When I was interviewed for Civil Society Futures, I got to explaining about the extra barriers disabled activists faced in performing their civic duty. It seems these are not very apparent to non disabled people – barriers which non disabled people seldom encounter in their day to day life.
Access is one barrier that immediately comes to mind when disability is discussed. I use access here in the broadest sense. One of the common civic actions is to take part in events and discussions. How often is it incumbent for the disabled participant to ensure that his/her/their participation is possible, that the venue is accessible, that communication needs such as BSL is available, that accessible formats for blind people is catered for?
And when that is sorted, the disabled participant has to then do extensive research on figuring how to get there using public transport. Some people will just use taxis but travel expenses are not always included and taxis are expensive. Even if you have managed the maze of public transport, you will have to engage with booking assistance, especially if you are travelling from further afield. You will have to add extra travel time because lifts might not work, and travel assistance staff might not turn up to take you off the train in time. You might to have a Plan B ready in case Plan A did not work out (for example, a lift might be out of action so you will have to take a bus or taxi).
I have not started on those who might be dyspraxic or those who have learning difficulties.
There is stress even for the seasoned disabled traveller who has to navigate the transport system but additionally, there is the added energy considerations for disabled people who might also have chronic fatigue or who have fluctuating energy levels. It is not always easy to be able to predict how well we are able to function when we cannot schedule tiredness or a depletion of energy, having breaks in sessions or break out rooms for those who need them is important.
There should also be consideration on not having sessions just in the evening when it is dark and cold. I understand that it suits other people who are in work but if you want to be inclusive you have to remember the people you are keeping out. I find I have to reiterate the point to young bright physically abled activists who really want to have disabled people’s engagement – that there are consequences and considerations for disabled people/women.
Taking part in civic action does not always involve physical involvement – this is true. Many disabled people use the internet, social media to vote on polls, to add their voices and in petitions. According to an article on Huffington Post in 2016, seventy percent of websites are breaking the law on accessibility and websites are not always built to accessible standards. And just like other disadvantaged groups who might not be able to afford digital connections, disabled people can also be unable to use the web because of a lack of computer skills, assistive technology or web access.
All these considerations mentioned above are not meant to be negative – many disabled people do take part in civic engagement in spite of the barriers they face, including attitudinal barriers which are a result of the other people, sometimes because of stereotypes which are used by even well meaning people, out of ignorance. Hopefully, organisers will realise and take barriers for disabled people into consideration when planning events and allow for extra time and reasonable adjustments, as the Equality Act 2010 says they should. For anyone looking for ideas, Sisters of Frida has created a toolkit for event planning which gives some guidelines on planning for accessibility.