Language matters: What we mean when we talk about accessibility

With recent talk of how accessibility might be embedded in legislation, now is the perfect time to take a deep dive into what authentic accessibility really means.

The International Symbol of Access is a yellow simple drawing sitting in a wheelchair against a charcoal tarseal

We explore the ideas that underpin the Be. Lab approach to accessibility, and put forward simple criteria to ensure that the steps you take to achieve accessibility result transformational results.

Traditional Definitions

The dictionary definition of accessibility is “ease of access, use or comprehension”, and it is generally understood that this relates to the ease of access, use or comprehension for people with a disability or access need.

Many explanations of accessibility talk about specific contexts, and particular users. For example, website accessibility is often described as making sure websites are accessible for users who are blind, and accessibility of the built environment is often talked of as making sure spaces and places are accessible for people using wheelchairs. Of course, these are important components of accessibility, but that’s not all there is to it.

Another popular approach to accessibility focuses on identifying, and removing barriers. The problem with defining accessibility by identifying specific instances of inaccessibility and making the necessary changes to fix them, is that this a step that comes after things have already been designed or built.

But what if there’s a different way of thinking about accessibility that, if applied from outset, can give us transformational results? Here at Be. Lab we know that how we think and talk about accessibility matters, as it determines our mindset and our attitudes. We’ve identified 3 core reframing principles, that we believe enable us to design a world that is truly accessible for all.

A new approach to Accessibility

1. Accessibility is holistic

The ISA (International Symbol of Accessibility) was designed in 1968, and is now universally recognised throughout the world. The fact that the symbol is now so well-known is a positive thing, as it is means that accessibility is now on everyone’s radar in a way that it wasn’t 50 years ago. However, the popularisation of this symbol unfortunately can encourage thinking about accessibility as one-dimensional.

Be. Lab (formerly Be. Accessible) was founded on a theory of social change that states that in order to achieve genuine accessibility for all people it is necessary to address accessibility across 3 areas- the physical, social, and the personal. Simply addressing accessibility in one of these areas will create improvements, but won’t create true change. (You can read more about the origins of this theory here).

It's essential to remember that accessibility is not just physical accessibility, the tangible things that we can touch, see, and hear, although of course these are important parts of accessibility. Accessibility is also about attitudes, culture and how these factors underpin all people’s experiences of being in the world.

2. Valuing diversity is an essential part of accessibility

A recent survey found that the top two enablers of accessibility are welcoming customer service and accessible online information.

For businesses this is great news- because they already know how important great customer service is!

For many a commitment to accessibility is underpinned by values of equity and inclusion. However businesses need to go a step further, and understand how diversity adds value, accessibility becomes a strategic investment, rather than an added cost.

The value of diversity is often overlooked but is the key driver to ensuring you are truly an accessible business. We believe this concept is key to designing a world, creating spaces, places, experiences not where people can just “get in” with equal ease, but where we can all thrive when we are there. And valuing all people is key to creating a society where everyone can be the best versions of themselves.

3. Accessibility is better for everyone

A common misconception is that accessibility only benefits people with disabilities, and that this group of people is small. In fact, the disability community make up 25% of our population. Add to that, over half of people aged over 65 have at least one impairment. In fact every single one of us will experience temporary or acquired disabilities caused by illness or injury at some point in our lives. We experience situational disabilities such as not being able to hear well due to being in a noisy room or not being able to see well due to bright sunlight. The fact is that when we truly embrace accessibility the outcomes are better for all people, because good design benefits everyone.

So, when accessibility is the basis of how we build our society, everyone benefits. And a society where everyone is valued, and everyone is welcome is one where everyone can contribute and achieve their full potential. And this is better for individuals and for communities, better for businesses, and better for our economy.

This is why we invite all New Zealanders to think differently about accessibility, and the opportunity to make New Zealand the most accessible nation in the world.

A shift in attitudes is key to rebuilding our world

By thinking differently about accessibility, we have the opportunity to build our places, spaces, and communities differently. This requires a significant mindset shift, where accessibility is no longer seen as solving a problem or fixing past mistakes, but rather as creating value and creating a better world for all of us.

So, when you’re next looking at a project, and you’re wondering, have we truly incorporated accessibility, ask yourself, is everyone valued, welcomed and can thrive? If you’ve achieved that, you’re on the right track.


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