When accommodations become cultural norm

What your chair, phone and toothbrush have in common.

Mathew Carnaby | June 2023

Most of us have height-adjustable chairs in our office because we’re all a bit different. You scale your phone display to show text and images at a size that feels just right, and don’t think twice about it. Your electric toothbrush was designed for people with motor skill issues, but you seem to enjoy using it too.

Do you think of yourself or others as disabled for wearing glasses? The response is typically ‘no’. Maybe you’ve always needed them; maybe it’s a symptom of aging. But glasses are another device that are actually a disability aid.

Australia’s definition for having a disability is “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments, which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”1

“Various barriers” is a key point here. It’s not a person’s disability that prevents them from fully participating in society, but rather the lack of accommodation for them to do so. For example, you could access a multi-storey building while in a wheelchair, providing there are ramps, elevators, and pathways wide enough.

Maybe without glasses you can’t make out someone’s face right in front of you. The act of wearing glasses or contacts is providing an accommodation for a less-than-ideal natural ability, but has become so culturally accepted that it’s excluded from the concept of being disabled. If wearing glasses can remedy your situation, you are no longer deemed disabled in terms of any government support.2

In some ways, disabilities are like allergies. We didn’t choose our allergies, but they affect our abilities and we learn what to expect of ourselves. It might be temporary or seasonal, it might be obvious when we’re suffering (or maybe it’s hidden), and we might only know we need something when an issue arises. And it can be the same for everyone.

When troubled by allergies, there’s no stigma around asking for or having antihistamines. We need to get to the same accepted cultural experience when asking for other accommodations – just like wearing your glasses, adjusting your chair, or scaling your screen.

Universal design makes content and experiences available to more people without knowing their individual needs. It also means people are more likely to engage with you, your product or service because your venue and materials are accessible to them. Universal design also allows people to digest content to suit their abilities and preferences, such as listening to audio rather than reading or vice versa.

There will be a point where these accommodations become the cultural norm and go without question, rather than being considered unusual and only for select people. Increased acceptance and engagement make it commonplace. And often, these adjustments turn out to be a bonus for everyone – like your electric toothbrush.


1. Australian Network on Disability. (n.d.). What is disability? https://and.org.au/ resources/disability-statistics/what-isdisability

2. Australian Public Service Commission. (2019, September 9). Definition of disability. https://www.apsc.gov.au/ working-aps/diversity-and-inclusion/ disability/definition-disability

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