Philip J Connolly
Rethink on Barriers
Of course there are barriers and they are in the main real and even hazardous. But! But have barriers been overthought? For decades the word barriers has had other language and understanding attached to it.
Firstly there is never one barrier but always barriers. Every discussion then generates a list of typically twenty or more barriers. A consequence of this is that everyone is assumed not just to have their own unique challenge but to have their own unique barrier/s too.
Secondly barriers are always perceived to be external to the disabled person; a barrier in the built environment is traceable to a barrier in the approach of the architect which is a product of their learning which is a consequence of the lack of oversight of the accrediting body for their training and so on. Where is the emphasis on the disabled person being able to mitigate a barrier/s. Where is the training in self-advocacy so they can get to the manager that says yes? Where is the emphasis on their ability to challenge the decision of a planning board? Might the only real barrier be attitude and the only barrier to that be the right to prosecute professional elites for a failure to exercise a duty of care to avoid an anticipated barrier?
Thirdly barriers always need to be removed. Do they? When the German army encountered the Maginot line in 1914 it was not thwarted. It went round the French line of fortifications by invading Belgium. When Apple optimised the accessibility of the iPhone it made a great many poorer choices redundant. Yes barriers can and should be removed but it is often possible to have the same effect by making a barrier technologically redundant or by circumventing or merely bypassing a bad decision.
Finally it is always suggested that the only role of disabled people is to support advocacy organisations to take up their complaint. Naturally this makes sense but there is often plenty of scope to empower them as architects, engineers or legislators or advocates i.e. people with the skills to resolve an impediment to participation.
Barriers can be daunting. Could we instead rethink barriers to make it easier to see ourselves as disabled people overcoming a barrier. There are over three million disabled people who have overcome barriers to the labour market though of course many may not have encountered a barrier/s. Asking how do we support disabled people themselves to pro-actively go round a barrier or make a barrier irrelevant, may make for a more useful starting point.
I am not arguing for any softening of existing laws especially on the requirement to make reasonable adjustments. I would even ask the counterfactual, "can we reduce the number of legal challenges by actually making it easier to make a legal challenge”? I would also like to know what is the market for reasonable adjustments and does (as I believe) regulation like the EU accessibility directive compel the market to produce goods of a higher standard which in turn requires workers with higher skills in businesses that pay them higher wages.
It has been this way in respect of the natural world and our response to its barriers. Rivers and oceans prevented considerable travel for millennia with the result that major cities and towns developed only where there are natural fords in the river. Boats then ships developed in response to the need to cross first rivers then oceans. The need for boat building and then ship building gave rise to new industries employing huge numbers of people both in their construction but also their dismantling in response to standards on seaworthiness, containerisation and health and safety. Sea travel mushroomed with the drive for international trade but it started when people stopped thinking of the sea as a barrier and saw instead the reasonable adjustment.
At www.disabilityresiliencenetwork.org you can complete and submit the form to join the network. When you join send us your account of how you dealt with a barrier or perceived barrier and what you and others gained from your success.