Has ‘accessibility’ become a buzzword?

In a joint piece, Errol Kerr and Zoë Godden criticise the commodification of the language of disability.In a joint piece, Errol Kerr and Zoë Godden criticise the commodification of the language of disability.

Saying that this past academic year has been rough for marginalised groups is like saying that a wheelchair has wheels. Or that you shouldn’t touch guide dogs on duty. Or that autism manifests differently in women.

OK, that last one may not be fully integrated into societal knowledge just yet, but trust us on this one. Disability puns aside, this year has also been a year of great progress, both internationally with events such as the Disability March, online movements such as #CripTheVote, and more local, university-based movement. Not as a bragging point at all, but the work that has been done to start recognising disabled students across campus has had a recognisable impact, and we’ve had many students notice what we’ve done in the space of a year – the creation of DaNSoc and forthcoming nature of the Students with Disabilities Officers this year means that disability is finally at the forefront of university politics.

Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more notable that words which once held meaning within marginalised communities are being picked up as buzzwords, sacrificing their meaning for a cool little soundbite. In particular, a word that was rife amongst our recent student elections – ‘accessible.’ If you haven’t guessed already, accessibility is kind of our jam, referring to how well events, locations, or media can be – surprise – accessed by people who have a disability or mental health condition.

It’s pretty important in our day to day lives – if something isn’t accessible, we can’t go to lectures, attend public events or even complete basic tasks.

“Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more notable that words which once held meaning within marginalised communities are being picked up as buzzwords”

Not that it surprised us to see the term ‘accessibility’ used so flippantly when talking about things that aren’t even remotely about accessibility. You’ll note that throughout the elections, both of us were very, pedantic about the term, trying our hardest to ensure that a very important word wasn’t thrown about like it meant nothing. As both of us will be working as part of a new officer team next year as both current and incumbent Students with Disabilities Officers, it’s important to recognise that accessibility is meant to be there for those who need it.

The United Nations state that “accessibility is about giving equal access to everyone. Without being able to access the facilities and services found in the community, persons with disabilities will never be fully included.” And we cannot – will not – allow this to happen on our campus. We have made huge steps forward, and we intend to carry on reinforcing precisely what accessibility means throughout the next academic year. Making societies more ‘accessible’ does not simply mean increasing attendance, and the word isn’t a synonym for such a scenario. Its infuriating that when most able bodied people say they want to make an event ‘accessible to all’, they don’t even consider disabled students, making us feel that they couldn’t care less about us.

“We have made huge steps forward, and we intend to carry on reinforcing precisely what accessibility means throughout the next academic year”

So when you say you want to make something more ‘accessible’, you’d best mean it, and you’d best act on it. Organise events in places that have ramps, stair-lifts, and elevators. Ensure videos have subtitles, and that printed materials are available in Braille or larger fonts. Anything that can be recorded for later watching, do it. Consider having quiet spaces for people who may experience sensory overloads or panic attacks.

Most of these things don’t take much, but even going out of your way to get a sign language interpreter can ensure students with disabilities are always welcome. Putting even a handful of these in place makes a far more welcoming and truly accessible space.

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