May is ‘mental wellbeing’ month. Organizations around the world, including my favorite, Headspace, have a variety of events and launches scheduled throughout the month. However, as importantly, but not enough mentioned 19th May is also Global Accessibility Awareness Day and in some parts celebrated as Global Accessibility Awareness Month (GAAM). It thus quite fitting that I began the month with deep discussions on inclusion and by listening to one of the most powerful talks I have heard in the past 12 months at a recent developer conference I attended.
Our view on inclusion is largely based on our exposure to the world. I am a non-white Indian immigrant woman, which makes me naturally (hopefully) passionate about topics such as gender diversity, socio-economic equality, terrorism and immigration. It is harder for me to understand as clearly the challenges faced by those physically and mentally unlike me. It wasn’t until I heard stories from a friend about her wheel chair bound brother I noticed the lack of ramps in the buildings in the city. It wasn’t until I worked with a visually challenged colleague who relied on text readers I understood the negative impact of pasting tables as images into presentations and documents. And yet I am exposed to less than 10% of the challenges people face.
Accessibility means that everyone who uses a product or service can receive the same benefit, regardless of any condition or disability they may have. Accessibility is about identifying barriers that exist in the environment and working to remove them. One approach is to remove some barriers by making sure that the environment works with a special equipment a person with a disability needs to use. A better approach is to eliminate barriers completely by changing the environment. Given that roughly 15% of the world population has a significant disability–over 1 billion people and that if this population were its own country, it would be the third largest in the world, behind India and China, there exists a compelling reason to change the environment.
‘Essential for some, useful for all’ is a quote that has stuck with me ever since I walked out of the talk. We’d all walked into the room having used an elevator, but not once did I consider it as an accessibility tool. I have built reports without realizing my reliance on colors to communicate meaning and I’ve built surveys that are not inclusive. I have built proposals where I’ve marked ‘bugs by design’ to be fixed in version 2, many of the bugs being features that make the product or service more inclusive. I admit I did not realize how much damage I was propagating by not adopting an ‘accessibility first mindset’. If my solutions can be ‘virtual first’, then why not be first in a more pressing space?
As I venture on a journey of learning more about inclusion, diversity and accessibility, here are a few ways you can join me.
- Learn More: No matter how much you learn, there’s always more out there. I’m crawling slowly up the learning curve while simultaneously contemplating how to weave everything I know into everything I design or advocate for. Today is a great day to pick up a new book, watch a video or read an article to further your knowledge. Even better, have a real conversation with someone who can help you see the world through a different lens. Start by reading this https://accessibility-for-teams.com/accessibility-101 and watching this https://vimeo.com/324742692. I recently learnt about the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and have been surprised by how little we are taught about this in school and colleges.
- Start small: I understand it is likely a daunting task to take in all at once. Start small like I did. If you are writing a paper or creating a presentation, never insert a table as an image. It may take more effort to draw in a table and fill the numbers vs. pasting as an image, but someone out there may need you to do so. When color coding something, design with enough color contrast. When adding lots of data, consider making reports readable for someone who struggles visually. Don’t create error messages which may trigger strong emotions and consider the impact of sound effects while delivering a presentation. Once you make this a habit, it isn’t that hard. And never ever, park something you know impacts accessibility for a later version.
- Be an accessibility advocate: I’m beginning to get a reputation. Some like it, some don’t, but I speak about the book ‘Invisible Women’ and everything I’ve learnt about inclusion so far very, very often; to the extent that people now expect it to come up in conversation at some point. I am worried. It is a topic that needs more voices. I’d strongly encourage you to pick up the discussion. Talk about accessibility during design discussions. Ask what people are doing in that space. Share what you learn in coffee chats, when you meet friends and at work. If you know web designers, software engineers, introduce them to WCAG. Share your experiences. Be a proud advocate.
If not for anyone else, do it for yourself. Disability is highly correlated with age: if we are lucky enough to live into our 60s and later, we will very likely be living with a disability. Our vision gets blurry, our body more fragile, our hearing weaker–the list is endless. Do it for your future self because not doing anything is the worst that you could do.
Happy Global Accessibility Awareness Month! Let’s make a difference.