Working with a limited budget, how can you ensure the participation of the greatest number of people to the progressive cause? This is the problem facing The Left, where ideas often lack the financial backing they demand. Where a substantial number of its members include people who are young, unemployed, low-paid or disabled, and not exactly bursting at the seams with cash. Where accessibility for people with disabilities is crucial for both ideological and pragmatic reasons. The question demands an answer. And that answer begins not in the wallet but in the mind.
In my previous article I described my own observations about a potential casual ageism on the left. Tangential to this is the issue of accessibility, and the resultant exclusivity of certain groups of people, at leftist meetings and events. As someone who has worked with people with disabilities in a PA capacity for over three years, I have witnessed first-hand the obstacles facing people who are not able-bodied. It is easy to take for granted one’s own freedom, and quite the awakening when confronted by an alternative life experience.
When spending time with people with mobility needs, it doesn’t take long to realise that even in London, with a multitude of transport options, getting around requires much more thought. Extra time and energy is a necessity when travelling: from planning the journey in advance, to sometimes contacting stations to arrange ramps or assistance, to the trip itself, there’s a lot to deal with. And even with thorough organisation, a broken lift, roadworks or incorrect information can mean recalculating the journey on route, leading to even longer travel time and increased stress.
Once at the venue there are a host of new barriers. These can include but are not limited to: The lack of a lift or other accessible pathways; the lack of appropriate lighting for someone who is sight-impaired (this isn’t always about brightness, it can be about the quality of light); the lack of a loop system or staff understanding about how to use said system; the lack of an accessible toilet; the lack of awareness and understanding from people at the venue about disability.
There are two basic ways to look at accessibility. Either lack of access and poor service is about the disabled person, or it is about society. These perspectives are known as models of disability. The Medical Model of Disability says that people are disabled because of the hard facts of their physical condition. The Social Model of Disability would counter that and say being disabled is about barriers created by society. The preference for the latter model within the disabled community is due to how it takes into account a person’s experience. Let’s have an example to compare both models:
A woman wants to visit a museum. The only access point into the building is via stairs. As a wheelchair user she has no way to navigate the stairs, therefore no way of visiting the museum. Now say a lift was installed next to the stairs leading to the museum entrance. The woman would now be able to use the lift to access the building like any able-bodied person. In both examples the woman’s medical condition is the same, yet in the second example she has no barrier to entry.
For more information on these two models of disability read Scope’s explanation.
For further models of disability visit Disabled World’s definition page.
It is worth clarifying that the topic of accessibility covers all people, not only wheelchair users. Any type of access or service is applicable. This is important because there are many disabilities and disabling conditions that are not visible, e.g. M.E., epilepsy, autism, to name but a few. This is why awareness and understanding is so important.
This brings me on to leftist events, where the rhetoric of inclusivity can be at odds with the reality. In order for the experience of certain people to match up to the ideal, steps need to be taken. Accessibility starts in the planning stage of a meeting or event. The optimum way to begin is to start a dialogue early. Inform potential attendees about the event and venue. Ask them for their thoughts. Far too many leftist events are one-offs when they should be a continuation, part of a larger narrative.
The primary challenge when choosing a venue is always to find one that is as cost effective as possible. When working with little or no money the available venues aren’t likely to be the most accessible in terms of travel, or disabled-friendly in terms of the building. There is a brute reality to this, and I am appreciative of the struggle for organisers. What is vital, however, is an awareness of people’s needs, and working to accommodate all who wish to attend. If all avenues have been attempted, it’s preferable to be open about a lack of access. Make it a part of the conversation. Accessibility obstacles do cause division and demotivate participation for those affected, but the situation will not improve unless there is dialogue between parties.
The area most neglected by event organisers is travel: how people get to the venue. When travelling to the event, some people might need assistance. A simple email to attendees could, for example, find a person living close to someone in need and willing to assist them with travel. It is this sort of simple action that could increase participation, broaden the demographic of attendees and foster a greater sense of community.
During the event, awareness is key. Have a welcome team, or at least one person available by the entrance. Having someone there allows a person with needs to liaise with the event and make the staff aware of any potential issues. If a person is hearing-impaired they can ask about a loop system, or be taken to a place that’s acoustically suitable for them. Someone who is sight-impaired might need to sit close to the front. If someone is older or has mobility issues, make sure they have a place to sit. Even information like directions to the toilets is helpful to pass on. This is a service that takes very little effort yet can greatly improve a person’s experience at an event. Observing, recognising and sometimes anticipating a barrier a person might face is invaluable. It all starts from awareness, which leads to understanding, which moves an individual to change – and eventually society as a whole.
The Left has a mandate to create egalitarian structures that are inclusive for all. Therefore accessibility should always be part of the conversation. Beyond the desire for equality, the harsh reality is that without the participation of those who are willing but prohibited from events and meetings, The Left’s ability to create change will be greatly diminished.
I’ve written this article from my experience spending time with people with various different disabilities. I have tried to write it in as considerate a way as I could, however as an non-disabled person, I’ve probably missed things. Please get in touch and tell us about your own experiences and your own views on accessibility.