I wrote a post a while ago titled Stop and think: invisible access for invisible disabilities. It was a personal narrative of some of my experience with chronic fatigue syndrome. In it I mentioned a couple of accessibility problems that I had encountered repeatedly. So I thought I’d go into a bit more detail about some accommodations for people with all sorts of invisible disabilities.
The overriding principle here is: Anyone you encounter may have an invisible disability. They may not wish to disclose and explain that disability to every single person they meet; sometimes, getting out of the house is hard enough, and it’s too exhausting to contemplate spending another and yet another five minutes explaining and defending their (often quite simple) needs. In addition, they have a right to medical privacy. You can do your bit to make their difficult lives a little easier by considering invisible disability access in the various aspects of your life.
This is in no way an exhaustive list. Many items are based on my own experience, or that of others in the forums I frequent. Add your own!
– If you see someone who’s lost, don’t just point them to a sign and walk off – you don’t know whether they can read it. Give them verbal directions, or offer to show them their location. You don’t know whether the person has minimal sight or can’t read. If they are still completely at sea and you think there may be more to the story, ask if they need more help – perhaps they’ve become separated from a carer?
– Give people a break. The person annoying you may not be drunk, high or wilfully irksome; they may have a movement disorder (like cerebral palsy), autism, an illness affecting their memory or speech or cognition, a mental illness. Protect yourself if need be, of course, but be patient with minor irritations. Realise that the world has all kinds of people in it, and they all deserve access to public spaces.
– Don’t make snarky faux-sotto-voce remarks about how some people shouldn’t be allowed out in public, or about how a licence should be required before people are allowed to breed.
– Offer to help out, quietly and without being pushy, if you think someone has a very clear need. There’s a fine line to walk here; just because someone is walking slowly or has a stick, doesn’t mean they need you all up in their face. But they may welcome a simple offer to get them a chair or to put their shopping bags in their car or take their trolley back to a bay. NEVER, EVER touch a person or their mobility aid without being specifically invited to. EVER.
– Consider accessibility in the business plan and design phase, not as an afterthought.
– If someone wants to deal with you by email instead of phoning back and forth, do it, without arguing or interrogating them. They could have social phobia, autistic, be hard of hearing, have auditory processing problems, short term memory problems, mental illness, or a sleep disorder; none of this is any of your business. Similarly, if someone prefers to deal with you by telephone rather than by email/web contact form, accept that also. Have systems to deal efficiently with a variety of different communication methods.
– Consider agreeing to mail order for mailable goods, even if you don’t usually offer this service. It may be a major and painful expedition to get to your shop for someone with CFS, autoimmune disorders, cancer or a host of other illnesses. Perhaps they’re not lazy and over-entitled; they may have very good reasons for asking if you can put it in a satchel and post it.
– Have seating available for all, not just on special request. Put comfortable, accessible seating (not teeny tiny flimsy chairs) anywhere where someone might need to pause and deal with a service agent. If there is a longish corridor or walkway, put seating here and there along the way.
– If someone discloses their disability to point out an accessibility issue, don’t lecture them on the curative properties of exercise, vitamins, or positive thinking.
– Have a usable webpage offering plenty of information, and one that works with accessibility software. Eschew flashing animations, colour combinations unreadable by those with colour blindness, low-contrast text, mystery meat navigation, or other website sins. Plain text is good. Simple images are good, but don’t convey information via images that isn’t conveyed in text also. Accessible design is good design.
You can find information on web accessibility here at the Web Accessibility Initiative.
– Accessible parking, following all legislation. Consider putting in more accessible bays than you are legally compelled to. Put parking as close as possible to an entryway, and put a trolley bay nearby. Remember that not all people with placards are in wheelchairs; some may be unable to walk very far. Rain and sun protection would be much appreciated! Some people can’t make a dash in the rain, some have severe sun sensitivity due to illness.
– Not everyone with a service animal is blind.
– If you are a larger business (very large store, wildlife park, etc): Have powered and manual wheelchairs available fore hire. Allow bookings so that someone who plans an outing can be sure of access.
– When planning your business setup, consider that some people may have problems with bright lighting, loud noise, strong odours.
– Toilets. Available and accessible toilets are appreciated by people with all sorts of problems. Wheelchair access is not the only toilet-access issue. Consider people with irritable or inflammatory bowel disorders, colostomies, bladder problems. Consider single-cubicle ungendered toilets. Consider changing facilities for people of all ages and any gender who use sanitary protection.
– Consider training and employing people with disabilities.
– If someone has good marks and good references, consider assuming good faith. Accept that someone’s account of their own experience is valid.
– Many people with less obvious invisible disabilities may not have identified themselves to the Disability Office, or may not have a diagnosis yet or at all. Considering these people in the course of your work may not be legally compulsory, but it’s a Good Thing.
– A student may not be lazy and rude if they nod off in a lecture; they may have a sleep disorder, CFS, or perhaps they’ve just been up all night with a sick kid.
– Some people with cognitive problems may find some aids very useful. These aids may be irritating when everyone uses them. If you’re banning equipment such as laptops from a classroom, consider that a student may be using the equipment for accessibility reasons. Consider a disabled student’s privacy when implementing and explaining the ban and its medical exceptions – not every student with an invisible disability wants all their peers to know about it.
– Consider hearing and auditory processing difficulties in your presentation. Present information in both oral and visual ways where possible.
– If someone needs accommodations that you can provide, don’t argue with them about their ability or interrogate them about their illness. Work with the Disability Office for simple or creative solutions. Sometimes the tiniest bits of assistance go a long way: for example, I appreciated it very much when a lecturer mailed a marked assignment back to me rather than me driving an hour round trip into the office to pick it up.