A Monash Clayton alumna, Alexandra Irwin-Liu, has created a digital platform to keep track of the accessibility of social venues around Melbourne. Called accessibly.com.au, the website will allow people with mobility issues and their friends and carers to view existing ratings and reviews of cafes, bars, and restaurants. The interactive map will also allow the user base to add venues, leave ratings, and review venues.
I was excited to get the opportunity to interview Alex for this article, and hear about her connection with Monash which lead her to roll out the initial release of accessibly.com.au on our Clayton campus, and about the importance of this project to her. As we are both invisibly disabled chronic pain sufferers who love the MSA and all its life-changing departments, we had a lot to talk about.
While Alex was studying at Monash, her encounters with the MSA autonomous departments helped her to accept her own chronic leg pain as an invisible disability. The social and networking power of the MSA provided that space where she could meet and share with others and create lasting friendships. She summarised her reasons for trialling the tech on our campus “It just made sense to informally roll out at Clayton [Monash campus] because that’s where I met most of the awesome disabled people I know, that’s where my friends are.”
One of the most important things about the initiative that Alex is creating, is the filling of a gap in disability tech – the social need. On this, she says “I think that it’s really important to recognise that resolving the issues of disability and ableism further is more than a health thing or a financial thing, it’s also a social thing.” Of course, in the traditional model of disability, there is an expectation that any resource we as disabled people get must go toward survival and medical costs, and there are times when this is a necessity, but the expectation of it becomes a kind of cultural classism which overlooks the social and holistic lifestyle needs we also have. “Not every [resource] has to go toward [disabled people’s] immediate survival. We’re allowed to enjoy life.”
The approach that Alex is taking compliments all of the existing not-for-profits and health-focussed tech initiatives in the disability field, while tackling ableism and disability issues in a newer way. This divergence from the status quo is so exciting because it takes nothing away from existing resources, only shining light and hope into the subject of our existence in public social spaces. “Social inclusion is such an important part of people’s wellbeing.” As Alex says, is a relatively new thing to acknowledge when talking about the disabled community.
Alex and I also spoke about the double sided coin that is invisible disability. Alex says “When people look at me, they wouldn’t think [that I have] a disability… it’s a kind of nice camouflage to have.” At the same time, though, she acknowledges that not only does the lack of perception of our disabilities cause barriers to accessing the support we sometimes need, but that “it kind of perpetuates the caricature, the stereotype[s] of disabled people.” That being perceived as abled takes away from our social ability to shift the idea that there is only one way to be disabled.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics identifies disability as one of the socially excluded groups facing particularly high rates of loneliness in Australia today. In addition, the ABS indicates that for those of us with mobility issues, overcoming social exclusion and loneliness is a significant hurdle. The types of social spaces pivotal to a rich life here in Melbourne, are particularly inaccessible to users of mobility aids, while being particularly crucial in participating in a healthy social life for most people.
“Just allowing people with disabilities to exist in more [visible] ways, has so many broader implications, and there are so many different ways to do that.” Not only for us as disabled people and our quality of life, but also in that seeing us ‘be normal’ and even just casually making friends with us in public spaces is an opportunity to overcome stigma and the discomfort that abled people often feel around us, especially those of us with visibly disabled bodies. The social model accepts that it takes time to overcome that idea of ‘don’t look at that person because it’s rude to stare’ which causes us to become invisible – there’s a difference between staring and making the same kind of normal eye contact you would with any other stranger, but how do we retrain ourselves? “The social model of disability isn’t that prevalent outside of people who already have that exposure [to disabled friends and disability activism], and we need that opportunity to educate people about what having a disability really means because it is so much more [varied and complex] than people tend to think it is.”
Accessibly.com.au is set to roll out Clayton Campus trial during semester one, and Melbourne wide by the end of winter. Give it a peek, and contribute if you or one of your mates are affected by accessibility issues!
If you want more info on these sorts of issues, or how best to ask your disabled friends about their experiences, feel free to contact the Disability and Carers department. Our lounge is located on the corner of Level 1 Campus Centre across from student advocacy and support. It is wheelchair accessible, and full of fun craft supplies.
Alexandra Irwin-Liu’s Accessibly project can be followed on FB, insta, twitter and linkedin at AccessiblyAU
If you yourself deal with chronic illness, mobility or sensory issues, neurodivergence, or are a carer for someone who does, you can join the MSA Disabilities and Carers Department secret group on facebook via the facebook page MSA Disabilities and Carers, or by messaging me a Disabilities Officer: Lena Kozlowski on facebook.