Monday, 8 July 2013

Accessibility means more than ramps

People with Disability Australia have launched a petition calling for 20,000 jobs a year for people with disabilities.

Almost half disabled Aussies live in or near poverty, and figures over the last 20-odd years show it's getting worse with time.  We're now ranked 21 out of 29 OECD countries in the employing-disabled-people stakes.  Mexico's doing better.  So's Slovakia.

Something I've found over and again is that employers tend to think of disability access in terms of infrastructure; wheelchair ramps and loos in particular.  Things that can be installed by a tradie and never thought of again.

You've got your damn ramp, now shut up and be grateful
For my own disability, that approach isn't really what's needed.  While I do very much appreciate a bathroom grab-rail thanks to my wobbly balance and motor skills, it's often cultural or procedural changes that would really help.

That sounds massive, but it's really quite simple little things.  Case in point:

In an office where I used to work, the unspoken cultural norm was that it was OK to talk to someone who was already on the phone to someone else, if you needed to give them a message or get their input in a hurry.  But due to some auditory processing weirdness, I cannot listen to two different conversations at once.  It's like someone throws a switch in my brain and both the person on the phone and the one over my shoulder are suddenly speaking different languages, ones I don't understand.  It's not that I don't like it, it's that I literally cannot understand what you're saying.  Also, keep it up for more than a few seconds and I'll have a splitting headache that pretty much wipes out my productivity for the rest of the day.

In that situation, writing me a note rather than talking to me would be a simple procedural change that would get the job done more effectively, and since the office already had pens and paper everywhere the only cost would be a few seconds of the note-writer's time.  

But there was resistance to this suggestion, maybe because it was seen as giving me special treatment or maybe just because that's the way it had always been done and changing that's like turning a large ship around in the ocean.  With a teaspoon.

Getting more Aussies with disabilities into work is a great thing.  Work brings not just a very welcome paypacket, but dignity, a chance to exercise our skills and education, and a sense of contributing to society and to the economy.  And there is a very real economic benefit, too - if we could improve the employment rate for disabled people by a third, the country's GDP would go up by more than $40 billion.

But for that to happen, it'll take more than ramps.  It'll take a cultural change, and a realisation that we're not after special treatment, we're after the same treatment and the same opportunities as the rest of our community.

All the facts and figures in this post came from People with Disabilies Australia's petition.  You'll also find some more interesting reading in this report from PricewaterhouseCoopers.