Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Action

Accessibility Is an Opportunity, Not an Obstacle

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Disability access is a civil right and a human right but talking about it can sometimes be uncomfortable, which stalls progress. Taking small steps to achieve accessibility makes the process less overwhelming and ultimately more achievable.

As with other aspects of DEI, making real and sustainable progress on disability inclusion requires C-suite and peer-to-peer support. It also needs procurement changes to provide equity by choosing products and services that are accessible.

“It takes leadership for organization to make the market change, as well as individual advocates,” said Samantha Evans, CAE, certification manager at the International Association of Accessibility Professionals.

For example, organizations need to stipulate with vendors up front, starting with the RFP process, that their commitment to disability means they will only proceed, renew, or engage going forward with accessible vendors. Then, that market will have an incentive to change to keep their customers and attract new ones.

Talking about accessibility often hits roadblocks because people get uncomfortable, and they don’t respond because they don’t know what to say. Then they feel guilty. “People center their reaction to the way they feel, instead of realizing this is an opportunity to change and make progress,” Evans said. The important thing to remember is, the goal isn’t to make everything 100 percent accessible. “It’s progress, not perfection,” Evans said.

Change begins by taking small steps. That starts with understanding how people with different types of disabilities experience the world, with compliance being the bare minimum. For example, not everyone who is deaf uses sign language, not everyone who is hard of hearing has a hearing aid, and not everyone who is deaf wants captions over sign language.

It’s essential to understand the communication preferences for people with disabilities because it’s easier to meet when you know what the need is. “We often hear about accommodations, but accommodations are a transaction, not a disability,” Evans said. “Accommodations are what happen when we don’t build an inclusive and accessible environment.”

“Digital accessibility means I am either inclusive or I am—either by design or unintentionally—excluding people from being able to participate.” — Samantha Evans, CAE, International Association of Accessibility Professionals

A Digital World

Making sure organizations are digitally accessible is also an important component. “The world we live in today, whether it’s to live, work, play, learn, or love—all those things are touched by digital accessibility and digital content,” Evans said. “Very few elements of our world don’t have a digital interface.” That includes managing finances, online professional profiles, and engaging in communities.

Ensuring digital accessibility means people can use their assistive technology of choice and can engage equitably the same as someone who does not use assistive technology.

“The world we work in is digital. Digital accessibility means I am either inclusive or I am—either by design or unintentionally—excluding people from being able to participate,” Evans said. “If people can’t participate, they also can’t belong.”

When a product or service is not inclusive or accessible from the outset, then organizations are required to provide accommodation. For example, for deaf and hard of hearing colleagues, make sure there is an interpreter, teletype, or interpreter service. If they sign, don’t require them to call in by phone. Every virtual or hybrid digital event with anyone speaking, whether live or recorded, should have accurate and usable captions, Evans said.

But keep in mind that captions have quality considerations and are not always accurate. For example, artificial intelligence captions do not meet Americans With Disabilities Act standards. “They’re a great starting point, but should not be the goal,” she said. “You wouldn’t want to get your prescription instructions read to you with captions that were right maybe 80 percent of the time.”

In addition, associations must understand how to produce accessible content—both visually and structurally—starting with social media, web content, documents, and emails because those are the main pieces people use every day that need improvement.

Organizations should also adopt inclusive presentation practices. This could including requiring speakers to create accessible slides and other materials, captioning videos, checking the color contrast ratio between text and background, and using fonts and sizes to make sure they are more visually readable.

“The goal is to really optimize the human experience. That’s our role as associations, to engage, advance, grow, educate, and network,” Evans said. “All of those things are about bettering the human experience, whether that’s for our members or the audiences we serve.”

Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now.

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