The term “accessibility” means many different things to many people in our society. Often, it is seen as simply providing a convenience of accessible entrances and washrooms. However, “access” goes far beyond these important aspects.
The problem with disability is not the disabled individual, but rather the environment that surrounds him or her. In today’s society, disability is no longer blindness, deafness or paralysis, etc. It has become the impact on that individual’s life in society as a result of inadequate or non-existent accommodation. If a blind or illiterate person tries to pay for a purchase at a store that has upgraded its debit machine to a visual touch pad, this individual is now vulnerable and has to rely on the goodwill of the clerk.
Every day somewhere in Canada someone is being refused service or access. Usually, this is a direct result of lack of training or awareness by the front line provider. It could be anything from a point of sale terminal, stop announcements on busses, inaccessible websites or being denied access because your service animal conflicts with certain religious beliefs. According to John Rae, President of the Alliance of Equality of Blind Canadians, accessibility reaches far beyond “easy access” but extends to obtaining relevant tools, print materials and websites in formats necessary to support the disabled individual.
Addressing the concern of university students is Derek Wilson, formally of Oliver BC. He states that, “kids are provided the essential tools until the end of high school or until they reach 18 years of age, at which time they must return their equipment. They lose their access to new equipment, they have no funding for training and have no employment services. Basically, they go from having access to the tools they need, then, at the age of 18, when most are in university, are left to fend for themselves. Students with disabilities who pay for their education deserve equal access”.
The education system, primarily universities, needs to be held accountable for the number of students that it is excluding. The public needs to be aware of this. The whole system and way of thinking about assisting the disabled must be upgraded. According to Mr. Wilson, people want the easy way out of doing this because they do not see the “business case” it presents, and don’t realize that it is cheaper to start the changes now rather than later. To rectify that, the public must be educated and given enough information to formulate an opinion that shifts their level of consciousness to better understanding the unseen aspects of the disabled person’s life.
For example, if a ramp is not being built, one is disgusted because it is easy to understand that it is wrong. But when we start discussing access to things like education or website accessibility ,necessary technology, cell phones, keyless terminals, transportation or TV channels people cannot formulate an opinion because they do not have enough information to really understand the lack of accessibility the disabled face.
I believe that we as a society have a collective responsibility to educate ourselves on the obstacles faced by the disabled. Once we are aware, then we can, step-by-step, make changes so that our disabled citizens receive the support they deserve.
Alex Atamanenko is the MP for BC Southern Interior.