By Tomas Vallejo
Recently a spotlight was shined on the lack of accessibility afforded to the disability community in our country, and it must change. About a month ago, Denver city councilman, Chris Hinds, was on his way to a public debate as part of his reelection campaign. However, when he arrived, the venue failed to provide an accessible route for wheelchair users to the stage. Hinds then lifted himself onto the stage and once there, held himself upright on the floor of the stage by holding onto a chair. After some time, despite the humiliating episode, the debate did take place, but in front of the stage where Mr. Hinds could comfortably participate. This event showcases the shameful amount of progress in many of our communities across the country since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act more than 30 years ago!
While it is truly shocking that an elected official is facing accessibility obstacles when it comes to fulfilling their political duties, inaccessibility is an obstacle that the disability community is all too familiar with, especially when it comes to participation in our democracy. According to data from the National Disability Rights Network in 2017, 83% of polling stations were at least partially inaccessible to voters with disabilities. Since then, other forms of voting have been popularized such as absentee voting, however, due to restrictive voting measures, in 2020 alone more than 11% of voters with disabilities reported having difficulty casting a ballot for their representative (American Civil Liberties Union). This raises the concern of why inaccessibility remains prevalent given that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26% of adults in the US have a disability. Such failures harm not only the disability community, but also the heart of the nation as a whole.
It goes without saying that universal accessibility would benefit society as a whole just as much as it would benefit the disability community. First, universal accessibility would only enrich the democratic process by making it easier for the voices of individuals with disabilities to be heard by their elected officials. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and Rutgers University in 2020, disabled Americans were roughly seven percentage points less likely than non-disabled people to vote. Additionally, in the words of Councilman Hinds, many members of the disability community would “rather go straight to the ADA '' instead of being victim-blamed for speaking out against the inaccessibility of a given location. By prioritizing universal accessibility, both public and private sector entities can make a good impression on a customer with a disability and also avoid a possible ADA lawsuit.
Despite the benefits of universal accessibility, the truth is that America has a long way to go. The good news, however, is that much can be done to promote accessibility and inclusion for the disability community. The most important way that this can be done is through political activism. Based on a conversation that VisitAble’s founder, Joe Jamison, recently had with Councilman Hinds the best way to fight for universal accessibility is to “work within the system to affect change.” This cannot be accomplished simply by voting. One can also campaign and contact their local representative to let them know that accessibility is important to them. Allies across the country can also promote universal accessibility by being political advocates and spotlighting essential issues or problematic policies. One of the most popular ways to be an advocate is by spreading views on social media; while this may not be as effective as voting or campaigning, social media is a useful political tool, especially when attempting to reach a vast number of people. While it is easy to write about the importance of promoting accessibility, implementing accessible and inclusive practices is a different beast.
There are simple ways for campaigns and organizations to implement accessible practices. At public venues such as rallies or debates, video boards are common so that all people in a large crowd can see whatever is going on onstage. Closed captioning on screens allows individuals with disabilities to follow along with debates and speeches. This same tool can also be used for political and apolitical websites. Additionally, the use of sign language interpretation could be of extreme benefit to Deaf and hard of hearing voters. Arch20 shares some other ways to make public spaces physically accessible for individuals with disabilities, including the installation of ramps, and braille signs to signal restrooms and exits. Public spaces and organizations can also work towards universal accessibility by investing in training such as VisitAble’s Disability Awareness and Inclusion training, which involves teaching members of an organization how to “respectfully help, interact with, and treat those with disabilities” in a professional setting.
What happened to Councilman Chris Hinds at the debate last month was unacceptable. However, the incident has allowed us as a country to reignite the conversation around the lack of accessibility in our public and political spaces once again. In the words of the councilman himself “it is important for us to have access for everyone, and we should all have the opportunity to survive and thrive in our communities.” Hopefully, this conversation will turn into action, and in another 30 years, we will not look back with regret on how little progress we have made since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.