After winning my first gold medal at the 1972 Paralympic Games, I went out with the swim team for a celebratory dinner. I will never forget the paradoxical sight of my teammates – all world-class athletes – being carried in their wheelchairs up the few steps to an inaccessible restaurant. While it was far from a rare event at the time, it stood out for the stark contrast between that moment and our group win earlier that day.
As I fastened my braces and walked slowly up the stairs, I reflected on the irony of the situation. As Paralympic champions, we were an inspiration to millions of people. We broke stereotypes and changed perceptions of what people with disabilities could achieve. But while we were celebrated by society, we were not taken in by it.
Access to many basic goods and services required tremendous strength and dexterity. Attempts to fully participate in the physical world encountered hurdles and obstacles. At that point, it was clear that for the Paralympic movement, which aspired to promote the rights of the disabled through Paralympic sport, the work was not done. In fact, it had only just begun.
During the subsequent four Paralympic Games in which I participated, we began to see the gradual shift towards more accessible cities. The Paralympic movement played no small part in that progress. By putting a wide range of disabled people on TV around the world, the need for equal access from the shadows came into the limelight.
The Paralympic Games also demanded that host cities do better, leading to meaningful and lasting improvements to the accessibility of the infrastructure of cities. Today, while there is certainly still much room for improvement, people with disabilities have found solutions to most problems and are able to participate in society more than ever before.
But with the internet taking an increasingly central role in our daily lives, we’re seeing the same exclusionary practices we experienced—and fought—all those years ago in a new form. AN recent research rated the world’s top 1 million websites and found accessibility issues on the homepages of more than 97% of them.
A restaurant website that doesn’t support keyboard navigation or doesn’t work well with screen readers can prevent a person relying on these technologies from ordering food, just as a lack of wheelchair access can prevent him or her from entering the establishment.
As COVID-19 turns our daily routines upside down, the online shift has accelerated. More and more companies are going digital, with their website being the only way to schedule an appointment, run errands or apply for a job. This makes the need for accessible websites more important than ever. It is not a matter of minor inconvenience or inability to access a new technology or service. We see that basic daily needs are going online and becoming less and less accessible. It’s this backward shift that made me do it pronounce you and share my story.
When we go online to watch highlights of our favorite athletes’ achievements in Tokyo, take to social media to congratulate them, or visit our favorite sports site to read coverage of the events, let’s demand that these companies maintain their websites as making accessible that Paralympic champions can do the same.