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Disability, Accessibility and Inclusive Environment definitions

This page is dedicated to important definitions of Disability, Accessibility and an Inclusive Environment.

Where does the term Disabled come from? What does Accessibility mean?

To understand accessibility, we first need to understand the term disabled and where that comes from so here is an explanation of where the term “disabled” comes from and why it’s different to “disabilities”.

There are two main models of disability and it is important to note that every disabled person is entitled to their own opinion on which model they prefer, which is why some prefer “disabled people” and others prefer “people with disabilities”.

The Medical Model of Disability, “people with disabilities”, is designed to put the person at the centre and describe a diagnosis, e.g. Bob is a person with a disability/condition, “they have MS”. Some disabled people prefer this as it puts the person first, but it is something that describes the person and how they are different. It is a so-called "deficit model" that labels the person and can be seen that the individual themselves is “faulty” in some way. Hence, it is not always liked by disabled people.

The Social Model of Disability, “disabled people”, which is the one that matches the University’s vision and seems to be the preferred model within the disabled community, is one that describes how people are disabled by X, e.g. society, stairs, heavy doors, lack of nearby toilets… This is where the term accessibility also comes in as it describes things that are accessible to people who may have otherwise been disabled by it.

For example, an accessible toilet is one that is larger than a “standard” toilet to incorporate space for wheelchair users and other features that help people who are disabled by “standard” toilets. This includes some people with hidden disabilities too, such as Chron's disease, as they may need features found in "accessible" toilets such as a toilet within reach of a sink, a flat surface to change a colostomy bag or even additional privacy. The consistent layout also can benefit visually impaired people, so it is not just wheelchair users who benefit from or use accessible toilets - remember, not every disability is visible. If all “standard” toilets, however, were large enough or had these features, then that disabled person would experience no additional disability compared to someone who would be able to use any toilet. Therefore, a larger and better-equipped toilet is not a “disabled toilet”, it is an “accessible toilet” as the toilet is accessible to those who are disabled by the others.

Disability (under the Social Model) is also nothing to do with someone’s own “ability”, which is why terms such as “less abled” are incorrect (and can be interpreted as ableist). Technically disabled students experience disability compared to their non-disabled peers, so the preferred term under the Social Model of Disability is “disabled students”.

For more information on the history and background of the two models, visit the dedicated pages from UK Disability History Month and watch the first 5 minutes of this video presentation by University of Warwick’s Sara Hattersley is for a course they teach with PGRs who teach at Warwick, accessed via a Warwick login.

What is an Inclusive Environment?

Everyone uses the built environment differently so creating an inclusive environment acknowledges and accommodates the diversity of user needs. Therefore, regardless of age, disability, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, culture or background, the environment facilitates “dignified, equal and intuitive use” by everyone.

An inclusive environment recognises that improved accessibility benefits everyone, including disabled people, older people, families with children, carers and those who do not consider themselves disabled. Recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, automatic doors and other measures that would traditionally be classed as accessibility features have been highlighted as especially beneficial as the need to touch door handles has been reduced, thereby reducing viral transmission.

Caretaker shovelling snow from stairs when if they shovelled snow from the ramp all the waiting kids, including a wheelchair user, would be able to get in.

Clearing a path for disabled people clears the path for everyone!

If a building was on one floor with no level changes, all toilets were larger with certain features and all doors were automated with sensors, everyone would access the building the same and no one would be disadvantaged or disabled by the environment as it would be truly inclusive. However, in reality, there are limitations on space which mean that this would not be practical. That is why accessibility features, such as lifts and larger toilets, exist to ensure that there are options to cater for the needs of everyone.

For more information on Inclusive Environments, check out resources from the Design Council, including their Inclusive Environments CPD.