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Accessibility Starts with Awareness and Strategy

Green board with drawings of 5 lightbulbs in white outlines. A right hand with a white chalk hovering over one lightbulb that is light up.

Today is the anniversary of the ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act. I wrote an article last year to commemorate the 30th ADA anniversary. Last year’s anniversary happened during the pandemic that still continues now.

After the pandemic declared by WHO on March 11, 2020, most people shifted to working, studying, shopping, doing appointments, and attending events online. It showed many gaps in digital accessibility. The gaps have always been there, but they did not get enough attention until after the pandemic started.

There are many gaps not just in digital, but also physical accessibility. After lockdown orders were lifted, we started going out while wearing masks, keeping social distance, and washing hands. Eventually more people got fully vaccinated.

The main issue with me and many deaf and hard of hearing people is communicating with people in masks. While we don’t want people to pull down masks, we don’t have the x-ray vision to lipread them. We often get frustrated when people in masks would not write down or type what they want to say to us. We can use speech to text apps, but it’s not always effective. I had issues with communication while getting a vaccine against COVID.

Despite various disability laws being around for many years, there’s still a lack of awareness about the need for accessibility – not just by non-disabled people, but even by many disabled people.

For example, my family and I moved here to the States shortly after the ADA was passed. However, we didn’t know about it until after I started attending college. It was there where I first learned about the ADA and my rights as a deaf person.

Even many disabled people and their families that are American born are still not aware of their rights. Also, not all families are supportive of their members with disabilities or understand what it’s like to have one. Disability is still very stigmatized, even by some disabled people, usually those that became disabled later in their lives.

Many organizations often think that they need to wait until they get requests from disabled people to implement accessibility. But how can a disabled person know if they are not aware of their rights? Not to mention many disabled people that speak up but are often not listened to. We often have to pick battles and we shouldn’t. Even small things matter to us.

So organizations need to be proactive in accessibility instead of being reactive and waiting until someone complains or makes a request for accessibility.

If you think about the needs of foreign language speakers, many organizations readily cater to them by offering translations, often without advanced request. Yet they often resist providing accessibility accommodations to disabled people in their own country, despite their repeated requests.

I have often experienced this firsthand. I feel that I am better accommodated as a native Russian speaker than as a deaf person. I’m often denied access to spoken English via text in English yet I am readily offered translation from spoken English to spoken Russian. I don’t have problems understanding English since I’m fluent in that language. As long as it’s delivered to me in a written form. Same with Russian language. However, I cannot understand any spoken language 100% by lipreading only. I feel frustrated when people grudgingly write down what they want to say in their own language to me – let it be English or Russian or any language. Yet they are more than willing to speak other languages than their own.

Even organizations that advocate for accessibility do not always practice what they preach. The most recent example is when Paralympics denied an assistant to a deaf blind swimmer. It made the swimmer drop out of the games because she didn’t want to deal with issues navigating Tokyo alone.

The issue with accessibility is not only with the lack of awareness, but also with the lack of strategy.

Often businesses use accessibility as an afterthought, if they think about it all. They often ask me if there is a simple and quick tool to fix all accessibility problems. If there was such a tool, I and many other accessibility experts would have been more than happy to change jobs.

The main issue is the misconception that auto tools offer 100% solutions. Technology may be nice but useless without humans. I keep explaining to businesses and non-disabled people why it’s best to invest into accessibility from the beginning, to work with experts to improve strategies, and to use technologies as complements for humans, not substitutes.

Accessibility is good for business and a necessity for millions of diabled people.

Sadly, accessibility is usually considered when it benefits non-disabled people or or enforced when companies are mandated to follow disability laws.

The example is when the pandemic forced everyone to work and study remotely. It’s the accommodation that many disabled people were asking for long before the pandemic, but were constantly denied. Remote work and school became a norm only because of the pandemic and the need to accommodate non-disabled people. As usual, the needs of disabled people are often ignored.

Accessibility is more than just checking boxes.

I often see businesses concerned more about satisfying minimum accessibility requirements than about ensuring that the needs of disabled people are met and improving their experiences.

Accessibility guidelines are just that – guidelines. They do not guarantee full accessibility. Guidelines change with changes in technologies and accessibility needs.

Hence the quote by Plato that I use regularly in my accessibility work: “Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.”

The more a business cares about the needs of disabled people, the easier it will be for them to implement accessibility strategies.

For example, when I asked my family to be transferred to a regular school, originally they felt it would not be possible. Many deaf kids were not encouraged to attend regular schools during my time in Russia, let alone get access services.

However, we were lucky to have school administrators give us a try. I attended a school in another country that is behind the USA in accessibility. The country also didn’t have any  laws that mandated accessibility. Neither the school nor I knew about accessibility best practices. What the school knew is that they wanted my experience to be as pleasant as possible.

While I didn’t have interpreters or captioners, the school staff members were understanding of my limitations and tried to help the best they could. I had help from my teachers during their office hours and from family at home. My mother transcribed recordings of my 2 subjects weekly for 2 years – using paper and pen.

I would not say it was full inclusion. It was more integration than inclusion. Just because I did well in school doesn’t mean I should have worked many times harder than my hearing peers who had more access to information than me. Despite my intelligence, I missed a lot in classes. While I believe in using the maximum of my abilities, I still have limitations and need reasonable communication access accommodations.

Dealing with all those barriers made me a resourceful problem solver. However, it took me a while to realize that society shouldn’t expect me and other disabled people to “overcome” barriers.

The responsibility to remove barriers lies on society, not on us disabled people.

Just because I was deaf, it doesn’t mean that I was also well versed in accessibility. I did not plan to become an accessibility consultant. I got introduced to accessibility by accident while working as a web designer. It took me years of experience and training in accessibility to become a better self advocate and a better consultant to businesses.

My combination of lived experience with deafness and professional expertise in accessibility helps me teach more businesses to be more proactive in accessibility. To make them aware that accessibility is not a nice to have thing for disabled people. To teach them to be more proactive. To help them with optimal strategy.

If there was a magic wand to fix all accessibility issues, we all would have used it. But technologies have limitations and still cannot replace humans. Until then, businesses need to work with accessibility experts and disabled people on accessibility strategies.

Is your business in need of consulting on accessibility strategies or a deaf speaker to talk about accessibility? Feel free to contact me. I look forward to working with you on making the world accessible!

Published in Accessibility

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