Nothing About Us Without Us
Editor-at-Large Sinéad Burke reflects on Global Accessibility Awareness Day
Hello, there! I’m not sure if you know, but May is Global Accessibility Awareness Month. This year it celebrates its tenth anniversary. Global Accessibility Awareness Day (May 20th) aims to ignite global conversations for society and businesses to think and learn about digital access and disability inclusion. With initiatives like the Valuable500, Disability IN, or 1 in 4, along with a ramp being made available at the Oscars or Nike creating an adaptive shoe, accessibility is beginning to become a baseline standard and a marketing tool in how we work and build our world. It’s important to acknowledge the progress that we have made but also reflect on the reality that we are merely bridging a gap that has exacerbated disabled people’s exclusion since time immemorial. I believe that we need to build a new system. A new framework.
In thinking about disability inclusion, our route to progress is often to quote the business case and market value of disabled people. For example, you may be familiar with the statistic that the disabled community is the size of China, or that It is believed that the discretionary income of disabled people equates to almost $1.7 trillion per annum (with up to $8 trillion being available if one includes disabled people’s family and friends). This business case can be a useful vehicle to challenge perceptions of disabled people’s capacity and to encourage non-disabled people to understand the worth of our community. But, is there an ableism embedded in this narrative?
If only our spending power is prioritised, will we only value the most privileged disabled people? If we only view disabled people as customers, as a coalesce to serve through a non-disabled gaze, when will we recognise disabled people as expert co-conspirators and creatives?
It is for this reason that the philosophy of ‘Nothing About Us, Without Us’ holds such power. It is a call to action to include disabled people at every phase of a process and in every department in an organisation. It sounds easy, but it requires resources, strategic intention, and a desire to constantly learn, evolve, and do more.
To help, I’ve tried to consider some immediate and long-term priorities that you can begin to practice today, tomorrow, and forever.
The simplest and most cost-effective route to accessibility is in the transparency and communication of information. Do you have an accessibility policy? This can span the breadth of considering how your organisation conducts meetings, virtual and physical events, but also your website and social media platforms. Once you have developed this policy, how do you translate this information externally?
Often, we feel that if we do not meet the gold standard, we should not publicly detail what is available. Retaining this information creates inaccessibility, as it requires the disabled person to burden themselves to ask if an ASL interpreter will be available at the job interview or if there is accessible public transportation close to your building. Even if it is not the intention, this lack of information narrates to disabled people that they are not welcome. That they have not been considered. Communicate what is available and commit to expanding the organisation’s education and practice.
Who is not in the room: This is a question that has become a tool in my armoury as it is not merely to audit the perspectives that exist within an organisation, but it accelerates our need to create a pipeline of disabled talent. There are two approaches - if you assess that there are few disabled people in your organisation (the ability to ask such questions of employees differs by country), look to hiring external resources.
Disability consultants such as Mia Ives-Rublee and Lavant Consulting offer a breadth of expertise and can help put processes in place to create a culture that is accessible, inclusive, and welcoming to the disabled community so that they can bring their whole selves (should they wish to) to work. Whilst this partnership is ongoing and championed by senior leaders, it’s also vital that more grassroots work is undertaken too. How accessible is your HR strategy? Do you encourage people from minority communities to apply for roles? Do you clearly state that accessibility accommodations are available? Do you offer health insurance employees from the moment they sign their contracts? Do you actively build relationships with Disabled People Organisations and encourage their members to apply for roles in your organisation? Do you leverage your organisation’s resources to create graduate programmes, academic scholarships, and paid internships for disabled people - particularly for those whom academia is inaccessible?
Finally, as people begin to see your organisation as one that is inclusive and continuously practicing accessibility, but also as a company that divests its resources into the community and seeks to position us as qualified experts, the third phase is to build projects, products, and services with us. I believe that every issue is a disability issue, and in that sense, every project can be ameliorated when considered through a lens of accessibility or inclusive design. Have you created a line item in the budget for accessibility or disability consultants? Is there a commitment from the team that accessibility is everyone’s responsibility? Are disabled perspectives consulted within the planning and iteration, not just the marketing? (Though this is important too.)
These three steps are not exhaustive but can be a starting point for you to develop an approach that prioritises and celebrates disabled experiences. With the growing currency for inclusive marketing and practices, projects, products, and services are created for us, under the guise of it being with us and by us. Systematic change becomes systemic when disabled people are valued not just in the moment but as part of the movement.
How can you be involved? Or, if you’re already challenging the system, what does success look like to you?
Editor at large
Sinéad Burke is a teacher, writer and advocate. Sinéad works towards accelerating systemic change within the domains of diversity, education, inclusion, design and disability. She consults within the fashion and design industries to ensure that spaces and products are accessible to all.
Sinéad is a TED speaker, her talk ‘Why Design Should Include Everyone’ has amassed over one million views and resulted in her achieving some ‘firsts’: Sinéad is responsible for the introduction of the term for little person, ‘duine beag’, into the Irish language, she was the first little person to attend the Met Gala, and is the first little person to feature on the cover of Vogue. Sinéad has addressed the Business of Fashion’s VOICES conference and the World Economic Forum too. Sinéad was presented with The Leadership Award at EcoAge’s Green Carpet Fashion Awards by Gucci CEO, Marco Bizzarri and by appointment of President Michael D. Higgins, Sinéad is a member of Ireland’s Council of State.
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