Accessibility on Whose Terms

Accessibility on Whose Terms?

By DAI Board member, Emily Ong from Singapore.

“Museums disable me as a viewer. Everything, from the artworks to the explanatory texts, assumes a subject who uses their visual sense as a primary way of knowing, and I am a nonvisual learner who requires a different frame of reference.” – Carmen Papalia.

The quote resonates with me as someone living with dementia, a type of acquired disability. In most circumstances, my dementia condition does not limit my ability to participate fully in life. I am as capable as others without disabilities in carrying out my role as an advocate, advisor, and educator. However, I am often disabled from doing what I want or need to do because the mainstream environment can be disenabling and inaccessible for people like me.

In the past week, I have been working as an advisor with two local public transport providers in making the concourse area of two bus interchanges more enabling and accessible for people with disabilities, not limited to dementia per se. An accessible and enabling environment improves the quality of life for people living with disabilities, and it is a prerequisite for a truly inclusive society.

People with visual impairments like Carmen Papalia and those with Posterior Cortical Atrophy (PCA), a rare form of dementia, would find themselves in a disabling situation when the place they visit does not offer communication access options and prevents them from appreciating the exhibits in the museum. This is a type of ‘situational disability‘ that makes it difficult and almost impossible to participate on an equal basis with others and this leads to exclusion and marginalization.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) states clearly that persons with disabilities have the same rights as all other persons. To ensure persons with disabilities can claim their rights, services and facilities must be accessible and provided without discrimination.

© (2002). Michael F. Giangreco and Kevin Buelle. Farside cartoon. Reproduction and communication of this material is permitted under the Fair Dealing provision of the Canadian Copyright Act.

Very often the concept of ‘accessibility is narrowly defined when it comes to environmental design. There is a need to understand that an environment is made up of different domains and they are interconnected.

Take, for example, a person living with Primary Progressive Aphasia, would not be able to get much help at the Passenger Service Counter if there are no options of other modes of communication other than speaking. The person will not be able to benefit fully from the improvement of the physical accessibility of a place if the message cannot get across and be understood between the individual with speech impairment and the customer service personnel.

Good accessibility is built around the principle of an unbroken chain of movement, highlighted by the ‘RECU’ (Reach, Enter, Circulate, Use) concept:

  • Reach: Being able to get to the service you wish to use
  • Enter: Being able to enter buildings
  • Circulate: Being able to move about inside buildings
  • Use: Being able to use the services provided in the building

Let’s take the concourse area of a bus interchange, which usually has high traffic flow, high noise level, lots of information including advertisements, can easily cause cognitive and sensory overload for people like me. Practically every sound goes through my ears without much filtering and you can imagine the struggle I have when I seek assistance over the Passenger Service counter. I struggle to hear what was said to me because of the lack of sound-absorptive materials around the area. Hence, I avoid the Passenger Service at all costs and prefer, to ask for assistance from passing commuters if possible.

There are times when I become overly anxious due to disorientation, words are hard to be articulated as the muscles around the mouth tense up. In such a situation, I would prefer writing over verbal communication. A self-help kiosk that is easy to use and with a friendly interface would come in handy. Being able to access information is a huge part of maintaining independence for any individual.

However, the panel information board at the concourse area of a typical bus interchange is overloaded with information and font size that is too small to be handled by a brain that is cognitively impaired. It would be helpful if transport service providers can have bus route leaflets presented in clear and simple language instead of the ‘one-size fit all’ standard version.

Based on my experience as a commuter who heavily depends on bus and Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) services to get around doing my advocacy work independently, I would say:

  • Reaching the station is no issue because the pathway is well-linked and sufficient signposting to provide directional guidance.
  • Entering the station is no issue because there are built-in ramp and lift that I can take to overcome my visuospatial perception issues.
  • Circulating within the concourse area is usually a challenge for me if there is an absence of useful pictures or graphics to help me form a mental image of the place when I try to orientate and navigate around. Sometimes, the design and location of the facilities within the concourse area is non-intuitive and demands much effort to understand in order to find my way around.
  • Usage of the services and facilities for me is currently satisfactory with slight information inaccessibility. Alternative formats of route maps and guides such as audio maps, and big print maps would be useful and handy. Accessible Help Points buttons like the ones used in the London Underground are helpful in the event someone with a disability needs assistance from Passenger Service but far from the service counter or in the washroom area.

To sum up, accessibility involves removing the physical, communication, attitudinal, and institutional barriers faced by people living with all types of disabilities, including dementia.

However, to address the accessibility issues the presence and involvement of people living with disabilities in the accessibility project is indispensable and has to be on all levels: awareness-raising, dialogue, policy definition, advice, and assessment.