Fostering A Culture of Accessibility
When speaking about diversity and inclusion, there’s a lot of attention given to race, gender, and sex, but historically, not nearly as many of these conversations includes or specifically focuses on people with disabilities as they should. In order for these conversations to be truly diverse, they need to include people with disabilities, but in order to do that effectively, we as a society need to foster a culture of accessibility.
In order to establish a culture of accessibility, the diversity and inclusion movement needs to deliberately and actively broaden its scope to include people with disabilities. The term accessibility, defined as “the quality of being able to be reached or entered” is often used specifically to refer to the idea of making environments, information, products, and services more easy to use for people with disabilities. Accessibility needs to be thought of from an idea’s inception, rather than treated as an afterthought, if it’s even thought of at all. The general public must stop framing accessibility as an inconvenience or burden and embrace it not only as a civil right, but the right thing to do. In order to foster a true culture of accessibility, we need to get to a point when we can drop these linguistic descriptors, or allow people to use them freely (or not use them at all) without getting bogged down by the politics associated with whether or not person first language (example: Person with Disability) or identity first language (example: Disabled Person) is better. Nondisabled people need to stop making assumptions about what it means to be disabled. Many people have what’s commonly referred to as an invisible disability, but that shouldn’t diminish the challenges they may face due to that disability.
With one quarter of adults in the US living with some form of disability, you may know someone who has a disability even if they don’t look like they do or they haven’t disclosed it explicitly to you. I, for example, am one of these people. Many of us have access to and regularly use the internet, yet, that doesn’t mean that all of us access a website or app the same way, that none of us need any special tools in order to use our computers and smartphones, or that web and app developers and designers don’t need to make any additional considerations before pushing their code to production. Technology has broken so many barriers, but what’s the point of having those barriers broken if new and different ones are created in the process? It’s essential that we’re cognizant of all these barriers to ensure that many of the people who can benefit the most from technology aren’t inhibited from using it. So how do we do that?
As society increasingly relies on the internet and computers to disseminate information, it’s important that the people responsible for designing and spreading that information make sure that everyone is able to access it. Accessibility must be incorporated into the entire process and lifecycle from the earliest design, development, and wireframing phases. In my experience, many designers and developers assume that web accessibility is difficult, creates more work, and is more expensive to achieve. The thing is, it’s only any of these things if it’s treated as an afterthought or bandaid. Often all it takes to make a website or application accessible is an additional line or two of code. A multipronged approach is the best way to counteract these beliefs and encourage your contractors and employees to design and develop inclusively. One aspect of the solution would be education initiatives that inform designers and developers about the various challenges those of us with disabilities face when using technology, the tools we use to interact with technology and engage with content on the internet, why they should care, as well as how they as designers and developers can implement and incorporate accessible solutions that support us. Another prong to the solution is to work with companies like Equal Entry, who specialize in accessibility, to identify needs, conduct user studies, and teach designers and developers how to implement accessible solutions.
In order to foster a culture of accessibility, it’s also important to remember that accessible design makes physical environments, information, products, and services easier to use for everyone, not just people with disabilities. This is because accessible design improves the overall user experience of all of these things. When an architect is designing a building, they may choose to put a staircase at the entrance, but if instead they put a ramp, wheelchair users could enter the building just as easily as non-disabled people. This would also serve to send a powerful message to the community where that building is located that everyone in the community is equal and has equal access to the services or information that building provides. Thus, accessible design is good design, period.
The internet was built, at least in part, to make accessing information easier, but if it only makes it easier for some people and not others, it’s not being used to its fullest potential. No one likes feeling excluded or alienated, so why should something that could so easily democratize access to information selectively keep entire communities out? After all, people with disabilities are just that, people. And once our society embraces a culture of accessibility, all people will be able to enjoy the incredible innovations of the past, present, and future.