Uncategorized

accessibility redefined

In this article in GOOD magazine, Alexandra Lange argues for the ways cities would benefit from taking parents’ interests seriously:

When urban parents, particularly mothers, complain about the public realm, they are often caricatured as whiny and overprotective. Your child was burned by the climbing domes at the new park? Kids are too coddled. You can’t carry your stroller and child down the subway steps? Make him walk. You can’t find a public bathroom? Stay at home. But what if the mothers, in many cases, are right? Access to safe, green open space, to accessible transportation, to clean bathrooms and places to rest are not solely the needs of children. What if catering to our youngest citizens, rather than dismissing them, would help us all live happier, healthier urban lives?

An article in The New York Times this summer detailed an initiative, spearheaded by the New York Academy of Medicine and Deputy Mayor for Health & Human Services Linda Gibbs, to make New York more “age-friendly.” Longer walk signals, more public restrooms, minimizing corner puddles, “perches” in stores on which to take a break.

All these measures sounded admirable—but they would improve the lives of more than the elderly. The incentive to fix New York for seniors is money: According to the AARP, a third of the nation’s population is over 50, but they control half the discretionary spending. Kids don’t have cash, but their parents and grandparents certainly do, and more families staying in the city would have general economic and social benefits.

And Lange doesn’t miss the link to disability issues:

Sensible improvements to public transportation would also allow more people to be more mobile. On the subways, seniors, kids, the handicapped, and the able-bodied with luggage, carts, and bikes would all benefit from elevators direct from platform to street[.]

Right. And how about these “family” bathrooms, now too rare, mostly limited to airports and museums and the like? Their extra size accommodates families—and if you’re a city parent of young children, you know their value. But they also create access for anyone using equipment or needing assistance to get around, or hauling luggage or heavy gear.

[image via]

This is how the conversation about accessibility—now limited to code mandates and ramp lengths—should evolve into a conversation about access, writ large. If it’s true that by 2030, 60% of us will be city-dwellers, it’s worth reconsidering the standard structures created for wheelchair access, and thinking much more broadly about cities that work. It’s these applied examples that embody the aspirations of universal design. Here’s the kicker from Lange:

Seniors and juniors aren’t the only groups whose interests align, but are balkanized in their advocacy. Children could lead cyclists, developers, school officials, and health nuts to their more perfect city, if only we would listen.

Balkanization is what plagues advocates for disability rights, too. A bit more imagination about the multi-user possibilities in new design could reveal the shared benefits of accommodation for so many more people.

It’s tricky, though. Linda Layne, co-editor of Feminist Technology, writes that feminists have been reluctant to side with disability rights groups for better built environments, in part, because of women’s hard-won historical fight to resist the idea of reproductive capacity as inherently disabling.

But this objection, as Layne writes in this blog post, misses a deeper examination about cultural notions of disability as well. Both groups need accommodations not for medicalized reasons. A pregnancy is not an illness, and a disability is not a personal impairment. Since the 1960s articulation of the social model of disability, advocates have understood the limited built environment and social exclusion as the operating disabling forces on otherwise “normal” citizens. It’s physical structures and cultural practices that are inflexible.

If we understand pregnant women, caregivers with strollers and gear, atypical bodies, and adaptive technology use as normal variation in human experience, both groups of advocates can ask—together—for cities that make life possible for everyone.

photo credits: 1. Photo of Helen Grace taken by Photographer Sandy Edwards in 1982. Reproduced with permission in Feminist Technology. 2. From Just Bathroom Signs. 3. (London) and 4. (Vienna) by Linda Layne.

3 thoughts on “accessibility redefined

  1. Thanks, Michael! I contacted the Cambridge women’s organization you pointed me to, about the stoller/wheelchair ramps on buses. Nobody there knew about that exact initiative, but then I found Layne’s work. Good to hear from you—SH

  2. I’m very gradually working my way through your blog, Sara, and found this post particularly thought-provoking. My very first (and admittedly egocentric) reaction was to get frustrated by the heteronormativity implied by the family restroom icon. But that, too, is balkanizing, I suppose. At some point we need to talk/write more about how lgbtq communities and advocates share so much with disability communities. Like feminism, I think (and I’m sure someone has written about this) queers are probably hesitant to form that alliance in many cases (though deaf queers do an amazing job) because of not wanting our sexual orientation to be perceived as a disability. But you’re right- once you’re able to move toward a different conception of the term disability, that whole problem becomes meaningless. People get so defensive about not being disabled…they get awfully defensive about being gay, too… in the end it’s cause we’re all a little disabled…and a little gay… :)
    Making restrooms accessible ALSO means not glaring at people and calling them “sir” if you perceive them to have chosen the wrong room.
    It ALSO means that when two women come into a bathroom to change a kid’s diaper together, and they’re wrestling the kid to stay on the changing table, they shouldn’t be asked, “which one of you is the real mom?”
    but it means these things ALSO, not INSTEAD OF making sure people can fit into bathrooms and use them appropriately, and get the help and support they need in doing so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s