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Why Diversity and Inclusion Means Nothing Without Accessibility

On left a group of people called "diversity and inclusion" excluding a person on left called "accessibility"

Diversity and inclusion has been a hot topic lately. Issues experienced by women and minority groups are often discussed at events and in media which is great. However, the largest minority is sadly rarely or never mentioned – it’s people with disabilities. They represent 1.3 BILLION people worldwide with $1 TRILLION of disposable income.

People with disabilities are often excluded not only by non-disabled people, but even by many disadvantaged groups. I’ve been to enough of events and conferences focusing on diversity and inclusion issues to find myself frustrated with the lack of accessibility at those events for attendees with disabilities. Some organizers are happy to accommodate my accessibility needs, but often I get resistance.

For example, when I asked a female president of a local chamber of commerce in NYC for sign language interpreters at a diversity event, here’s the response I got from her:

“My apologizes for the delayed response, but I just received your email. We are committed to making events as accessible to as many members as possible. However, this event is just a networking mixer and will not have a formal presentation. I do not foresee a need for interpreters at this particular event. I do hope you can join us!”

This is the statement from someone who is female fighting for inclusion in the all-male world, yet she dismissed her fellow female professional who is deaf. Not only that, her response sounded patronizing – she’s not deaf herself and is not to decide what other deaf people need or don’t need. There’s a word “mansplaining”. There’s also a word “hearsplaining” which means that a hearing person explaining to a deaf person in a manner that is regarded condescending.

Sadly, it’s not my or a disabled person’s first time experiencing all this. Earlier this year I had to deal with a hearing female professional who acted like an expert in captioning despite my repetitive explanations as a long time captioning user and an experienced accessibility consultant about why speech technologies cannot be used for real time captioning. Last year female founders of an organization for female consultants kept making excuses for not providing sign language interpreters to me at their events despite the fact that they had big companies as sponsors who could have paid for accessibility. They were talking about how to make women included in the all male world, yet they haven’t made any efforts to include women with disabilities.

Another upsetting experience happened a year ago when attending an event about diversity where a female c-level executive was a keynote speaker talking about how there’s a low number of upper level female managers in corporations. I can understand this as a woman myself, but she didn’t say a word about issues of people with disabilities. After her talk, there was a panel of various c-level executives, including two men. During Q&A session, I raised my hand to share frustrations of inaccessible products, services, and events as well as of low employment of professionals with disabilities. The female c-level executive asked me to stop talking which shocked not only me, but also many event attendees. The panelists even had to ask her to let me finish. When I talked about issues of employment for people with disabilities, the female executive asked one of non-disabled panelists who happened to work with people with disabilities and asked her if what I said was true. I got so flabbergasted and felt that she invalidated my experience as a deaf person and an experienced accessibility consultant. After me another female attendee was going on and on off point about diversity, but the female speaker didn’t interrupt her. When the event was over, I expressed my feelings to the female speaker and she told me that I was wasting her time during Q&A session. When I asked her why she let another woman speak longer, she told me she didn’t want to talk to me and left. Event organizers had to apologize to me for her behavior and other attendees came up to me telling me how shocked they were with the attitude of the female speaker.

I also frequently hear from women about how there are not enough of female speakers at events and conferences or in employment. I totally understand their feelings. But there are a few if any speakers or panelists with disabilities. It’s hard enough for people with disabilities to attend any events, let alone to be speakers. Most speakers who are invited to speak about accessibility are usually non-disabled people which often gives a wrong impression to attendees that people with disabilities don’t know about accessibility or how to request for it – despite the fact that there are professionals with disabilities who are experts in accessibility. I’m often being told by attendees how brave I am to attend events or how sweet interpreters are to volunteer their time to assist me which makes me wonder if they think that we all are locked at home and afraid to get out. They do not realize that event organizers are responsible for making their events accessible and that it’s so frustrating for people with disabilities to ask event organizers for accessibility.

It’s hard enough for many qualified people with disabilities to find good jobs that fit their skills and interests, to say nothing about them becoming high level executives that are very few and far between. The video states that there are over 70% of people with disabilities who are unemployed or underemployed. Many companies are reluctant to hire people with disabilities because they don’t want to invest in accessibility accommodations. Many accessibility accommodations are actually reasonable and if certain accommodations are needed they are not used that often. For example, many deaf workers at office jobs usually communicate with their coworkers via online messages that doesn’t cost extra money. If they need captioning or interpreting services, they usually use them for meetings that don’t happen frequently.

I’m not banishing all women and I’m a woman myself. There are many wonderful women who genuinely care about people with disabilities and do something to improve accessibility for them. It’s important for women and minority groups to speak up and they should do that. But they also should not dismiss people with disabilities.

When speaking about people with disabilities in terms of diversity and inclusion, it’s not enough for us to just be included. We need accessibility accommodations in order to be fully included. It doesn’t take much for a non-disabled woman, for example, to attend an event, to take classes, to get a job. Being deaf, however, is more frustrating than being a woman. I have no problems speaking up or asking people for what I need, but if I’m denied accessibility accommodations for products, services, events, I cannot be on the equal footing with non-disabled people and don’t feel included. Without captioning and sign language interpreting services, for example, I cannot participate in discussions or understand aural information when non-disabled people can easily use their hearing and voice.

Last, but not least, when trying to make products, services, events accessible, I advise organizations to consult experienced people with disabilities and especially with those with disabilities who are also experienced specialists in accessibility. There are often instances when organizations ask for advice from non-disabled people instead of asking people with disabilities directly. They better ask for advice from experienced users of accessibility services (who have disabilities) because they know what works best for them. There are also many instances of wrong or low quality accessibility accommodations that people with disabilities advise against but their suggestions are not seriously taken by non-disabled people into consideration. It’s frustrating when non-disabled people make assumptions and decisions for people with disabilities about what they may or may not need.

It is also frustrating when non-disabled people complain about how ungrateful people with disabilities are and how they should smile and stop complaining. How can we smile if we cannot access aural information without captions, cannot use stairs without ramps or elevators, cannot access visual information without voice over or Braille, and so on? We are frustrated with many unnecessary barriers that society could have easily removed to make the world fully accessible for us. We don’t feel disabled or disadvantaged in a barrier-free environment. Stella Young explains that in her great TED talk about “inspiration porn”. Nothing wrong to be inspired by people with disability, but if that inspiration is used to make yourself feel good by not having a disability and to applaud people with disabilities who don’t complain about the lack of accessibility instead of doing something to improve lives for them, it’s not a right way to be inspired.

Many non-disabled people assume that assistive technologies (such as hearing devices, wheelchairs, screen readers, and so on) solve all accessibility problems, but they are not just expensive but also don’t give the full and equal accessibility. For these reasons, even hearing aid and cochlear implant users still need access to aural information via captions, wheelchair users still need ramps, blind users of screen readers still need software to be developed correctly, and so on.

Many people with disabilities can give so much to the world, but only if the world is fully and equally accessible to them. Without accessibility, diversity and inclusion means nothing because it excludes people with disabilities.

If your organization needs advice on improving your products, services, events, or is looking for a deaf speaker at your event or conference, contact me.

Published in Accessibility

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