Thursday, October 20, 2016

The vertical edges of the stairs: a late-night rant about accessibility and academic buildings

On many university webpages, photographs of heritage buildings take centre stage. Old buildings speak to us, with weathered walls lining weathered halls, and hardwood floors trampled to a patina. I love seeing echoes of the past - even the gnarly bits. But here’s a gnarly piece of the present, and future: our fetishization of these lovely old buildings means that some of us cannot get inside. Indeed, the squeaky staircase with intricate railings is gorgeous. But it’s a monument to an inaccessible past, and a barrier to my future. Where you see the horizontal boards where your feet will land on your route upstairs, I see the vertical edges that could one day confine me to the ground floor, or exile me from the building.
Let’s put it starkly: if you do not build an elevator, I might not have a job. I want nothing more than to work as a historian, in a university. Researching and teaching about the past drive me. In a couple of years, I’ll likely be searching for an academic job. This is an uphill battle for anyone working on a PhD in the humanities, and we don’t all succeed. However, I have a disability, and can’t count on always being able to walk. In my field, that is a massive additional barrier to employment, by virtue of the built environment. The pool of jobs available to me will decrease with every step I cannot climb. Many universities have dozens of lovely heritage buildings: buildings where the toilets have personalities of their own, and none are wheelchair accessible; buildings with ornate staircases, and no elevator; buildings that are important, apparently, but not important enough that I have an equal right to access them. 
When you use heritage as a justification for not making buildings accessible, we are situating the value of that space solely in the past. You are also commemorating a history that prioritizes the voices and activities of those who can climb stairs, open doors, and move easily through the spaces in our community. When you tell me that you can’t bear to change a historic building, you are telling me that you value the aesthetics in commemorating privileged lives over and above taking steps towards universal access. Claims that a building simply “can’t” be made accessible are, by and large, oversimplified. It’s not that you can’t - it’s that you won’t prioritize it. Organizations instead allocate budget lines to maintaining an inaccessible status quo, claiming to have too many other important projects, to being stretched thin. But disabled people are stretched thin, preparing for plan B, plan C, plan D, plan E, arranging and rearranging our lives to compensate for other people’s reluctance to plan. 
We need allies. Ask about accessibility, even if you think it doesn’t affect you personally. If you have a job in an inaccessible building, take the responsibility to push for changes in your workplace, so that mobility isn’t an unofficial requirement for those who work with you and learn from you. Institute a policy to hold events only at accessible venues, even if those spaces are more expensive. Remember, too, that your own mobility is only temporary. Bodies change. Buildings should, too.

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