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Accessibility: a positive/negative freedom approach

7 mins read

Disabled people are often talking about the need for accessibility, whether that be in education, in work, while they are travelling, or something else. And it’s true that we all want the same thing.

But how we achieve accessibility for everyone is a much more complex matter. Here, I suggest that accessibility isn’t a binary measure, but is defined by a positive/negative concept of freedom.

A little bit about the concept. All of us hold views on freedom which are different to each other, either substantially or slightly. For example, those who advocate for the freedom from something are negative freedom thinkers.

Whereas those who advocate for freedoms to do something, or to be able to do something, are positive freedom thinkers. Accessibility ties into freedom in this way, because whether or not we have the freedom to access something is dependent on social attitudes and policy.

A negative approach to accessibility is related to negative freedom in the following ways:

  • Not wanting to invest in wheelchair ramps, because to do so would not be profitable .
  • Not wanting to invest in additional accessibility measures, because it would be time consuming, or wouldn’t personally benefit you.
  • Cutting funding towards disability groups or charities.
  • Spending extortionate sums of money on taking disabled people off of benefits.
  • Believing that accessibility measures, such as casting autistic actors as autistic characters is cruel and wrong.
  • Refusing to remove barriers to education which would substantially increase engagement.

Every one of these points has one thing in common. They’re based on how people view their personal freedoms. Being worried more about making a profit from something is a negative freedom, especially if it comes from a position of privilege or power.

The reality is that focusing on short term costs to your economic freedoms such as wanting a profit, will always carry a negative outlook, especially when translated into policy. Accessibility measures cannot happen without the funding to do so.

anonymous person pressing button of lift
A lift provides accessibility to disabled people in many different settings. Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

But it’s not all doom and gloom either. There are positive approaches to accessibility which is related to the concept of positive freedom – the freedom to have or do something.

Here are some examples.

  • Investing into wheelchair ramps because to do so would allow wheelchair users the freedom to contribute to society.
  • Taking a long term approach to accessibility rather than short term.
  • Increasing funding to disability groups and charities.
  • Investment into our education, which in turn, increases a qualified workforce.
  • Removing monetary costs to Disabled Student Allowance in order to access a laptop for study.
  • Casting autistic actors as autistic characters for the benefit of representation.

These ideas are all attainable short term, because when you invest, you remove societal barriers. Long term, this is good and healthy for all of us. Once you substantially impact people in positive ways through investment, over time, the amount of investment needed will be less.

Eradicating poverty is certainly possible in theory. Once we completely reduce food poverty for instance, we no longer need to invest as much into that field. Instead, we now have the freedom to do more. For example, reducing austerity measures long term will allow us to actually repay our national debt.

And making things accessible and inclusive for everyone will benefit long term, when engagement increases, and in turn, increasing attainment, and decreasing monetary costs which are necessary now.

man in gray shirt walking on pathway
Funding bus services increases accessibility for disabled people to access public transport. Photo by Ben Herbert on Pexels.com

The concept of negative and positive freedom isn’t binary. Each one of us will have a degree of both, varying by individual.

But we have to be careful as well. I argue that we need both freedoms to contribute to society.

For instance, too much negative freedom, and you get people like anti-maskers and anti-lockdown protesters who feel the government is interfering with them. And in the most extreme sense, positive freedom is sincerely needed to prevent dictatorships.

However, too much positive freedom can also be problematic. For instance, we are not free from the threat of climate change. Those people who contribute to environmental pollution and carbon dioxide emissions may feel that their freedoms are necessary simply for their own convenience. So we need negative freedom in order to be aware of climate change and environmental concerns.

But structurally, too much ableism can inhibit the positive freedoms of disabled people.

The majority of disabled people wish for the freedom to contribute to society through more accessible measures, while those who are in a position of privilege and power may want to be free from the economic cost of being in such a position, by (for instance) cutting funding which directly impacts disabled people.

But really, what those in power do short term, may actually make things harder long term. They have the power to increase funding now, to directly impact now, so that in the future, the cost of doing so decreases.

I argue that once we start to view accessibility in this way, we can change society’s attitudes towards disabled people, and in turn, increase their freedoms and opportunities.

Feature image credit: Pexels

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