Last week was National AccessAbility Week, during which we not only celebrated the contributions of Canadians with disabilities but also recognized the efforts of individuals, communities and workplaces that are actively working to remove barriers to accessibility and inclusion. While it's mostly a week to recognize the challenges an inaccessible environment puts on people with disabilities, it's also more than that: we all benefit from a society and an economy that is inclusive and accessible to everyone.
I've had MS for almost as long as I've been with KPMG, but my mobility only started to become a challenge in the last 7-8 years. That's when I began to realize how inaccessible our society can be. From sidewalks just ending randomly to accessible buttons placed at doors with two-inch lips to facilities that don't have accessible washrooms or only have stairs to their doors, the challenges are everywhere. Some days I have all the energy and mental capacity I need to tackle these barriers, but I can't deny there are also plenty of days when it's just easier to stay home and deal with the isolation instead. It's on those days that I feel the most disabled, like I'm not part of society or that I don't matter.
While the past year and a half forced us all to grapple with new and difficult situations, it also presented the opportunity to prove that a commitment to inclusion can make a company stronger and more adaptive to change. At KPMG, collaboration with our "people networks" made it possible to be there for our employees, our clients and our communities during a deeply difficult time and demonstrated that we are better, together.
One of the networks that emerged during the pandemic was the Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC), of which I am the Chair and which consists of KPMG employees who identify as either a person with a disability (PwD) or as a caregiver to a PwD. The committee is used as both a sounding board for each other and to help raise awareness within KPMG on ways we can make our work environment even more accessible for PwDs, whether that be our infrastructure, technology or accommodations. Our first big event to raise awareness, which I will remember forever as one of the proudest moments of my more than 20 years at KPMG, was on December 3, 2020, when we held a global summit for International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
While I don't think anyone sets out to intentionally exclude people with disabilities from participating in society, the barriers faced as they relate to accessibility do prevent PwDs from being included. In a strange twist of fate, the quarantines resulting from COVID-19 proved to be a huge personal relief. For one, the isolation was suddenly different. I no longer felt alone or disabled—because everyone else was stuck at home, too. I no longer felt like I was missing out on full participation in daily life because of the lack of accessibility—because almost nothing was accessible to anyone. I started getting invited to more and more virtual events and conferences that I was never invited to before because of my location or mobility challenges. When you see me on a screen, you would have no idea I'm in a wheelchair. The stigma I would often feel was no longer there. The lockdowns have actually made me feel included. They made me feel like my disability didn't matter.
Obviously, I'm aware that the COVID-19 lockdowns have impacted everyone differently. For PwDs, it has provided not only relief for some like me with physical disabilities, but also some unique challenges, in particular for caregivers of PwDs or those with mental health challenges who rely heavily on social supports that have not been available.
When we get back to "normal," I really hope people remember the feeling of isolation that comes from not being able to fully participate. The feeling that nothing is accessible to you. It's a feeling that PwDs face almost everyday because our society lacks accessibility, and it doesn't have to be this way. It shouldn't be this way.
And if there's something I'd hope readers would take away, it would be to advocate for better accessibility. To notice and advocate for ramps into buildings that are otherwise only accessible by steps. To advocate for the removal of one-inch gaps placed in front of accessibility buttons so that someone with a wheelchair or stroller can actually use them. Or if you work at or visit a publicly available space undergoing a renovation, to advocate for an accessible washroom if there isn't already one there. To simply notice the barriers and point them out. Little things like that would make a world of difference.
We are in it together, so let's make society more accessible for everyone.