I went swimming at the Y the other day. The swimmer two lanes over from me has been lane swimming at the Y on a regular basis for years. She has no arms or legs and she is a strong swimmer who makes her way up and down the lane for a good, solid half hour or more several times a week.
The Y pool is always equipped with the machine that helps her in and out of the water. It does not need to be special ordered or brought out of storage when disabled people require assistance. In other words, the Y does not just accommodate, it does what it can to be accessible.
The difference between accommodation and accessibility is enormous. Accommodations are case by case and require those who need them to step forward, case by case as individuals, and make (what are regarded as) special requests.
An environment that accommodates disability is designed to be enjoyed first and foremost by non-disabled people. If my fellow swimmer needed to call ahead and arrange the means to get safely into the pool every time she wanted to go swimming, that would be an accommodation. Instead, the lift is always there. The pool is accessible.
Another example: when airlines provide wheelchairs or other types of mobility assistance for passengers who need assistance in airports, that is an accommodation. The people must make arrangements ahead of time and are dependent upon the airline staff to meet them and get them where they need to go. Moving sidewalks, which also provide important assistance for people who cannot walk the long distances airports often require, are examples of accessibility. No special request needed.
Accommodation is better than nothing, but it’s not ideal. What we ought to aim at and what many jurisdictions are starting to recognize, at least on a policy level, is a commitment to barrier free accessibility for all community members.
Aiming at equity with respect to accessibility recognizes that access requires a structural and systemic analysis. Feminists are aware of this type of analysis since they regard gender inequity as involving systemic, deeply entrenched relationships of unequal power. For example, when I was at the recent Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities, a motion was gaining support for Congress to supply daycare for scholars who needed it. Having daycare facilities would make Congress accessible to those scholars, mostly (but not exclusively) women, who have young children.
Physical accessibility of our spaces is not simply about wheelchair access, but that’s a start. Moving sidewalks in airports are great examples of making the space manageable for people who might otherwise be unable, for whatever reason, to get cover the frequently long distances between parts of the airport.
When we look at our workout facilities, gyms and yoga studios, how accessible are they? It’s safe to say that in the majority of cases, they cater to non-disabled people. One of my yoga studios, for example, is on the second floor of a building where the only way up is by a long staircase. As a simple matter of fact, this poses an immediate barrier to anyone who might like to try yoga but who cannot easily manage that many stairs.
Is this a fault or a flaw? The point of this post is to make a first stab simply at drawing attention. Whether it’s a fault or a flaw, it’s most definitely a fact. If we value the kinds of lifestyles that encourage or at least enable people to be active if they choose to (and maybe this value is itself worth examining), then it’s worth thinking about how the facilities and institutions that are designed for this purpose might exclude people with disabilities.
Mobility issues are not the only barriers to access. Our world default setting assumes that people are sighted and able to hear, that they understand English, even that they are a certain height that enables them to reach elevator buttons, taps, and so forth.
And access is not only about physical access. Another thing I like about the Y is that they recognize financial need and make memberships available at a reduced cost to people who are unemployed or underemployed. They have access to the same benefits as any other regular membership. In this sense, the Y does far better than many other clubs. Indeed, in some places, exclusion is a positive value, re-packaged as “exclusive.”
I owe thanks to philosopher, Shelley Tremain, for prompting me to pay more attention to disability and ableism in general and my blogging about fitness in particular. Her expertise and willingness to engage in discussion has influenced my thinking on these matters a lot. The editor’s introduction that she wrote for a special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly on the theme of feminist disability theory was especially helpful in showing me that a structural analysis of disability is required for an adequate understanding of it and of ableism.
For some more of my recent reflections on disability and fitness (early days, pretty rudimentary reflections), check out:
[photo: stairs at the Robson Square Courthouse, Vancouver, BC; from pinterest]