I seem to be a day late for Blogging Against Dis/ablism Day, but since I don’t think that ablism has magically vanished since yesterday, this essay still applies. It was originally written for an acquaintance’s zine, so I didn’t want to publish it until she did; however it looks like she decided not to use it anyway (at the last minute, since she told me a week ago that it was going in). Oh, well – I retain rights, anyway, and had always been planning to put it up here. I’ve taken the chance to brush it up a bit, too.


Back in the 1990s, when NASA was building the first modules of the Space Station, they learned an interesting thing. They had a goal to design the outside of the Station in such a way that all maintenance tasks could be performed by the Station’s robot arm. The interesting thing they learned was that tasks designed to be easier for the robot arm were also easier for astronauts in space suits to perform.

Accessible design is a lot like that. To be sure, specific accommodations are needed for specific disabilities; the design changes needed for a person with hearing loss are not the same as those needed for someone in a wheelchair or for someone with generalized anxiety disorder. Anyone who has a disability will need to plan spaces to suit their own needs, in order to maximize their abilities. Nonetheless, incorporating some generalized accessible design principles into living and working spaces is good for everyone.

There are a lot of reasons for this. For one, spaces are not only used by the people they’re designed for. If you can’t invite your new friend to the party you’re having because your friend is in a wheelchair and there are steps to get into your house and to get to the bathroom, then you and your friend both lose. Second, not all disabilities are known at the time of design. Some are temporary, and some come on with age or illness; if you bought that house with the stairs because you’re in good shape and you don’t mind going up and down them, and you don’t put in a sturdy railing because you don’t need it, you are going to regret that decision when you break your leg and need to wear a cast, or when you get an inner-ear infection that gives you vertigo. Thirdly, many accessible design ideas are helpful even for people with no disabilities, or with none that normally affect the task at hand, just due to situations that come up in daily life.

One example is electrical switches. Rocker switches, or sliders instead of rotary knobs with dimmers are good for people whose fingers don’t work well for precise gripping – but they’re also helpful for people with their arms full of groceries, or who are carrying a baby, or even people who have just gone on their first rock-climbing outing and find their fingers are not too responsive. Mounting switches a bit lower than normal also makes them easy to operate with a shoulder or elbow – or for your friend in the wheelchair.

Lever-style faucets and shower controls that can just be pushed into place are great for people without much finger strength or dexterity. That could be you, if you stay in your present house until you’re much older – or if you go on that rock-climbing outing.

Sidewalk ramps help people on bicycles, people towing shopping carts, and people who for whatever reason can’t easily lift a foot higher as well as people in wheelchairs or using crutches.

People with hearing loss may have a house where the doorbell is wired to make lights flash on and off, and may watch TV or movies with subtitles. But “people who can’t hear the doorbell” also includes someone who is listening to loud music or washing dishes. People who can benefit from subtitles also include someone who is talking on the phone or someone who is learning a new language.

Room to move around, surfaces or handles to lean on, controls reachable by people at a variety of heights; controls that can be worked in different ways (e.g. by a shoulder or elbow, not only by a pincer grip); and signals that engage more than one sense, can help a wide variety of people to live better lives, in a wide variety of situations, and can help prepare for changes that happen over time.

People vary, and they change over time. Don’t assume everyone using a space will be able-bodied; don’t assume people who are able-bodied will stay that way, don’t assume that all individuals with disabilities will need the same accommodations,and don’t put in accommodations without thinking about how they’ll be used, or you’ll end up with something that’s more annoying than helpful. However, a little thought can make a space more usable for a wide variety of people, and one of those could be yourself, on any day when for whatever reason you can’t use all of your body freely.