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Accessibility Shouldn’t Stop at the Door

July 17, 2014

Lindsay Lee, a YIDA intern with brown hair wearing a black suit By Lindsay Lee

Lindsay Lee is one of eight participants in the 2014 Youth in International Development and Affairs (YIDA) internship program.  She and other YIDA interns will be writing a series of blog posts about their experiences with the YIDA program this summer, to be posted at this blog.  USICD coordinates the YIDA internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area. Lindsay Lee is completing her YIDA internship at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).  Learn more about the YIDA internship program at http://usicd.org/template/page.cfm?id=257. Read Lindsay Lee’s biography, and the biography of other YIDA interns in the summer 2014 program, at http://usicd.org/template/page.cfm?id=269. The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD.

Working at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems this summer, I have learned about the many different ways elections can be accessible—and inaccessible—to people with disabilities. There are countless things that election management bodies and governments can do to facilitate the participation of people with disabilities in the electoral process, but in far too many places they just don’t.  Often exclusion happens because individuals in charge of elections are unaware of the issues or unaware of the possible solutions.

Being a wheelchair user, I’m well aware of the ignorance out there when it comes to the problems people with disabilities face daily. But much like how, when first reading through different countries’ election laws, I expected the more developed countries to have the most progressive laws, I expected an urban center like DC to have made the most progress when it comes to access of public spaces. I expected developed countries and our very developed, urban capital to be the most aware of disability issues. Turns out I was wrong in both cases.

As a general rule, DC is very accessible to a wheelchair user, and there is a disproportionate amount of accessibility information available online compared to other parts of the US. But too often when businesses claim to be “accessible,” what they really mean is, “It is physically possible for you to enter our doorway,” nothing more. They don’t think about, for instance, all the tables being bar-height or the bathroom being too small. When a wheelchair user rolls up, they don’t think about who at any given moment has the key to the only accessible entrance in the back.

Just like it’s not enough for a polling agent to be legally obligated to help a voters with disabilities put their ballot in the box on Election Day, it’s not enough to only be able to get my wheels in the door. “Accessibility” really means one is able to experience all the same products and services in a dignified, equitable way. It doesn’t mean, “You can get here, but after that, you’re on your own.” Every nation and every city on Earth still has this lesson to learn.

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