If you’re being honest, odds are that your answer to the question above is “No.” That’s ok, but if so I invite you to think about what life was like at the height of the pandemic. The frustration of being stuck in your house. The disappointment of having to cancel travel plans, assuming you got to make them at all. The anxiety of wondering when (or even if) you’ll be able to visit your favourite store, restaurant or best friend again. And all of it taking a collective toll on your mental health. Remember that?
The height of the pandemic was, for me as a wheelchair user, a period during which I was more mentally healthy than I’d been in a long time. Nobody being able to go anywhere meant that I no longer had to feel badly about not being able to go to my favorite clothing store, where there’s no ramp to get in or accessible parking anywhere nearby. I no longer had to feel badly about missing out on that networking event at a restaurant that doesn’t have an accessible washroom. I no longer had to feel badly about not being able to take my daughter to hockey practice at the rink where the dressing room is down a set of stairs and there’s no elevator. I no longer had to think about accessibility at all, because society wasn’t accessible to anyone.
Now, as many Canadians put pandemic restrictions behind them, accessibility is once again at the forefront of my life. I am now back to the endless hours of figuring out whether that restaurant, store, hockey arena, hotel, airline (the list goes on) has the necessary features to allow me to participate. A lot of the time I have the mental strength to navigate these barriers. But I have to admit, a lot of the time I don’t. And at those times I surrender to the isolation of not participating—frustrated at being stuck at home, again, denied a fundamental right to participate simply because I use a wheelchair.
It’s also the case that more and more employers are calling their teams back to their physical offices. I definitely see the benefits of doing that: for me, too, it’s just more fun and fulfilling to be around colleagues, collaborating and working together in person, grabbing a coffee break and having a few laughs. But not all organizations are acknowledging how a lack of accessibility will impact those who need it, whether because of a temporary, permanent or situational disability.
After all, how often do you think about:
- Being able to open a door?
- Being able to get to the 10th floor for a meeting?
- Being able to use the washroom?
- Being able to take transit to get to the office?
- Being able to attend a networking event at a restaurant downtown?
- Being able to get into your office space or reach the outlet to plug in your computer?
- Being able to park your car (yes, we all think about that, but what if you knew there was only one spot you could park in)?
- Being able to evacuate a building in the event of an emergency?
As a wheelchair user, I think about these things all the time. Will there be an automatic door opener so I can get through it while using my hands to move my wheels. Will there be an elevator should I need to get to a higher floor? Will my wheelchair fit in the stall of a washroom? Will there be an outlet that isn’t under the desk so I can plug in my laptop or an office space that is wide enough for me to get in? If there’s an emergency, will I be able to get out alive if the elevator isn’t working? If I’m driving to the office, will there be an accessible parking spot so I don’t have to risk my life wheeling behind cars that may not see me? If I don’t have the car, will there be transit that I can use (ever try going down a set of stairs to a subway station in a wheelchair—and have you ever tried to find an accessible taxi)? The unknown of what I will face is a constant source of stress, and the mental health impacts from the daily reminders that this society was built in ways that forgot to include someone like me add up.
Providing an accommodation to people with disabilities simply to continue working from home isn’t enough. This only sends the message that our mental health is secondary and that our ability to participate in an office environment isn’t a priority.
Accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought. The spaces we design work better for everyone when we approach them with an accessibility mindset. The good news is that everyone can play a part in lessening these barriers. Here are just some of the ways:
- Support accessible locations: When planning a work function or social event, engage venues that recognize and accommodate accessibility. And don't just take their word: verify that the venue is ready, equipped and invested in meeting the needs of all your guests.
- Consider all scenarios: It's one thing for a workplace to have accessibility features, but what if emergency strikes? Does the evacuation plan consider people who may not be able to use stairs? Does it accommodate individuals requiring extra time, directions or support? If building occupants don't see themselves included in emergency response plans, they will not feel safe and welcomed.
- Be empathetic: If you don’t need that accessible parking spot, automatic door opener or accessible washroom, don’t use it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve come to an automatic door opener to find it was either broken or turned off because people who didn’t need to were using it. And I have definitely come up to accessible parking spots only to find someone idling in it as their friend was just “running in" to the store. I have also waited 10 minutes for a washroom stall even though there were many available, only because the accessible one was bigger and the person had to change their clothes.
- Be an ally: Remember the stories and the impact inaccessibility has on mental health and speak up in situations where accessibility must be considered but hasn’t been.
We can all do more to ensure we have an accessible and mentally healthy society. It starts by remembering that we’re all human beings, equally deserving of dignity, respect and full participation in our society. Most of us don’t get to choose our circumstances—but we can choose empathy for each other. It’s a simple thing: just remember how you felt during the height of the pandemic. Accessibility is more than just a ramp.
Learn more about how KPMG in Canada is championing inclusion, diversity and equity in the workplace here.
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