Disability Access: In It for the Long Haul

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In May 2021, Thinkwell and RUH Global began a series on Accessibility for all. Part one is available to read here.

2021 has hardly been a level pathway. Taking two steps forward with the rollout of vaccines and with them the resumption of many social activities, and one step backward with the arrival of the contagious Delta variant and continued vaccine hesitancy, the world has nevertheless been slowly stumbling forward into its new normal… even if it’s a normal marked by continual uncertainties.

Over the past year and a half, we’ve already witnessed just how adaptive people can be in the face of extreme uncertainty, creating all-new modalities of working and playing within months if not weeks. Many of the changes we saw during COVID were modifications and accommodations that had been previously dismissed as too hard, unwieldy, or expensive when asked for in the context of a disability, yet as soon as they became issues impacting the majority, they were implemented.

As more forms of work and leisure return to familiar in-person social settings, many people recognize that we’re currently presented with a generational opportunity to evolve those physical settings in order to address long-standing inequities. However, that requires a great deal of intentionality to avoid not only sliding back into a pre-COVID status quo of exclusion and inequity but also to push the envelope of disability access even further. As we noted previously, the ADA is a bare legal minimum, not a gold standard for equitable and just experiences. This will be especially pertinent as our understanding of both disability and public safety evolves in the wake of COVID-19.

There are many ways in which the game has changed. Working or learning from home via telecommuting—once oft dismissed by employers or educators as impractical, unproductive, or too expensive—suddenly became required of everyone. While digital access is a huge equity issue that the pandemic exacerbated, this shift to digital came with benefits for some. Many people got to experience a newfound sense of belonging among their peers, whether it removed the burden of having to navigate an old office or school environment; being able to hide a visible disability from those who might otherwise underestimate them; being able to use advances in live captioning technology in video meetings, or simply opening opportunities for them to socialize with others as equals around the new “virtual” forms of watercoolers or student lounges. Even within the public realm, touchless, voice-command, gesture-based, and automated technologies such as buttons and doors designed for hands-free contact opened new opportunities for people with many different kinds of disabilities beyond simply reducing the risk of contagion.

Leisure spaces present their own unique challenges for accessibility. While not as vital to people’s daily lives as the places where they live, learn, or work, making these spaces fully accessible and equitable can have profound impacts on mental health and one’s sense of belonging within society at large. Theme parks or cultural attractions are already places designed to inspire strong emotions in guests, so catering to different levels of emotional comfort should not be overlooked in addition to guests’ physical comfort. Attractions that segregate guests based on ability, even if an equivalent option is offered elsewhere, can still trigger a sense of exclusion and alienation. This is a big reason why attractions should always make the effort to integrate universal design from early in the design process.

Still, inclusivity of physical needs should always be considered the bare minimum when designing for location-based attractions. COVID laid bare the fact that we can’t always predict what will be required to make our leisure spaces safe and inclusive for everyone. Just as in schools and workplaces when they were permitted to reopen, attraction operators showed a tremendous ability to spontaneously transform their experiences to accommodate new protocols… an ability that should not go to waste when considering what safety and inclusivity look like for the future. Designing with intentionality for flexible accommodations, whether it’s in response to a hypothetical future health epidemic or a new understanding of best practices around existing disability rights, is always the goal in a world full of uncertainties.

Even the current pandemic is far from settled, nor are its effects going away anytime soon. While there have been challenges in developing and running rigorous research programs quickly and inclusively, early data and studies have shown the impacts of what’s known as “long-haul COVID,” where symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, or mental fog persist for months or potentially even years after initially contracting the disease. The full scope of how many people are affected and just how long these conditions may last is still not fully known, but we know that the mental health impacts around the promise of enjoying life again, and the fear and anxiety of ‘not being able’ to go to the places and spaces we’ve loved, are profound.

It’s important that people struggling to return to a sense of normalcy, whether from long-haul COVID or another issue, know that their favorite museums or theme parks are able to accommodate their new and changing needs, such as providing ample seating, offering quiet spaces, or other means to quickly and easily step away from sensory overloads or distributing first aid throughout the attraction so they don’t have to walk far to a central location. It’s relatively easy to see how little accommodation and access has been designed into both leisure and workplace spaces and practices. As we look at the looming crisis of not just long-haul COVID but also long-term health impacts on those who have recovered, it’s clear that this could serve as an inflection point for radical change in how disability accommodation is considered, designed for, and operationalized. Whether it’s policy changes around sick time and job sharing, inclusive uniform or costume design, design standards for deaf inclusion in shows and spectaculars to remove the burden from the guest to ask for it weeks in advance, or a wholesale change to master planning standards to increase facilities, change is long overdue at every level. This isn’t just a themed experience problem: every industry should be taking a long, hard look at how they can improve. 

But location-based entertainment prides itself on making incredible experiences, memories that last a lifetime. The flip side of that is that there’s the potential for memories that haunt and hurt – when friends get to go on the ride but the powerchair user can’t when the museum is just too exhausting but there’s nowhere to sit when needing to go to the bathroom means having to backtrack across two lands to find the one restroom that can accommodate. One bad experience is enough to turn a guest off of an experience forever. As an industry, the COVID recovery reflects a unique opportunity to live up to our promise for every one of our guests and employees.