Landscapes of Identity: Accessibility

A soggy, warm, late fall day. Wind later?

I’ve been thinking about accessibility as a contested aspect of landscape. Barriers that inhibit or limit access are inherent aspects of the landscape, and I know that if I go walking there will be areas I can’t navigate due to the mobility challenges I face. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act has greatly reduced the number of barriers I encounter in the built environment, I am still, apparently endlessly, discovering places I simply cannot go. 

Jennie and I have gotten into the habit of calling places I want to visit and asking whether they are mobility accessible. Way too often we are told they are, only to arrive and discover they are not. Accessibility seems to be in the eye of the beholder; it is perceptually relative.

If I am walking, I can navigate a few steps, although that may result in desperate fatigue later. If I am using the scooter, one step makes a space inaccessible.

Of course, there are an enormous number of disabilities, of which mobility is but one. Each category of disability requires its own adaptation which makes retrofitting spaces to increase accessibility difficult. It is far easier to create fully accessible spaces when putting up new structures! Yet, even with the ADA there are lots of structures going up that are not accessible. Maybe only persons with disabilities should be licensed as architects! (The truth, of course, is that I am disabled yet frequently miss the barriers that might impede persons with disabilities that are different from mine!)

At the moment Congress is attempting to limit, or do away with, the ADA. There are elements of greed in this to be sure. Creating accessible spaces can be expensive (as can being sued for failing to do so). Yet, so is excluding large numbers of people from participating in the public common! It seems to me that both the Neo-Liberal and Neo-Conservative agendas focus on reducing both access to, and the quantity and quality of, the common; both seek to undermine community in the service of concentrating wealth, privilege, and access in the hands of the few, an inevitably explosive agenda

I imagine there is a second factor driving much of the opposition to accessibility: fear. One of my colleagues likes to describe able-bodied persons as “temporarily abled,” an acknowledgement that most of us will be disabled at some point in our lives.  In an ablist country the prospect of future disability is indeed frightening! I suspect that much of the push-back against accessibility is driven by the irrational, but oh so powerful, bit of magical thinking: “if we ignore and deny, it will not happen to us!”

Given the growing attacks on the already insufficient ADA,  it should not surprising that disabled activists have taken our struggle for access, and simple acknowledgement and acceptance, to the halls of Congress (much to the displeasure of the political elites). For us, the landscape, both wild and built, continues to be a fiercely contested location of identity.


7 thoughts on “Landscapes of Identity: Accessibility

  1. I don’t know so much about being handicapped in US, Michael. Do you have any large club/groups or so, who are talking the disabled peoples case? If so, it should be possible to demand more access at public places.
    Years ago, I wrote an article about being disabled and need to use wheelchairs in one of my magazines back then. I was invited to visit Barcelona that time by a company, who wished to sell travels to disabled people with special needs. To be sure, it was possible to come around in Barcelona, we also brought a disabled woman in wheelchair. She was the best proof of, what was possible or not. I will say, that Barcelona are friendly to people in wheelchairs. Not all places are possible to visit, but mostly are. They do also have friendly hotels with big elevators and no door steps inside the rooms and to the bathrooms.
    Unfortunately, there are many places with not very friendly access for all, all over the world, I think.

  2. As a part of their licensing renewal, all architects should be required to earn CEUs in handicap needs. Just spending a day at work in a scooter would go a long way in increasing awareness. It wouldn’t solve the problem of greed, however.

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