Accessibility is a word we’re all familiar with, that is regularly used and regularly misunderstood. It is often a last-minute addition to project planning to make sure that a box can be ticked and that, magically, all people will understand and enjoy a project or service. But what does accessibility truly mean? And why is it important?
A few years ago, I took a mental health first aid course. I’d chosen it because of my own experiences of mental health issues and the general public’s lack of awareness around how to support someone in crisis. I suffer from anxiety, amongst other things, and was trying to pull myself out of a year-long pit at that particular time. I had decided that if I needed to leave the session, or have a break, I would just get up and go. 10 minutes into the session, when another participant went to the toilet, the course instructor began to make ‘harmless’ jokes and comments about why that person had left the room. Sounds insignificant, but it was enough to make me feel panicked about standing up, causing a scene, being laughed at or criticised, and generally feeling like a failure. So, I couldn’t focus and didn’t move until 10 minutes after the session, when I then went to have a panic attack in the toilet. The lack of safety and security for my mental health made this session inaccessible for me.
This is only one small example of inaccessibility. I am lucky (or privileged?) enough to not face too many barriers to life. I think most people will have experienced a website being too difficult to navigate or a document being too hard to understand. But many people experience this regularly, or even every day. Add on physical access barriers and a whole host of other things and you’re suddenly cut off from essential items, important information and the things that make us feel human.
We recently had a conversation about this with some of our fellow humans in Gateshead, where I posed the question: How can we achieve genuine accessibility? Here are some of the things we came up with:
1. We are not experts.
And neither can we be experts. No single person has had every experience of life or faced every barrier to participation. This is why talking to people and understanding their needs in a given situation is so important when designing or creating spaces, places and projects. Only they can tell you what will enable them to participate: an access ramp, a layout plan of the venue ahead of time, high contrast options for reading websites… It seems like a simple step and something that people are shouting about all the time (especially with the new buzzword ‘lived experience’). But maybe there is a denial here. Maybe organisations are
unwilling to face the truth that the services they offer are under par for those that they are designed for.
An interesting question here is how do we engage with individuals to listen to their experiences and always find out their needs without it being burdensome and preventing action? Surely this is a better starting point than top-down and detached decision making that is based on an, often, uninformed reality.
2. We need to champion difference, not tolerate it.
When we treat accessibility as a box to be ticked, we are merely tolerating difference. It says to people that there is a ‘normal’ and that anything outside of that is a burden, a challenge, a difficulty. But there is no ‘average’ – there is no ‘normal’. It is the current systems and processes in place that create barriers to people engaging, not their ‘difference’ or their disability. We make too many assumptions about what is ’normal’ based on our own experiences and use that as a starting point for so-called inclusive spaces and opportunities.
Isn’t it a beautiful thing that each human is completely different? Each person has a unique experience of life that can influence and shape how we do things. Championing difference will empower and enable people to participate in the life of their community more fully. By celebrating difference, we can enrich our own experience of life and understand things from another’s point of view. But understanding will only come from engaging in conversation with those who are different to us – which is everybody.
3. We need to stop designing for the average.
It’s about time we accepted that average is arbitrary. Just as the United States Air Force found when they successfully designed a cockpit, based on the average measurements of more than 4000 pilots, that perfectly fitted (you guessed it) absolutely no one. When we do this, we create systems that either accidentally or deliberately exclude people. We create online booking systems for supermarket delivery slots that are not compatible with screen readers. We create email servers (*cough cough* Gmail) that do not work in high contrast mode and therefore make it impossible to tell that emails have been read. We create jobs in organisations housed on the first floor of a building without a lift. Too often people are simply forced to lower their expectations about what they can and can’t access.
We need to stop designing/creating for the average and move towards designing/creating with empathy and with others.
Accessibility should not be an afterthought. It should be integral to all of our planning right from the start. It is all of our responsibility. We need to remember that when we talk about accessibility, we are talking about enabling human beings to understand, enjoy, and participate in more elements of life.
So, I encourage you to challenge yourselves, and put people at the heart of projects, products and places. I encourage you to figure out what steps can you take to achieve genuine accessibility.
This blog was first published on Collective Impact Agency on 19th May 2021.