Accessibility: from rhetoric to reality
Société | Les individus
Is this accessible?
This question invites more questions. What is accessibility? How do we measure it? What does best practice look like, and what is the return on investment?
One dictionary describes it as, ‘the quality of being easy to obtain or use’, while another defines it as, ‘being easy to approach, reach, enter, speak with, use, or understand’. If you continue to unpick the seams of language, accessibility is ‘the design of products, devices, services, vehicles, or environments so as to be usable by Disabled people’.
But, this comprehension of accessibility is often considered as a burden, limited to outcomes of compliance. For many companies and leaders, it is an added expense associated with ramps or lifts that are for prospective customers, employees, or citizens, whom we might never be able to measure the value of. This mindset fails to see the opportunity within accessibility; one that supports the design of a built environment that will accommodate us as our bodies and lives change with age, and one that erases the innovation within accessibility. How many of us send text messages, use a voice-assistive device such as Alexa or siri, or wear eye-glasses? Each of these concepts are monikers or the innovation that can come from designing for and with Disabled people, and scaling the advancements for the benefit of all.
In my work as CEO of Tilting the Lens, I describe accessibility as, “a continuous and evolving practice. One that is achieved through intentional, meaningful, and intersectional participation of people with lived experience of exclusion. Accessibility must be key to each stage of a product, place or policy development, from ideation through to delivery and communication. Solutions must be designed with Disabled people to prioritise form and function and meaningful and deliberate accessibility results in the outcomes of belonging, equity, agency, creativity, innovation and pride.”
This is framed by my lived experience and expertise. I was born with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. My disability has immeasurably shaped me; it has given me a unique perspective, and a desire to not just understand the importance of creating a more accessible and equitable world, but to build and design it.
I could share many stories about my experiences and observations that bear proof of how the approach to accessibility is a legal requirement to be met, and not something that was implemented with a person’s experience and agency in mind. So, how do we ensure that hotels don’t place their accessible bathrooms in a space where there are three steps to the door, or that Deaf artists are not invited to be jury members at film festivals that don’t offer subtitles at screenings. How do we educate ourselves, and everyone around us, to keep asking the question “is this accessible?” How do we move from awareness to action and change the mindset and approach to accessibility? Let’s start with talking about who it is for.
Why it matters
Accessibility is more than ramps and step-free access. It is about equity and belonging. It is about people, and creating a world where everyone can engage in and participate in equitable and inclusive experiences. The ultimate goal of accessibility is independence, which means that Disabled people are equipped to participate in activities, and access resources without relying on others or facing significant barriers. This requires a commitment to removing physical and societal barriers, promoting inclusive attitudes and practices, and providing support and accommodations as needed.
There are many reasons as to why this work is important, and that it should be a priority. But, as an increasing number of organisations look to strengthen their ESG strategies, and underpin their unique proposition to investors and shareholders, it would be remiss to not mention that there is valuable, and largely untapped resource to be found in the Disabled community. But systemic biases within the recruitment process, means that public and private sectors continuously miss out on extremely skilled and passionate applicants. For example, how many of us create a job description wherein we ask potential applications to be ‘strong communicators’. The lack of specificity in this criteria means that those who are Deaf, or those who are strong verbal communicators, or are most successful with written communication, often exclude themselves from being a potential candidate as they are conditioned to believe that such a role is not for them.
Or, how many of us create a social media post, an ad campaign or re-design a website, wherein we do not embed key features of accessibility such as alt text, captions, colour contrast, or keyboard navigation, and the organisation misses out on an opportunity to reach a considerable market segment, while also accelerating your product or profile listing within search engines. For too long, we have questioned whether or not these audiences exist, and refrain from investing in what might be possible.
A shift in this process was perfectly exemplified when British Vogue committed to making their magazine available in physical and digital Braille for Blind, Deaf Blind and and low vision consumers. The announcement received unprecedented attention and a Blind reader who, for the first time ever, engaged with British Vogue, was surprised to discover that glasses for swimming were a reality.
My experiences of exclusion and inequity led me to set up Tilting the Lens, a consultancy I founded in 2021 to create a new definition for accessibility – one that brings about systemic, intersectional change with Disabled people. In the beginning, I thought success would be every fashion brand serving the Disabled market; for us to partner with luxury companies to create adaptive capsule collections that offered customers magnets instead of zips, or front-fastenings rather than a closing at the rear. But one year of practice taught me that – while this is a viable market opportunity, with Disabled people’s spending-power peaking at $1.7 trillion per year – this focus continues to place Disabled people outside of the fashion system, as customers to serve, rather than colleagues to support. So, we have expanded our client network, and offer a holistic service offering, working with HR leads, marketing executives, store planning experts, museum curators, storytellers, digital innovators, design teams, creative directors, and CEOs to reimagine and build a system that is for all of us, by all of us.
So, take in your space, observe the tasks that you have to complete today, and the objectives (personal and professional) that you are accountable for this week – how does accessibility feature? How can you improve your education and advocacy to move from rhetoric to reality?
I invite you to tilt your lens with us.