Weekly wellbeing mission: Advocating for Accessibility in your Hometown

If you wanted to buy a gift for a friend, visit a bookstore, go to a movie, grab a coffee, or meet friends for a physically-distanced patio dinner, where could you go? If you’re currently able-bodied, the world is your oyster and these things are relatively simple to arrange. And that’s part of the privilege of ableism. 

In contrast, many businesses and public, community spaces are not accessible for disabled people. This sends the message that disabled people do not belong – that disabled people do not matter to the community. The thing is, we are all human, we all matter, and we all have the need to belong for our mental wellbeing. 

We can change spaces so that they feel safe and accessible, and build belonging. Here’s how:

  1. Learn about accessibility

Learn from disabled people who are already sharing information on accessibility, learn about different forms of accessibility and universal design ideas to start. A note that universal design, although theoretically a concept, does not necessarily mean that a place will meet the accessibility needs of everyone. For example, in my clinical experience, people with low vision often prefer to read dark text on a white background, however, people experiencing visual sensitivities post-concussion often prefer to read white text on a dark background to decrease the illumination. As a starter guide, the BC Building Access Handbook (2014), the current bare minimum in accessibility standards in British Columbia, Canada, can be found here.

  1. Map the accessibility of your hometown

When I was studying at Dalhousie’s School of Occupational Therapy, one of the first assignments we did in Dr. Brenda Merritt’s occupational therapy theory course was to evaluate at least 5 businesses in Halifax, Nova Scotia, post their ratings on Wheelmap and explain how a wheelchair user’s participation could be affected if they wanted to be there. This is great for locals and disabled people who are new to your city to figure out where they can go, and to encourage more community spaces to become accessible.

Wheelmap: Started by Raul Krauthausen in Germany, you can assess the wheelchair accessibility of a place, and add in photos, descriptions, and measurements of businesses on this online app. Wheelmap has maps for around the world. Wheelmap encourages you to take photos so that people can see what the accessibility features actually look like and make more informed decisions about if the space meets their access needs.

AccessNow: Started by Maayan Ziv in Canada, on AccessNow, you can comprehensively rate businesses and public spaces across multiple types of accessibility, from wheelchair-access, to accessibility for deaf people and blind people, to sensory accessibility (such as lighting, noise levels, and scents). AccessNow is designed to guide people through the accessibility review process and make it easy.

Both apps have space for you to make comments and add tips that disabled people would need to consider when accessing space – such as a need to reserve a space if a place is partially accessible and busy. You can quickly rate a place on your smartphone wherever you go.

  1. Have conversations with business owners/organization leaders about improving community accessibility

Get to know business owners so you can build relationships, and share ideas for accessibility (or connect them with a disabled person, Occupational Therapist, or someone who is both and has more experience with accessibility if you are unsure). I live with gym owners and during the pandemic we have shared many conversations about accessibility (they had already installed a ramp and were excited about becoming more accessible) – we talked about things like grab bars, sink heights, and maneuverability space – they were really keen to make their business space more inclusive – and now they have an accessible bathroom and accessible access routes for wheelchair users. 

Designing community spaces with disabled people – making places accessible – is one of the next steps that we can take to improve belonging, connecting, and wellbeing in our communities. To truly design accessible spaces, disabled people need to be on the team as partners and leaders in decision-making. So get out there, learn, download one of the apps, and let’s make our hometowns accessible together!

Author: Anna Braunizer

Twitter: @ABraunizer

Bio: Anna is a community-based Occupational Therapist whose work includes partnering with people on home accessibility modifications. She is passionate about occupational justice and addressing ableism through partnerships and teamwork. 

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