How accessible are the places you go?
This past weekend, volunteers from Ebert Family Clinic in Frisco teamed up with the Northwest Colorado Center for Independence for No Barriers, a non-profit program that, among other impactful things, works to empower people with disabilities and bring communities face-to-face with what it means to be accessible.
This particular program, called “What’s Your Everest?“, takes place every year at various outdoor venues, connecting people with all sorts of disabilities with their ropes teams who assist them in ascending literal mountains. This year, held at Arapahoe Basin on the Continental Divide, participants navigated narrow, single-track trails over large rocks, through forest, up increasingly steep inclines to reach a summit well over 12,000′ (3657 m).
Volunteers and organizations across the state contributed to this weekend’s success, including STARS, Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports, providing a fleet of adaptive equipment to facilitate the ascent.
I imagine most people associate accessibility with wheelchair access in a restaurant, braille menus, audio signaling at crosswalks, ASL interpreters … this is just the tip of the iceberg. I promise you have never seen gear like adaptive equipment, and even if you have, you haven’t seen all of it.
How do you navigate a wheelchair up a mountain when it’s wider than the trail?
How do you operate or steer a wheelchair if you cannot grip the wheels or handles?
How do you navigate a trail without sight?
None of this is easy, and even the current adaptive equipment has inherent flaws. It’s important to recognize that each person’s disability is unique, and can’t always be compensated by the same equipment produced for the next person.
How do you start thinking about accessibility?
Accessibility is about cost. Adaptive equipment is expensive. Custom-making a recumbent bicycle that allows you to pedal without the use of your legs or feet is thousands of dollars, and people who need this equipment to partake in activities everyone without a disability enjoys should not have to pay more for being disabled.
Accessibility is about comfort. After volunteering at this year’s annual Colorado Youth Leadership Forum, where young adults with disabilities are empowered and educated about advocating for themselves and living independently, I realized you cannot expect people to stay focused and engaged in your programming if the room is too hot or the provided meal is unfulfilling. If someone without a disability is distracted by the temperature, you can be sure the attention of someone with autism is long-gone.
Accessibility is about time. Whatever expectations you apply to the amount of time someone needs to put clothes on, eat, use the bathroom, speak a sentence – forget all about it. People with disabilities often need more time. If someone needs more time in the bathroom or walking/wheeling to a destination, adjust your expectations and wait. Your impatience and intolerance is not improving access.
Accessibility is about language. Learn sign language. It is just as much a part of our culture as spoken English and Spanish. People with hearing impairments often learn to read lips because they are taught that their hearing counterparts can’t be bothered to learn a form of communication other than one spoken language. And this isn’t just about being deaf. Having a disability sometimes means you have a speech impediment, or that your brain doesn’t organize thought and speech the same way others do. Communicating effectively takes all forms for all disabilities: physical, mental and emotional.
Accessibility is about attitude. Sometimes, people with certain disabilities can be very loud and blunt. Sometimes, they can walk, but with a limp. Sometimes, they speak very slowly. This does not mean they are rude, drunk, can’t think for themselves or can’t express their own opinions. Accommodating these situations means being prepared to shift your expectations and perspective.
I’ve been scolded by people sitting behind me at an opera for whispering translations to my blind companion next to me, before headsets with translations were provided. I’ve helped my friend into an outdoor trash elevator to get from the street level to a downstairs bar. And there was still a step onto the elevator platform. I’ve witnessed someone being thrown out of a bar for being “too intoxicated”, when in reality, he was just paraplegic and walked with a limp. And how is someone in a wheelchair supposed to use a port-a-potty at an outdoor music festival?
Is this the best we can do?
Our indoor establishments are barely held to any minimum standard of accessibility. Why are we doing so poorly, and why does access stop when it comes to the outdoors?
I continue to learn more and more about what it means for any particular event, establishment, activity or location to be truly accessible and inclusive, and it is important to me that my friends and family with disabilities are able to partake in the same experiences that I enjoy. I’ve realized that recommending a place that is “accessible” depends a lot on the disabilities present. Determining whether or not someone in a wheelchair can navigate a trail depends on what kind of wheelchair they are in as well as the grade and width of the trail.
Accessibility is about problem-solving. It is up to all of us as a community to find solutions that enable our friends and family with disabilities to interact as freely with our environment as those of us without disabilities, both indoor and out. I encourage anyone and everyone to start with a simple visual assessment: take a look around you, next time you are on a hike, in a brewery, by the lake, at the farmer’s market, at your favorite coffee shop and ask yourself if your disabled counterparts would be able to join you. Start there.
Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.