Recently I completed an interview on accessible places in Auckland for Stuff, which led me to reflect on the messaging around access needs and the normalisation of poor access encouraged in our society.
When asked what places in Auckland had good accessibility, I found this difficult to answer. Firstly I thought, what does good accessibility look like and then how do I explain the complexity and nuances involved?
So often, I see one size fits all solutions being implemented in many contexts. While in some situations, these may make a difference for some, they may not. This approach also promotes a societal perception of a singular solution and singular experience of disability and access needs.
Suppose I relate this to my disabilities, which are blindness and hearing impairment. With both of these, there is often a societal perception of have or have not. You are blind or are not, which again promotes a singular problem and solution.
As an example, if I am working with my Guide Dog Sienna, the majority of the time I am in the community, people will either assume I have no vision or am fully sighted and am training her. I was standing outside the Art Gallery in Auckland yesterday talking with someone and I was approached by one tourist and their friend who wanted to photograph my Guide Dog. They asked me if I was training Sienna, and I replied, as I usually do, “no, she is my guide dog”. The tourist promptly said, “but you don’t look blind”.
My initial thought was to answer, “what does a blind person look like”? But in my experience, sarcasm isn’t a good educational tool. So I let them take a photo and explained that many forms of blindness manifest differently and individuals’ experience of these is also unique instead of focussing on “the look” of someone who is blind.
With this in mind, in the interview, I expressed the role that people play in making a place “accessible” and that making a place accessible is multifaceted and doesn’t always relate to physical access needs alone.
My experience of the UK and some of Europe in 2019 was that access needs were more normalised and a part of everyday life at most tourist attractions. While in many cities, the physical access needs were less developed than in some of NZ, it was the forethought, staff attitude and availability of things like audio description, touch tours longer timeframes for those with access needs that made a big difference. In the place I went, there was more of a willingness to individualise experiences, for example, asking “how can I best help”, “would you kike some assistance”, “here is what we offer” and so on. In the UK, on multiple occasions, I was offered a large print menu automatically.
In NZ, people will make assumptions I can not read a menu. They may be right in some situations, while in others, I can read a menu. There are so many contextual influencing factors like the size of the print, the contrast and layout of the menu, how visually fatigued I am and the environment’s lighting. Many times I will walk up to the counter in a cafe and ask what flavours of drink they have, only to have the person behind the counter say they are written over there, point at a board on the wall that I can not see and their body language or demeanour will show that answering that question is an inconvenience.
Often my answer is would you mind telling me as I can’t read them, or pulling my phone out and taking a photo of where they are pointing to zoom in and try to read this. Often the time taken in doing this is considered a further inconvenience by some staff, exacerbating their original issue and negative perception of disability.
There are multifaceted solutions here that include addressing physical access needs and ensuring an inclusive and positive environment. Another example, just yesterday, before my interview, was entering a cafe for a drink. I asked about flavours and then asked if the counter staff could point me in the direction of a free table as the cafe was very busy, all the tables I had seen on my way past weee full and there were a lot of moving people. First I got “over there” without hand gestures, so I assumed they were using their eyes to indicate this. I said excuse me, what direction is that and she answered, “outside”
One solution I particularly liked overseas was restaurants and bars that have a table number in large print and Braille with an app to order. As a blind person navigating crowds to a counter to order is challenging, I gravitated to this option when available as the menus etc., were already accessible.
Those who know me well will know I like good local coffee but dislike Starbucks for many reasons. However, despite what I consider to be better coffee elsewhere, I find myself ordering from Starbucks at times because they have app-based ordering and payment options.
In response to the need for social change, I developed a website celebrating good access experiences in NZ (http://www.shoutoutforaccess.com). However, as a time-poor academic, I am struggling to keep the momentum of this social change initiative and the financial commitments of the domain name and hosting charges. If anyone would like to assist with maintenance or sponsor this site so that user logins and self-posting could be added, please reach out.
Back to the overall theme of accessible tourism in Auckland. The question that keeps springing to mind is, “who’s responsibility is poor accessibility in society?” my answer to this would be everyone, with education leading to social change is the key component.