Accessibility, part 3 – how can we improve accessibility?

At the beginning of this series I suggested we should try to answer three questions if we want to improve accessibility. So far we have discussed the first two, ‘What is Accessibility?‘ and ‘Why Should We Improve Accessibility?‘. The third question addresses the ‘How’, what action can we take and what changes can we make to improve accessibility. I’ll look at a couple ideas that I think, if put into practice by enough people, could set us on the right path.

Set standards

The first idea is that we can set a bar for accessibility. This will look different depending on who you are. A government running a country, a CEO of a multi national company, a manager of a local convenience store, a volunteer at a community project or a mum, bringing up young children, can all set standards for accessibility. A government has a wider reach than a stay-at-home mum, but both are important in our journey to an accessible society.

We talked a about legislation in my previous post ‘why we should improve accessibility’, as a motivator for businesses to meet certain standards of accessibility. It’s also an important ‘How’ factor. By introducing these regulations, governments can initiate a change on a large scale. Although we discussed how this doesn’t necessarily change mindsets, it provides motivation for a large number of organisations to take action. It provides achievable goals so progress can be measured and provides direction for those who don’t know where to start. Legislation encourages companies to take responsibility and over time perhaps that won’t be simply to avoid penalties, but because they see the benefits of doing so.

You don’t have to be a government to set standards. If you’re in a relevant position in an organisation, whether it’s big or small, you can put guidelines in place to set standards for accessibility. This includes guidelines for employees, volunteers, visitors, customers and service users. In fact, anyone who comes into contact with your organisation. Perhaps you’re an online retailer adding new accessibility features to your website, a shop owner who marks the steps in your shop with black and yellow tape or a film club showing films with subtitles. Whatever the nature of your organisation, whatever the scale of the improvement, it’s all important and will make a difference for someone who needs it. Think about the range of abilities out there. Imagine walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and see how easy it is (or isn’t) to access what your organisation has to offer.

What if you’re not part of an organisation? Set standards for yourself and your family. Talk to your kids about why there’s a lower counter at the bank or why there’s large print books in the library, and all the different people these things can help. You don’t need to make it a big issue, but pointing things out when you see them and talking about them makes accessibility ‘normal’ to the child. They grow up familiar with the concept of accessibility, even before they know the word. This makes them expect things around them to be accessible and they will have a higher standard of accessibility they consider acceptable.

Talking about accessibility with family, combined with appropriate education in schools, such as learning about features of a building or a website that makes it more accessible to a wider range of people, can encourage high standards and expectations. A child might retain that information, look out for those features and notice when they are not there. They might even make the connection and realise that the lack of accessibility means certain people are excluded from that particular place or activity. This might make them feel a certain way or even start a conversation about why that is.

So there are ways to improve on what we already have, services, businesses and buildings that already exist. Education and training plays a role as well as physical changes both play an important role. But wouldn’t it be easier, more efficient and cost effective, not to mention ‘normal’ if accessibility was there from the beginning, rather than something added later?

Strategy and Universal Design

To be effective and sustainable, accessibility needs to be rooted in the strategy of a project, a necessity for success and something to benefit everyone. It needs to be considered at every stage of development and should be viewed as an important part of achieving the best version of your project. Full stop. Not the best version for particular groups of people, the best version for everyone. Yes, by adding certain accessible features, your project is made accessible for a specific group, but looking at the bigger picture you’ll see improving things for different groups, improves things for many. Take the example of a retailer’s website. It might be tempting to park accessibility features to save on costs and to meet a target launch date, but that may be short shorted. If accessibility isn’t addressed, it not only means less visitors to your website, it ultimately means less profit. It’s a simple reality. And it doesn’t have to be the bottom line of a business that benefits from having accessibility as part of its strategy. Creating a space in the community for children to play with accessibility at the heart of its design, encourages families from different backgrounds with different abilities to come together. More importantly, it encourages their children to come together – allowing them to grow up in an environment where diversity and inclusion is normal. Accessibility leads to diversity and inclusion. In turn, diversity and inclusion leads to better versions of everything, whether it’s in business, education or the wider community.

Originally coined by architect Ronal Mace, Universal Design is an example of how accessibility can become part of the strategy. It’s the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life. This idea does not focus on a particular disability or even disability in general. Its philosophy is centred around improving the user’s experience regardless of who they are.

For example, think about a door knob you turn to open a door. These are impossible to operate if you have certain dexterity issues, don’t have hands or are carrying shopping bags in one hand and a child in the other. Now think of a lever handle which you push down to open the door. This is much easier to operate for everyone, pushing straight down means you don’t necessarily need to be able to grip it to operate it. You could push down using an elbow and you wouldn’t need to drop your shopping (or your offspring) to do so. A wider doorway at the entry to a busy shop is also better for everyone. Think of a parent with a pushchair, a wheelchair or mobility scooter user or just two people wanting to enter or leave the building at the same time. Something as simple as a wider doorway makes the experience easier for everyone. The nature of Universal Design means a number of issues commonly considered as accessibility adjustments for the disabled have already been addressed when building or product is in its planning stages. They’re considered a core part of the design, rather than add-ons. Some features may not have been planned for and would need to be added at a later stage but the bulk of the work is already done at the early stages, which makes the project more accessible and user friendly from the start. Some may think this idea is idealistic and although they agree in principle, when the costs increase, accessibility is one of the first things to go. This is a short sighted view in my opinion. With an ageing population and rates of disability set to rise according The World Health Organisation, Universal Design not only makes a space or product better for everyone today, but it’s future proofing, so you don’t need to spend more on modifying it when you realise you actually do need those features that were originally shelved.

What I like about a Universal Design mindset, is that it takes into account the bigger picture. Improving life for everyone is at the core of the idea.

The Big Idea

With everything I’ve discussed over this series exploring accessibility, what’s the big idea? The big idea is that we could create an accessible world. It seems a long way away, some might even say utopian, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It might seem like a big ask, but when you think about, is it really? For people to be able take part in ‘life’, have control and choice, to the extent that most people expect? Far from being a big ask, that sounds more like a basic human right to me.

So perhaps we could give it a go. A CEO or a stay-at-home mum, and everyone in between, we can all do our bit.

Let’s all set standards high and expect accessibility, because that shows we expect inclusion. When we expect something, it is normalised and the stigma begins to fade. Let’s educate our children, our colleagues and our friends and encourage them to have high standards too. Let’s make the changes we can, regardless of how big or small because they all have an impact. People have such a range of abilities and the barriers they face are equally diverse. The change you make, however simple, could be the key for someone to finally be able to do that thing they want to do, independently, with no fuss, no stress, no anxiety. They can finally just do it like everyone else. Finally, let’s design, build and create with accessibility as part of the strategy. For every new project, let’s keep accessibility at the core, so the end result is available to as many people as possible. Remember, accessibility makes inclusivity possible. An inclusive approach makes a better business, a better physical or digital space, a better society and a better future.

I’m not expert in accessibility. I just know all too well, the barriers I face when I try to do things such as look after my family, earn a living, socialise, participate and live my life. I am all too familiar with the lack of choice and the lack of control when something is not accessible to me. The familiar feeling of exclusion. That is what has prompted me to think about accessibility and to share my thoughts with you. Because right now, how things are around me, I don’t think this is it. I don’t think this is the best we can do. I hope you agree that we can do better and that we will. Perhaps your ideas about how we will get there are different to mine. It would be wonderful if we can all share those ideas and learn from each other. Due to the nature of the topic, we need as wider range of people to take part in the conversation as possible, not just people who come up against accessibility barriers themselves. People who don’t consider themselves to be affected by accessibility also need to be included. They need to hear why accessibility is an issue for everyone and the their thoughts and contributions are equally valuable.

To summarise, let’s look at those three questions again. What is accessibility?To me, it’s ensuring access is available to as many people as possible, empowering them to participate as independently as possible, regardless of their unique abilities. Why should we improve accessibility? To make things easier for everyone, to create a more inclusive world where everyone benefits. How can we improve accessibility? By having standards and expectations, raising awareness and normalising accessibility, making changes where we can and ensuring it’s part of the strategy in all that we create.

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