How a world designed from a position of health lets people with disabilities down
The world is designed for healthy, able-bodied, somewhat tall males. That ends up leaving out a hell of a lot of us in the process. The steps, the structures, the institutionalised systems, workplaces and more, they cater to a position that assumes health. It assumes not only health but a certain athleticism and approach to life.
Yet if you look at the statistics, we’re alienating a whole lot of people by the virtue of them being themselves. And it’s not only people with disabilities of the physical kind. It reduces capability for people with mental health conditions, for the elderly and more. As we’ve mentioned before, anyone with a pram or trolley or similar sort of aid will also find themselves with difficulty. Let’s also consider people who need treatment for illness, cancer and other issues.
We’re not only talking about the built environment either. Let’s have a look at the ways we’re letting people down by designing our world from a position of health and what we can do about it
Festivals and large-scale events
When Dylan Alcott launched a festival in Australia designed to cater for people with disabilities, it was a game-changer. Here was a demonstration that music and disability could mix and mix well. It raised $200,000 for the Alcott Foundation. And it’s set to return next year.
A maiden festival that attracted PR, sold out all tickets and made that kind of scratch is nothing to be sneezed at.
Try explaining that to insurance companies or potential venues. Both become all kinds of nervous at the idea of disability and a festival crowd mixing. Standard events can often shy away from considering disability as part of the mix as they worry about venue options disappearing, falsehoods about disability and alcohol, and concerns over the cost of interpreters.
Yet we know the value of inclusiveness in terms of economics and potential to expand markets. The accessibility tourism market generates billions of dollars each year. We also know that adding a $500 access ramp to a retail store or hospitality venue can easily pay for itself in the first year. Why not translate the same into festivals and events?
People with disabilities of all kinds often shy away from public places and events as they are unsure of access to vital services.
By doing the work and promoting an event or a venue as accessible, you tap into a loyal market. You also accidentally cater better to the wider community as well.
The myth of work-life balance
Have you heard the phrase “flexible workplace”? How about “mentally healthy workplace?” These are wonderful ideas where workers can be given autonomy to manage the rub between personal and working life in an effective manner.
A flexible workplace is the concept that by balancing life impacts with your working life better, you’ll achieve greater work satisfaction and productivity because of that raised satisfaction. It’s about looking at things such as parenting, long commutes, health management and the hours sunk into a business and finding a balance between our responsibilities.
It’s about giving you autonomy over your working career to help you feel like a connected, supported worker.
A mentally healthy workplace is looking at the organisational structures that create stress and reducing or eliminating their impact. The idea is to promote wellness in the workplace to create a good working culture. It’s also designed to avoid issues such as bullying, presenteeism, discrimination against people with stress related health impacts and/or mental health conditions, and to promote a happier, healthier workplace.
It’s about ensuring you aren’t stressed-out, mentally fatigued or placed in harm’s way by workplace culture. All while ensuring productivity by cultivating a supportive environment.
While organisations aspire to flexibility and mentally healthy workplaces, very few manage it achieve them in practical terms. In fact, many people are still facing issues with obtaining flexibility for parenting. Let alone parenting a child with disability. Many workers are still concerned about declaring their disability or mental health condition, let alone taking up any policies to aid in management that may be available.
Yet we know that work product, not the hours worked, are the measure of good business. That productivity is not tied to how many hours we have in a chair but in how capable, stress-free and creative we feel. And that working too hard impairs our thinking.
Why then do we create a world that is built for an unreasonable response as standard? All it takes is recognising that we need to support people better to receive their best work.
In the Australian and USA news of late, there has been a lot of discussion about the extremely low pay given to people with disabilities. Legally, it’s OK to pay as little as $3 an hour to people with intellectual disabilities and other disabilities. The justification often cited is that the person would not be employable if the rate was higher due to work output.
There’s so many issues surrounding this, it is difficult to unpack them.
If the work is valuable enough to be done, shouldn’t people be paid a reasonable rate for the work? When do we decide that one person is of lower value in their contribution to the world than another?
There is often discrimination when it comes to disability in a workplace. The assumption that a candidate cannot make a proper decision about their ability to undertake work is troubling. Why not ask the person applying for the job if they have special needs instead of assuming it will create issues?
Recent legislation passed down in Australia to protect against hate speech is another example of the world built on health and excluding disability. The press and the legislation speak of the rights of many communities being upheld in the face of cruelty, exclusion and hate speech. Disability is mysteriously absent from the conversation.
People with disabilities are also far more likely to be sexually molested and have their reproductive rights removed. Physical abuse is also a feature of disability, whether it be on the small or large scale. Yet the law and #metoo movement again tiptoe past the problems.
If we cannot legally recognise there are issues with disparity across pay, employment and even safety, what hope have we got? And if movements that cry out for change skirt around the alleged danger zone of disability and the voices within the disability community are often stifled and maligned, how will it change?
Stop ‘saving’ people with disabilities
Much of the situation comes down to how people respond to disability. Ask any cancer patient or person with disabilities what life is like in these current times of self-appointed health gurus and you’ll soon discover that the desire to fix people is stronger than ever.
Yoga will fix your balance. Smoothies will cure your chronic condition. That book everyone is talking about will transform your life.
The conversation smacks of ableism as it assumes the person is seeking a cure. And that the hard yards in dealing with the situation has not been undertaken by the person with the disability or condition.
It also implies that yet again, a person who has a disability and/or has an illness or chronic condition is incapable of making their own life choices. That they are somehow waiting for an able-bodied person to come along with all the answers.
Yes, all humans have this dreadful desire to jump in and try to fix situations. Yet the desire to gently ram messages of bespoke cures, alternative treatments and restore the person without their consent is a continuous process.
From strangers in the street dropping by to offer their advice on facial difference through to infertile women receiving unsolicited conception advice, there is the helpful person eagerly waiting to give their two cents. And the same person becomes desperately offended if their attempt to “just try and help” is met with a ‘no thank you’. The emotional labour of having to constantly explain yourself and assume a position of gentle guide to the world of disability only to have the teacher’s apple pegged at you for rejecting the advice speaks volumes.
If we are to change how the institutions and the built environment respond to disability, we must first start with our own assumptions. And listen instead of assuming the mantle of saviour. Let the expert in the life of a person with disability be the person living it.
The position of health is inaccurate
Immunity from illness and disability is not a foregone conclusion. The attitude that disability is somehow the problem is disabling society. For most people, the older we get, the risk increases. Misadventure, health changes, lifestyle, accidents, genetics and age- none of these things can be inoculated against.
Yet when we focus on a world that is designed from a position of health, we forget we’re organic meat-bags. We’re the frogs in our own built environment. And if we don’t listen to the people that are already living and breathing the experience, if we cannot overcome the hubris attached to health, we create a rod for our own back. We give the politicians and the planners an excuse to pass us by and adopt the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mantra.
Not because disability or chronic ill-health is the bad wolf waiting at the door, ready to growl that life is over. But because the world in which we live is unable to see its importance or the opportunity.
Let’s stop adopting a fictional approach to our world and start creating one that allows people to be people. No matter their health profile, life experience, injury or physical capability.