Blog - Accessibility in public spaces

Christchurch City Council accessible entrance way to Civic OfficesI find it really encouraging to hear Christchurch’s mayor, Lianne Dalziel, mention that accessibility is one of the focuses of the current mayoral team, and will continue to be so if they are re elected later this year. Why I find it so encouraging is that people with access needs are all around us, and may be well be ourselves at some stage in our lives.

Why bother investing in public accessibility?

One in four people will have an access need at some point in their life, and by access I mean not only being physically mobile and able to get into a building, but also being able to see well enough to go to where you want to be, hear well enough to hear people talking, or cars coming, phones ringing, and to be able to understand the language of the place you are in, or follow a website and get the information required from it.

So, rather than solely thinking people with an obvious physical disability, think ageing population with increasing health needs, people with young children in buggies, increased numbers of tourists who speak a language other than English, and increased reliance on web based information, and you can start to understand why accessibility to our surroundings is so important.

Make a big difference for no more expense

The excitement about the engagement of the Christchurch City Council with accessibility is also an added bonus, because if we can get buildings and the environment designed right at the beginning, the cost to do so makes it no more expensive and, in fact, makes the building much more usable for everyone. This is where the term Universal Design is often used because it is just that – design for everyone. I extend my congratulations to our Council for taking action on this.

An organisation which has helped to move this ‘accessibility for all’ concept along in New Zealand is the social change organisation Be Accessible. Founded in 2009, Be Accessible used the platform of the 2011 Rugby World Cup as the opportunity to start to make NZ the most accessible country in the world. Since then they have worked in many areas from hotels to airports, shopping malls, zoos, tertiary institutes and now in Christchurch are involved in the plans for the new Central City library.

Helping facilitate and promote meaningful social change

As an assessor for Be Accessible I am lucky enough to be an accessibility ‘coach’. This means I go into these organisations and help to assess where they are at in terms of accessibility, rate the level they are at based on the Be Accessible framework and give recommendations for them to reach the next level. This rating helps expose the business to a potentially untapped market of people looking for accessible facilities; as with Conscious Consumers or our own Workplace Wellness ratings, not only are participants given exposure (in this instance on an ‘accessible New Zealand website), they can also display and promote the rating on their own organisation’s website.

How you can make a difference

Unless we have a personal reason to do so, accessibility isn’t necessarily something we think about naturally. While it’s heartening to know that so many organisations are starting to make this an important part of everyday life, there’s still a long way to go before it is commonplace. So what can you do?

To start with, simply thinking about these issues deliberately makes you realise how much we can take for granted unless we have any access issues ourselves.

Next time you’re out and about, have a look at how easy (or difficult, or even impossible) it would be if you were walking with a stick, in a wheelchair, or maybe had vision impairment to get into a building, through a door or to a table at a café. Can you identify things that could be easily done to improve that experience, or is it a business that already makes life easy and accessible for its customers?

There may be some simple remedies to problems that perhaps you could suggest. Even bringing the problem to the organisation’s attention may be a way to start an accessibility ball rolling. Hopefully if we have people on the ground actively working to improve accessibility, along with the powers that be (such as the city council) hopefully we’ll see an improvement in public accessibility that makes a real difference, really soon. Watch this public space!