Rolling up a ramp built at the right incline paves the way for many new experiences, but social inclusion and accessibility don’t end there.

Showing at Canberra Contemporary Art Space in early 2015, Print by Numbers was an exhibition of 16 life-size portraits of people of different genders, races, abilities, ages and body types. The distorted images challenged gallerygoers to think about how and why we perceive people in different ways.

The creator of the exhibition was Daniel Savage, artist and volunteer for Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA). His thought-provoking, artistic critiques on society’s attitudes are not only reflected in his artwork but also in his artwork’s accessibility. Physical access, braille, large print, audio descriptions, touch tours and sign interpretations were integrated into the exhibition so anyone could come along and enjoy the installations without
worrying about making prior arrangements before they showed up.

Having parallels with Daniel’s work, Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Week (8 to 15 November) will challenge the way Australians think about what social inclusion and accessibility mean for people with disability with its ‘Think I can’t; Think again’ campaign.

About 12,000 people in Australia have a spinal cord injury and they don’t want other people’s perceptions stopping them from having choice and control over their lives. “Regardless of where people are going, they should be able to turn up without making special arrangements beforehand,” Daniel says. “At my local theatre they have to pull out five seats for me to attend. Why does it have to be a big deal to go out?”

The ‘special treatment’ doesn’t stop with physical access. “In shops and bars the salesperson talks to the person I’m with, rather than to me,” says Heidz Hayden, Education Officer, SCIA. “I look different—maybe that’s challenging for some people, but I don’t judge.”

Heidz says creating more inclusiveness shouldn’t be hard. Take travel, for example. “I have rung and double-checked to get an accessible hotel room. But then they change it to a non-accessible one at the last minute without telling me. What do they think is going to happen? That somehow it won’t make a difference. It doesn’t cost much to put a system in place to ensure this doesn’t occur.”

The same applies to the humble weekend outing. “It should never have been a problem for us to get on the ice rink at Cool Yule in Darling Harbour in Sydney,” Heidz says. “First the organisers couldn’t find a ramp for us to get on the ice, but when they did we had to get on there on our own without other ice skaters—we felt like the ‘special people’ who got to play. The organisers said it was too dangerous for people to be in chairs on the ice at the same time as the skaters. But then they changed their minds and let everyone on together.”

Even without chairs, ice skating can be dangerous, so why the big deal about the chairs? And, Heidz says, it only costs about $100 for a portable ramp, which can be kept on hand anywhere.

Daniel wants to see more thought put into implementing universal access rather than talking about inclusion. “If the focus is on universal access it switches the [power] back to the people with disability,” he says. “That’s because they don’t have to call some authority to ask special permission to make special arrangements before wanting to go somewhere—they just show up when they want to.”

He also wants to do away with the “day for disability” that some establishments hold: “It’s very frustrating being told you can access something only on a specific day or in a specific way and it just reinforces the negative view of people with disabilities as being this ‘other’, separate group.”

Other people also need to think about how they approach someone with a disability when they’re out. “I don’t need people to get excited when they see me out at night,” Daniel says. “The expectations are so low—‘Look, how special, he’s at the pub.’ “I get that it’s a lack of understanding and I tend to keep calm when I respond. It’s my friends who get more frustrated by those types of comments … but, in any case, it’s not my responsibility to be nice and explain my situation every time.”

That said, Daniel is not backward in coming forward when he’s out, pointing out things that need changing in establishments, such as bathrooms and access. “If you have an accessible entrance for people with disability, make sure it’s not blocked with boxes and rubbish,” he says. “Better still, have an entrance that everyone comes through together.”

Nevertheless, under the Disability Discrimination Act, access doesn’t have to be provided if it causes
unjustifiable hardship. Daniel says it’s understandable that older buildings may be too difficult to redesign. But he thinks people and organisations that use this ‘loophole’ are under a misapprehension. By refusing to make changes it’s not just the person with the disability who misses out. There’s an economic benefit to making things more accessible, as a more diverse crowd of people is able to come and spend money, he adds.

If worst comes to worst, Daniel makes his feelings known by taking his work and services elsewhere. “I won’t show my [art] work in galleries that aren’t universally accessible,” he says.

Heidz says when she rolls up a ramp to a shop or other establishment and then can’t get in the door or through the place, she feels like yelling out, “Do you want my money or don’t you?”

A frequent nightclub-goer, she says some clubs are old, unrenovated and frequently at the top of stairs. “If I have to get carried up a flight of stairs, well, so be it,” she says. “Until they make changes, why should I and others miss out? “[We] just want to go out like everyone else and not make a big thing about it, but most people don’t get it,” she says. “However, I don’t let that stop me doing my bit to advocate for change. I’m the same as everyone else, I’m just sitting down.”

This story was written by Helen Borger and first published in the spring 2015 edition of Accord, a Spinal Cord Injuries Australia magazine.

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