Accessibility is the practice of eliminating barriers so that all people can access opportunities, services, information, physical locations, and technologies. While accessibility should prioritize improving access for people with disabilities, it can also include eliminating language, socioeconomic, geographic, cultural, and other barriers to improve access for all people.
More than 1 in 4 adults live with a disability in the U.S. One in 5 adults experience a mental health condition each year, 48 million people have hearing loss, 7.7 million people have a visual disability, and 6.8 million people use mobility devices. Improving accessibility means eliminating barriers that routinely prevent these groups, and millions of others, from accessing what they need. Historically, inaccessibility has been baked into the fabric of our society through systems, spaces, technology, and culture designed by and for able-bodied people. Driven by ableism and its intersections with racism, sexism, and other forms of marginalization, inaccessibility by design permeates all aspects of life. All people are impacted by inaccessibility, but people with disabilities are most significantly impacted. Disabled people who are living in poverty, located in rural communities, LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous, and/or of color often struggle the most to thrive due to compounding marginalizations.
Thanks to centuries of self-advocacy and movement-building by the disabled community, accessibility has come a long way. Recently, COVID-19 magnified both the society-wide need for accessibility and the dire lack of accessibility for disabled people. While disabled and abled people alike celebrated the explosion of accessibility apps, contactless shopping, telehealth, and reduced flu seasons, many disabled people were left out of the advances. As public transportation faltered, waiting lines lengthened, services abruptly moved online, and medical facilities shut down entire programs to make space for COVID-19 patients, large parts of the world became less accessible for many people with disabilities. Disabled people who struggle with mobility, service access, healthcare continuity, internet access, verbal phone communication, and technological skills—especially those living in rural areas—are still struggling to recover from the upheaval.
Improving accessibility for all people means prioritizing accessibility for people with disabilities. It means ensuring disabled people have equitable access to opportunities, services, information, places, technologies, and everything else they need to thrive. Institutionalizing and operationalizing these practices throughout all leadership levels and all sectors will require organizations, allies, and systems to deeply center and follow the leadership of disabled people, especially disabled people of color and LGBTQ+ disabled people. Allies should start by recognizing that disability is a complex, deeply-personal experience, and that implementing genuine, lasting accessibility will require many diverse disabled voices in collaborative co-leadership. Community-led processes, self-representation, and centering the voices of people with disabilities—including invisible disabilities—are a few effective tactics communities can leverage to advance accessibility.