Skip to content →

Accessibility – Nothing About Us Without Us

A bridge between tectonic plates on a sunny day.

Today is the 32rd anniversary of the ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s a landmark federal law that prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for disabled people in many areas of life.

I wrote the following articles:

It’s been 32 long years. Yet there is so much improvement that is still needed to make the world accessible for us. We still deal with the lack of awareness about disabilities, the lack of proper accommodations, and especially the lack of collaboration with us on many accessibility projects.

While it’s great to see a lot of talk about accessibility, there’s not much walking the talk. It seems to me that many non-disabled people love to use accessibility just as some cool topic to talk about – without enough knowledge or understanding about it. They often talk about/over/for us disabled people. A lot of content they share about accessibility is not accessible for us. I’ve seen this quite a lot since 2007 when I started learning about the accessibility field. I’ve even seen some well known non-disabled disability lawyers not practicing what they preach about accessibility. It’s very frustrating to say the least.

Not to mention that accessibility is often excluded from the diversity and inclusion equation.

Throughout human history, we have been oppressed by non-disabled people and treated as second class citizens. Many disabled people were sent to asylums. Even deaf people in the past were considered not smart just because they could not speak.

When it comes to solutions for disabled people, often they are determined by non-disabled people. It has been like this for centuries. Many non-disabled people often think from the medical perspective as in fixing our disabilities rather than from the social perspective as in fixing their world to make it more accessible to us. Many solutions by non-disabled people do not help us because our experiences are often not taken into consideration. 

The famous example is this ongoing viral post about the “inventors” of signing gloves reshared over and over again for years by many clueless non-disabled people. That makes so many of us deaf people annoyed.

That’s why it’s important that our experiences are counted when working on accessibility solutions. There’s this phrase in the disability community: “Nothing about us without us.”

Sadly, when it comes to accessibility, often it won’t be implemented until it benefits non-disabled people. The great example is when the pandemic started. Many disabled people asked for remote work for years yet their requests were often denied. Yet when the pandemic started, it forced more companies to implement remote work because many non-disabled had no other way but to work from home.

The same goes to many other accessibility needs of disabled people that are ignored. For example – captions and ramps. Captions often won’t be implemented unless more hearing people ask for it and talk about it. The ongoing requests of deaf people for captioning access often fall on deaf ears – no pun intended. Ramps or elevators often won’t be implemented unless more non-disabled people ask for it because they seem to care more about their convenience than the critical accessibility needs of wheelchair users. 

When “accessibility” solutions are implemented, often they are designed based on the needs of non-disabled people but are not actually accessible or usable to disabled people.

For example, many people are not aware of the difference between captions and subtitles or why subtitles are not accessible to deaf people. Often captions are designed based on the needs of hearing people. For example, they may not understand Spanish, so they subtitle in English for those who can hear and understand English but don’t speak Spanish. Even same-language captions often lack speaker identifications and sound descriptions. People who can hear don’t need them, but those elements are critical for deaf people. Not to mention the issue of proper formatting.

While I advocate for accessibility as universal design, I strongly believe that it needs to be designed based on the needs of disabled people first.

I came across this great post, The Great Accessibility Camp Out. It explains exactly what I think and feel about accessibility. 

The article is focused more on web accessibility, but it can apply to any type of accessibility for disabled people in general – physical or digital. 

It explains about accessibility being broken down into 2 camps:

  • Camp 1: The “accessibility is for everyone” camp;
  • Camp 2: The “accessibility is for people with disabilities” camp.

As an accessibility expert who also happens to be deaf, I gravitate more to Camp 2. 

Let me quote a phrase from the article: “The danger of distorting the meaning of web accessibility is that discussions can quickly degenerate to pandering to people’s whims, rather than real issues that affect people with disabilities.”

I agree with that quote. My concern is to ensure that we as disabled people are treated equally and do not deal with barriers that have been imposed on us by society for centuries and that need to be fixed in the first place. 

It’s true that accessibility for disabled people often benefit non-disabled people. But as the article author explains: “That is just a side-effect, rather than the primary intention.” That is exactly what I have had in my mind throughout my career as a professional accessibility consultant.

For example, let’s say that ramps and elevators benefit not only wheelchair users but also non-disabled people such as parents with baby strollers, workers pushing a cart, travelers carrying a suitcase on wheels. A ramp or an elevator is just a side-effect for non-disabled people. It’s more of a nice thing to have for them but it’s critical for wheelchair users because they cannot use stairs any other way. It’s a nice thing to have for me because I can manage using stairs when dragging a suitcase, for example. It may be inconvenient for me but at least I can manage using the stairs. Of course, a ramp and an elevator benefit everyone. However, they need to be designed based on the needs of wheelchair users first because it’s the primary intention for them.

The same goes to other accessibility needs. Another example is captions. They may be nice to have for hearing people, but it’s a critical accessibility need for us deaf people. We have no other way to access aural information except through good quality and well formatted same language captions. Often captions are designed as subtitles because it’s how subtitles have been designed for hearing people not understanding the original spoken language. Subtitles often don’t have speaker identifications or sound descriptions, for example, and are formatted so poorly that make it hard for us deaf people to read. It’s because people often rely on hearing as backup if text is poor or doesn’t make sense to them. It’s a totally different experience for us deaf people when reading captions. The survey on captioning reading experience with deaf people that I did a few years ago explains this. Captions definitely benefit everyone – just like ramps and elevators do. However, they need to be designed based on the needs of us deaf people first because it’s the primary intention for us.

As a professional consultant and speaker who also happens to be deaf, I explain that accessibility starts with awareness and strategy. It’s not enough to just follow accessibility guidelines. It’s also important to design accessibility based on our needs as disabled people.

Let me reiterate the quote: Nothing about us without us.

You see a photo on the top of this article. I took it recently in Iceland to show a bridge between North American and Eurasian plates. I used this photo to show that the bridge can be built between disabled and non-disabled people if non-disabled people are willing to make their world accessible to us and to collaborate with us to make this happen.

Is your business in need of a customized accessibility strategy consulting or a speaker who is deaf? Contact me. I look forward to working with you on optimizing accessibility of your products and services based on the needs of disabled people.

Published in Accessibility

error: Content is protected !!