Welcome to the third installment of The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility. Today, I wanted to take a few minutes to chat with you about disability and inclusion.
Inclusion is one of those words that, when used too often, starts to lose its true meaning. It’s a little like love—it amazes me how I can say I love my fiancé with the same word I use to describe my feeling towards mint chocolate ice cream. After a while, if we let it, we lose the meaning and understanding of what love is.
And in looking at the world around me and the society I live in that prioritizes things like inclusion, tolerance and equality, I have to wonder if inclusion is starting to lose its impact, too.
But let’s take a step back. What, exactly, is inclusion? And how does inclusion relate to this series’ mission of helping able-bodied people to become allies with people with disabilities?
Include Accessibility in the Foundation
According to Merriam-Webster, include is defined as: “to take in or comprise as a part of a whole or group.”
Did you catch that?
“To take in or comprise as a part of a whole or group.”
Inclusion is not an afterthought. It’s part of the foundation.
While I was in university, I took several literature classes in which my instructors frequented the use of PowerPoint presentations in their lectures. While this didn’t pose a problem as a whole, the images were a challenge (for obvious reasons). In one particular class, to ensure that I didn’t miss out on any of the material, my instructor took it upon themselves to describe each image in their presentation in excruciatingly, vivid detail.
I sat at the front, scrunching down in my chair and wishing for Alice’s ‘drink me’ potion to make me shrink. You could feel it in the room; everyone knew that our instructor was describing the images just for me. And it was awkward.
I applaud my professor for making an effort to be inclusive. What I critique is their method.
I hope that we can all agree that chocolate chip cookies taste more delicious when the chocolate chips are baked into the dough and not merely dropped on top as decoration. When they are an essential ingredient in the making of the dessert, they cannot be added later and yield the same, yummy result.
Accessibility inclusion needs to be given the same treatment. It doesn’t function the way it ought to if it exists as an afterthought. For it to be effective at creating an inclusive experience for people of all abilities, it needs to be at the forefront.
So rather than add awkward, last-minute descriptions for the images in a PowerPoint, write an image description directly in the presentation so that it’s part of the presentation from the start. In doing this, you’ll let us know that you were valuing accessibility inclusion all along, and not simply scrambling to make it work when a disabled student shows up in your class.
Include Disabled People in the Discussion
But there’s a condition when it comes to being inclusive of the disabled community that can’t be overlooked.
Remember how accessibility is like the chocolate chips?
Disabled people are the cookies.
But, let’s look at this from another angle.
How do you think it would go if a cat tried to teach a bird how to fly. “No, not like that. Do it this way.”
What? Am I crazy? Maybe.
But maybe I’m eluding to a thread that is woven into the fabric of our society that frankly, needs to be cut out entirely.
I’m sorry to be blunt, [but what else is new, right?] Non-disabled people are very fond of telling disabled people how to handle their disabilities, without having any felt experience or knowledge of what it’s like to live with a disability.
And it needs to stop.
It happens in practical situations, when assistive technology organizations run by non-disabled people claim to know what equipment will best fit our individual needs, though we definitively tell them otherwise.
It happens in everyday conversations, when a disabled person is told not to be entitled when requesting accommodations to make something accessible.
It happens on a societal level, when changes are brought in that directly impact the lives of people with disabilities, but those people aren’t consulted or asked if the changes would even be of help.
A cat cannot teach a bird to fly since the cat itself cannot fly.
And a non-disabled person, well-meaning though they may be, cannot tell a disabled person how to best handle challenges that come with their disability because they themselves are not disabled.
Now, this isn’t to say that non-disabled people cannot offer suggestions, raise concerns or questions, or contribute in the greater discussion around disability and inclusion. It doesn’t mean that disabled people are never asked for their opinions, views or feedback on accessibility features or projects. It doesn’t mean that every non-disabled person is doing it wrong.
But what it does mean is that the voices of those in the disability community need to be the ones we go to first. We need to hear them out because issues of accessibility and equality directly impact their lives more than any other. We need them to explain what is helpful and what isn’t, and believe them when they do.
In the apartment building without an elevator, it isn’t the able-bodied person that will be most impacted if the elevator isn’t put in—it’s the person who uses a wheelchair, or the person with chronic fatigue syndrome, or the people with any number of conditions for whom elevators are essential to ensuring accessibility, equality and inclusion.
This is why the world needs to include the people who live with disabilities in the discussion from the get-go. We need to listen to their perspectives, validate their experiences and work to formulate a society that values inclusion as an essential aspect of our lives.
Because inclusion is a value, not about the practical considerations of buildings or university lectures, but a statement about the value of the people it impacts.
Chocolate chip cookies and cats… a post of widely varying analogies, but I hope you grasped my meaning.
Being inclusive isn’t a matter of simply not being left out. It’s a part of the foundation of the world we live in, or, to be more precise, the world I want to live in.
How have you seen people, businesses, and the world around you, be inclusive of people with disabilities? What have they done well? How could they improve? Let me know in the comments.
Be sure to stick around for the next post in the series!