In its simplest form, accessibility is usually defined as changes to the built environment designed to enable full participation by and inclusion of disabled people . Ramps and grab bars are common examples, with accessibility also extending to the presentation of materials in multiple formats to meet varying needs. Braille and sign language, for example, are provided for blind and vision-impaired people as well as D/deaf and hard of hearing people respectively. Likewise, accessibility can include modification of materials and curricula to accommodate disabled students, the provision of quiet rooms at conferences for autistic attendees, and other measures intended to make the environment more pleasant and functional for people with cognitive, intellectual, and developmental impairments.
These are measures that I term “physical access” both in my work and for the purpose of this essay. They are all intended to create more welcoming environments, and in some cases are required by law; the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States, for example, has stringent requirements for new public construction mandating features like ramps and accessible bathrooms in order to ensure equal access for disabled people. Yet, over 20 years after the passage of the ADA, compliance rates are still extremely low.
The fact that a law had to be passed in the first place is an illustration of ableism and how it functions in society: that people don’t think disabled people should automatically have access to all the same public spaces nondisabled people do is striking. And the surprise at the amount of agitation from disability activists on the subject is notable as well, with mainstream society behaving as though this is something new. The disability rights movement has been active for over 100 years, lobbying for the rights of disabled factory workers in the Industrial Revolution, returning soldiers in the First and Second World Wars, and more. Disabled organizers participated in the upsurge of civil disobedience and protests during the Civil Rights Movement, and fought hard for the passage of the ADA and similar legislation as well as court verdicts like Olmstead versus L.C. . Their fight has always been one for full access and inclusion.