, “Access is a concrete form of love for our beloved community.”
Making a way for people to be included in community is a natural way for us to express that we care. The people who put up this sign, more likely than not, care about people whose arms don’t work the old-fashioned way. (For the record, I can open a door with one arm when I am on my scooter, but it is hard on my hand, arm, and shoulder, and better self-care if I don’t.)
We need door openers, and lots of them. One of the things that they signal is that the people inside are interested in including people of varying abilities in their community. We need our thinking caps. What are other ways we can include people? Does an activity or project unintentionally create barriers to participation? We can’t think of everyone everywhere; we don’t know them. But the people we know, the people who come to our community, they can be included.
We need one more thing: our feelers. It’s not enough to only think about access and inclusion. I must also think about how it will feel to be the person who needs the door opener and finds it turned off. I need to consider how it would feel to be someone with varying ability who reads the sign by the door opener that tells me, “Just open it the old-fashioned way already.”
If we work at including people of varying abilities, think about solutions, and consider the feelings of people involved, we have a much better chance of creating a community that we all want to be in and enjoy.