Community engagement with people with disability


This week, I’ve been reflecting on the responses I’ve received to my recent blog post about Mary Ann Hiserman, my friend in Berkeley who was a wheelchair user and activist for people with disability. I’ve been thinking about the actual experience of being “locked out” of an environment. And comparing it to being “locked out” of community engagement processes. And the whole issue of community engagement with people with disability.


Mary Ann had a challenging life but I am confident that she would not have considered herself “disabled”. I believe that was largely because of her courage but also partly because of the culture of Berkeley and northern California in the 1970s. With its mild climate, California has always been an attractive place to live for people with mobility impairments. It’s much easier, year-round, managing in a wheelchair, with a cane or walker than it is in the snow of the Midwest or the eastern United States.


Separate is not equal


As our communities age and more of us live longer and with disability, we will finally have to accept what Mary Ann taught me in the seventies: separate is not equal. As with accessibility, so with engagement.


Two principles can guide our engagement policies, planning and design.




The first principle is mainstreaming. This means that if I am travelling anywhere with Mary Ann, I do not continue through the front entrance while she has to go via the freight elevator or a back entrance.


A shocking example of the lack of mainstreaming is prize-winning, Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry’s much-lauded Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.




Getting into the Guggenheim


As you approach the building, set in a sparking sea of light-coloured treeless plaza (very hard for older eyes to adapt to this high level of glare), you face a daunting array of steps down to the building’s lower-level “front door”.


Entry stairs, Bilbao, 2007



And an equal number to the building’s lower level riverside walk.



Stairs to riverside plaza, Bilbao, 2007


If you cannot manage steps, a hard-to-find interior elevator awaits you. But you have to ask where it is. It’s clearly the “second-best” entrance.


Not for all people


When I questioned the Museum staff about this separation, one said, “Take it up with Mr Gehry.”


I replied that in my country and Mr Gehry’s, this sort of approach would be illegal, given federal government accessibility policies and regulations. The Spanish museum guide had nothing more to say.


I believe it’s a serious problem, socially and from equity perspective, however, as it makes the person who cannot navigate the steps “less than” an able-bodied person.


I was thrilled to read that Ethan Kent of People for Public Spaces (PPS) calls it the “Hall of Shame”:


Continuous Accessibility


The second principle is continuous accessibility. This means that a person with mobility impairment (or any disability, for that matter) should be able to enter, use and exit a place or a facility with minimum amount of inconvenience. To get around with ease and without confusion. It’s all very well to be able to go to a so-called “accessible” restaurant, but if the restrooms or the bar are inaccessible it hardy makes for a good night out.


Community engagement and disability


Over the years, I’ve found that our engagement processes often ignore the needs of people with disability. Yet we forget that a high proportion of the population has a disability at any given time – even if it is a broken foot or temporary vision impairment. Making processes – and the places where they occur – accessible to as wide a group as possible is an important equity consideration in any engagement exercise. It’s also a way of demonstrating commitment to listening to everyone’s voices.


There are no hard and fast rules and many people prefer one-to-one discussions. We need to seek context-specific advice from advocacy groups.


It is critical that, in approaching the issue of how to make engagement processes accessible to people with disability, we do not imagine that all people with disability are those with visible disabilities (such as wheelchair users). Understanding the complexity of disability, in the first place, can help us as practitioners to be less blind to “invisible” disability and therefore target our engagement processes more effectively.


Short summary of engagement suggestions


The suggestions in this short summary may be of help to you. Click here: Community Engagement People with Disability


Comments welcome!


When you get right down to it, barriers are barriers, however they appear. I’d welcome comments from those more expert than I am so that we can improve all our engagement processes for all people.


  1. Wolfgang Haufe
    Posted December 1, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    You talk about the difficulty with accessability at the Guggenheim.
    As I am going to Bilbao next year (I’m using a wheelchair) can you possibly give me a useful website about places to stay and places where I can go.
    Thank you!
    Cheers, Wolf

  2. Posted March 11, 2010 at 9:23 pm |

    Dear Wolf, I am sorry that I missed your comment amid so much spam. Many apologies. I am very sorry that I do not know the answer to your question. I just took a bus there for half a day.
    Hope you have a good visit and love to hear YOUR comments. Wendy