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It’s Time to Rethink the Language of Accessibility. And to Imagine a More Equal World

21 May 2020

Ndopu is an Advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals appointed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. He is also the Founder and CEO of Beyond Zero Ventures.

Accessibility is a slippery, deceptive word that belies its own emancipatory meaning.

Let’s demonstrate this through a simple thought experiment.

Imagine being a wheelchair-user. You are a twenty-something professional who fearlessly navigates the world, determined in your resolve to live a barrier-free life. You just want to get on with it. All that stands between you and the uninhibited life you crave is the seemingly impermeable reality of the inaccessible built environment you encounter on a daily basis. You use your lived experience to compel the world to do better. You advocate for accessibility wherever, whenever exclusion rears its unwelcome head. The law meets you halfway by mandating businesses, hospitals, and schools to make their establishments accessible to you. Consequently, ramps are installed. And, voila! Accessibility has been achieved in the eyes of society. Your friends, family and colleagues are thrilled for you because, thanks to the ramp, you are now able to get on with it and live the unencumbered life you deserve. But you don’t feel triumphant. There is something about equating the installation of a ramp with the attainment of accessibility that feels like a technical truth steeped in a material lie, hollow and partial.

This is the complicated relationship we as disabled people have with accessibility.

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