Chew on this. Accessibility wouldn’t be an issue if society embraced universal design. Here’s why: accessibility is all about solving the problem of imperfections in people’s lives by providing alternative means to access/use/do things. Universal design eliminates the alternatives and simply works naturally to accommodate as many people as possible (let’s be realistic and not say everyone, as there are outliers). It’s different than accessibility because it’s not disability-specific. Think about universal design as a concept of making things easier.
Accessibility implemented by society says: “here’s our solution to your problems.” Thing is, while accessibility solves one problem, it creates another.
Have you ever noticed that some people that society categorizes/labels “disabled” get SO consumed about the “problems” (or differences) in their life that it shapes their identity? (a bit of a controversial claim, but I’ve observed it over the years; feel free to comment below if you disagree.)
Kare Anderson wrote a great piece for the Harvard Business Review blog, titled “What Captures Your Attention Controls Your Life,” in which she makes this point:
Whatever we focus upon actually wires our neurons. For example, pessimistic people see setbacks and unhappy events as Personal (It’s worst for me), Pervasive (Everything is now worse) and Permanent (It will always be this way) according to Learned Optimism author Marty Seligman. Yet, with practice, he found that we can learn to focus more attention on the positive possibilities in situations to craft a redemptive narrative of our life story. Consciously changing what you pay attention to can rewire your brain from a negative orientation to a positive one.
People with disabilities are frequently concerned with accessibility, whether related to issues at home or issues in the community. The concern, more often than not, stems from the lack of widespread access rather than what is mandated by law. In other words, there is concern about accessibility because it isn’t available everywhere. Furthermore, when it is available, it’s not always ideal (due to safety, convenience, etc).
If accessibility is a concern that continues throughout the life of someone who needs it, that concern will, as Kare puts it, wire neurons to always pay attention to it. If that concern evolves into frustration, it can be consuming. If related concerns are minimized because that “handicapped” symbol is everywhere, the neurons in one’s brain will begin to identify that “I’m different so I’m supposed to use the handicapped stuff.”
Whether [disability-specific] accessibility is implemented well, implemented poorly, or non-existant, it creates a mental shift of disassociation with the “normal” segment of society.
This is where universal design changes the game. If accessibility was a natural characteristic of the design of all sorts of places, products, and programs, the focus on differences would fade away. Universal design doesn’t offer alternative ways of access/use/participation, but builds in provision for different definitions of “normal” from the beginning. It just makes sense.
The trick is finding a way to get people who don’t have an immediate need for either to care.
(image credit: Ethan Hein, licensed under Creative Commons)