Accessibility, part 2 – why Improve Accessibility?

Motivation to change a mindset

There are a number of reasons to improve accessibility and all of them can lead to positive changes, but these motivations are not often deep-rooted enough to change a mindset. In my previous post ‘What is Accessibility?‘ I suggested that rather than seeing accessibility as additional, optional and for the disabled, we should see accessibility as integral, necessary and good for everyone. If, as a society we don’t manage to change our mindset in this way, we can certainly still improve accessibility, but there will be limits to what we can do, which I’ll talk about later. However, if we really believe that accessibility is just part of life and making things better for everyone, that’s when I think it will be possible to remove the stigma surrounding accessibility. If it is normalised, it would simply become part of everything we do. The question is, of all the reasons we want to improve accessibility, which of them can really affect our mindset enough to motivate us to not only make accessibility better, but to make it ubiquitous?

To Comply with Legislation

Governments have a responsibility to lead the way in positive change. Regulations are in place to ensure organisations go about their business responsibly, providing measurable targets that must be met, for every aspect of their activities, from who they employ and what they produce to where, how and to whom they sell their products. Accessibility is no different. In the UK we have the Equality Act (2010) which brings together a range of anti-discrimination laws to create a more equal society. The Act protects anyone who is disabled, is thought to be disabled, or is with someone who is disabled. It gives these people the right to access goods or services in a way that means they are not treated less favourably than people without a disability. This requires organisations to make reasonable adjustments to ensure these standards are met. Legislation is an important part of driving accessibility forward as organisations need to comply regardless of preferences or beliefs, to avoid penalties. This ensures steps are taken to improve accessibility, which is great, but it doesn’t necessarily change mindsets. So often the box is ticked (sometimes when the minimum is achieved), and accessibility is filed away, along with other things that no longer need attention. Ideally, the law would kickstart a continual process of evaluating and improving accessibility. Because it’s not a one time task that can be ticked off, it’s something that will evolve and improve over time, if we let it. Once we start to take steps to improve accessibility, we might see the universal benefits I talked about in my previous post and that will motivate us to continue to improve. For some, positive reinforcement can be a more effective long term motivator than negative reinforcement. In this case, although the threat of something negative is unlikely to lead to a shift in mindset, it can lead us to take steps down the right path.

To improve the lives of disabled people

We live in an ‘able’ world. Because our world is designed (sometimes exclusively) for people who have a fully functioning body, mind and senses, who fall into an average height and age range, we miss out on so much. The World Health Organisation reports there are one billion people in the world with some form of disability. That’s 15% of the world’s population who cannot participate in everything they want or need to, who might not get the opportunity reach their potential, live their dreams and share their contribution with the world. Not only is the world missing out on what disabled people have to offer, disabled people are potentially missing out on the world.

I’ll try to explain what I mean (without turning this into a lengthy monologue!). For a long time, I managed to live in this sighted world, doing what I needed to do, using my own workarounds for – well, pretty much everything. As my vision has deteriorated, my workarounds are no longer sufficient for me to navigate the world around me. It doesn’t mean I’m no longer capable of the things I was previously. I’m the same person, with the same mind, however the environment around me is not designed for people like me. The environment presents obstacles – barriers even, to me getting things done, because I’m blind.

For someone like me, for whom attempting a task takes additional and sometimes a disproportionate amount of planning, time and stress, better accessibility would be an equaliser. And I don’t mean just in competitive situations like looking for a job. I mean ordinary things like taking your child to school, and extraordinary things like reading the results of a pregnancy test, and everything in between. Like most people, I tend to find ways to get things done. But sometimes I can’t, and some of those times, it’s because I can’t see. So of course, there’s a significant part of me that wants accessibility to be improved simply for people like me. We would no longer need to face this overriding sense of frustration when going about our day and just be able to do things, like everyone else does. Everyone should have the right to access and participate in society, as much as they want and need to. Right now, I don’t believe that’s the case.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the reason we should improve accessibility is to enable people with a disability go about their lives, to the extent everyone else can. Most people would agree it’s the right thing to do and because of this, it is likely the most common motivator for wanting to improve accessibility. In an ideal world, this alone would be enough for people to take action, but to date, it doesn’t seem to have been enough motivation to achieve the degree of accessibility needed by many people. You see, charity, and the desire to do good, can drive change, but unless it’s the primary purpose of an organisation, it’s rarely considered at a strategic level. If accessibility is viewed as a charitable, community or social responsibility issue, then usually, it’s an additional part of a wider project. Even if it’s believed to be the right thing to do, it will always be lower priority than factors seen as integral to the main project (like the profits of a business). As an additional, lower priority, ‘nice to have’ part of an organisation, it’s unlikely to be allocated the time, resources and funding it needs, to be effective and sustainable. I think until we live in a very different world where things get done simply because they are the right thing to do, we need to explore other reasons why we should improve accessibility.

To improve the lives of everyone

Right, monologue over. So if doing the right thing is not enough of a motivator, perhaps we should be asking a slightly different question. Why is improving accessibility the right thing to do? Do people think it’s the right thing to do because they feel they should be inclusive and help those who come under the title ‘less fortunate’? Or is it because they believe that accessibility is needed to achieve truly inclusive world, where everyone benefits?

The difference between these two points of view, is their power to drive change, then sustain it. We’ve already discussed how the charitable approach improves accessibility but there are reasons it has limitations. So let’s look at the second viewpoint, which again, suggests we may need to concentrate on our mindset. It involves a shift in mindset towards ‘accessibility is beneficial for everyone‘.

The ‘Curb-Cut’ Effect

So, I mentioned a truly inclusive world where everyone benefits… how does accessibility feature in that vision? If you need convincing that access is inclusive for everyone, let’s talk about The Curb-Cut Effect. This is when an accessibility feature designed to help someone who is disabled, becomes common place and helps the wider population, even those who do not have a disability. Everyone uses it, everyone benefits and nobody really notices it’s there anymore.

In England, we call a curb-cut a dipped pavement. The primary purpose of a dipped pavement is to allow wheelchair users smooth access between the road and the pavement. Now, dipped pavements are commonplace and a lot of the time they help people without a disability. The parent with a pushchair, the shopper returning their trolley, the tourist with suitcases, the woman with joint pain, and even the party-goer who had one too many. We are so used to dipped pavements, we don’t even notice them and certainly don’t immediately associate them with disabled people. It’s just something that pavements have, much like houses have doors. So you see how accessibility may have begun with disability in mind, but it can be universal beneficial.

A more recent example of the curb-cut effect is closed captions. Originally designed to enable hearing impaired viewers to fully experience online videos, they are now commonly used by a range of people. This includes people wishing to watch the video in a noisy environment, or in a quiet environment when it’s not appropriate to use sound on their device. It is also useful for people watching a video in a second language or perhaps the video is educational and uses lots of new terminology. In all these cases, captions help viewers get more out of the video. See how something originally designed for a specific group of people has actually become an everyday, valuable tool for many?

These examples demonstrate how accessibility doesn’t need to be seen as an additional task at an additional cost that we do for just a small group of people. These ideas may have started as an accessibility feature for someone with a disability, but they now improves accessibility for everyone. So really, they could have been part of the original design of a project as features to simply make the project better. Imagine the possibilities if the intention was always to make things better for everyone from the start, rather than to force changes later to try to improve things for a few?

Better accessibility makes a better world

So you see, although better access makes things better for people with a disability, we should improve accessibility with a view to making a better world for us all. It’s only with this mindset that accessibility will receive the attention, resources and normalisation it needs. This way, it doesn’t just result in benefits for a minority group. It could result in better businesses that are more profitable because they’re more accessible. It could allow us to provide better services that actually reach those who need them. It would definitely create better communities where accessibility makes inclusion not only possible, but the norm. Imagine growing up in a community where inclusion is the norm. Now, that is surely worth investing in.

Thank you for reading and I hope you found some food for thought. I’d be interested to hear from you so please leave a comment below if there’s something you’d like to share.

Next time, in the final part of the series I’ll take a look at what we can do to improve accessibility. I hope to see you again then.

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