The Accessibility Bridge
The Language of Access
The arts have adopted a language which focuses on “access” instead of “disability”. We make accessible theatre, we have access budgets, we use creative access in productions.
The language of access feels important, but what does it mean? A focus on accessibility, encourages us to think of processes and structures as inaccessible. When we describe a process as inaccessible, it feels neutral, like it is almost accidental that disabled people are excluded from it. It doesn’t suggest there is an action happening, the inaccessibility is just a description of process.
The social model says that we are disabled by society, not by our impairments. The social model highlights that society is active in its attempts to create barriers for disabled people. I’m not sure that “inaccessible” recognises this action.
To explain the methodology of “access” I want you to imagine there’s an old bridge over a strong river, it’s been eroded away by time and the construction is a bit outdated now. It’s dangerous, it will cause harm if you try to use it to cross, so the owner of the bridge wraps some rope around all the stones to hold it together. They tell you to quickly hurry across the bridge, because they can only afford so much rope and it won’t last forever before it too erodes. If someone wants to use it again in the future, then they will need to buy more rope. This is “Access” methodology, it creates something temporary that stops immediate harm, but it doesn’t stop there being potential for harm.
The Language of Ableism
I wonder if it would be more effective to stop calling processes inaccessible, and instead call them ableist. By describing a process as ableist we recognise that ableist is being done, there is an action being done here and we can choose to stop doing that action.
If we recognise that a process or structure is ableist, we see what “accessibility” is. It’s a buffer, which doesn’t change the process itself, it just creates a second layer which can be accessed. It doesn’t stop the ableism of the process, it just allows us to ignore it more easily. It creates reliance, because there has been no structural change, one single imperfection or failure in the access structure sees the full brutality of ableism hit a disabled person. Access is addictive, it’s fragile, and it is expensive.
Imagine the bridge again, this time the owner of the bridge goes and looks at updated thinking about bridges, and takes apart the bridge and builds something in its place that gets you to the other side, but that doesn’t risk harm against you. It removes potential harm, doesn’t just wrap a temporary rope around it. This is now not “access” methodology, the bridge owner has recognised that the bridge has the potential to do something active and cause harm, and has dealt with that at the source.
This is not an easy solution, and in some situations the funding climate of the arts makes it difficult. But, I don’t think we can effectively organise to change anything, until we understand the truth of what we’re trying to organise and what we’re aiming for. In the language of “Access” then we’re spending a lot of money working towards something which might not be a long-term solution, we have to spend over and over again. It might be cheaper to be anti-ableist, because you don’t have to spend over and over again. Also, sometimes anti-ableist practice can cost nothing, it can looking like deconstructing the harm your creative process can create, and changing your process.
That’s not to say access practices should disappear overnight. We have to organise to protect people from the damage the world could create in the current structure, while also organising to reform / abolish that structure as well. Access might be a necessary short-term step if someone needs to get across that bridge, but we shouldn’t allow the language we use to lull us into thinking it is the eventual goal.
I wonder if the greatest point of resistance to this methodology might not come from the cost, but from the creative processes we’re so attached to. Access allows those people who “produce” out culture like artists to not change their process at all, they just build things around it. The language of ableism requires us to do creativity differently, it requires us to learn new ways of making and doing things, and that means we have to rethink how we make culture.
Often our processes are ableist, not just inaccessible. Stop throwing rope around crumbling bridges, just fix the bridge already.