THE A-E-I-O-U’S OF ACCESSIBILITY — A IS FOR ASK

Welcome to a new mini-series on the blog, The A-E-I-O-U’s of Accessibility.

I’ve started this series because I want to delve into a few of the fundamental ways the able-bodied community can begin to help build an equal and accessible world for people of all abilities. So often, it can feel as though the disabled community is fighting this battle alone,, without the support of our able-bodied allies.

But sometimes, I think it’s because they just don’t know where to start.

That’s what I want to do in this series, give you five ways to start and to become that ally.

But why did I choose to use vowels?

Because in an alphabet of 26 letters, there are only five vowels—five vowels that are essential to the mechanics of communication. They are woven into the very fabric of language, and I cannot think of a single, English word without one.

Likewise, I believe that this series discusses things that are essential to the building of that equal and accessible world that I want to live in, and that we can only make happen together.

So let’s jump right in, with the first installment in our series: A Is For Ask.

Ask Because You Care

Be honest with me for a minute: When the cashier says, “how are you doing today?” do you return the question, and mean it?

I know I don’t. At least not as often as I’d like to. I’m usually in too much of a rush, feeling tired, or just “not in the mood to human today.” And I always leave feeling a little guilty.

Could I not have taken five seconds out of my day to ask another person how they’re doing? How much energy would I really have expended caring about their answer?

Definitely not enough to complain about.

But already, I’m sure some of you may be thinking, “But Rhianna, it’s just being polite. They don’t want to hear your life story.”

And you’d be right on both counts. Often times, it is simply out of respect that the “how are you” is asked, and most people don’t want to hear every detail of a stranger’s day.

But what do we do about the one person that needs to be heard? Who needs to be asked? Who needs to feel like someone cares about them? And since we don’t know who that person is, isn’t it our responsibility to give each person we encounter that opportunity?

Now, by saying this, I’m not implying that we need to ask every passerby on the street how they’re doing and dive into a detailed analysis of their personal life. Nor am I insinuating that we must speak to every person to care about them. Caring goes far beyond just verbal; opening doors for someone with their hands full, standing on the bus to let the elderly lady sit down, or simply giving a smile as you pass by can go a long way to show someone you care in one simple act of kindness.

Or simply being… yourself.

I remember, during my last year of university, I became utterly exhausted of the insincerity of the “how are you” exchange. I could almost taste the practiced, automatic question and answers, and I wanted to change it. Since I couldn’t force anyone else to be genuine in their answers, I committed to being more honest in mine.

I was always the first student to arrive for my History of the English Language class, and Jeremy was always next. When he entered and said, “Morning Rhianna, how are you today?” I took a breath.

“I’m…” I paused. “I just am today.” I sighed. It was a tough morning and I was overloaded by everything I had to get done. “How are you doing?”

Jeremy’s reply surprised me. “I just am, too.” His voice sounded tired, a stark difference from his cheerful good morning.

“I know,” I said quietly. “We’ll make it.”

That’s the only conversation I had with Jeremy throughout my four-year degree and dozens of shared English literature classes together. But to this day, I can’t help but wonder if, because I dared to be genuine in my answer—even though it wasn’t the most optimistic answer—it gave him permission to drop the “fine” facade and be genuine himself.

I wonder if he could tell that I cared.

After all, Jeremy was a person with a story that, whether I knew its content or not, was worthwhile and valuable. If I could show that I cared about him in one simple exchange, then for me, it was worth it.

If we don’t take the time to ask, we’ll never know the answer. And they’ll never know we cared.

Ask Because You Believe

If we never ask the question, we’ll never get the answer.

But what do we do when we get that answer, especially if the answer isn’t something we want to hear?

It saddens me to say that what I’m about to describe is not an uncommon occurrence in my life and in the lives of many other disabled individuals. Living with a disability comes with numerous challenges that are just par for the course—limited access to gainful employment, denied access to public establishments because of a service dog, adaptive equipment that’s too expensive for the majority to purchase, attitudes that treat us as inferior, and much more. But there’s one that hurts more than any of the others, because it cuts straight to the core of who I am.

And that is when my lived experience of disability is not believed.

When confronted with the sometimes negative reality of my life with a disability, I’ve heard a range of responses:

“We have good intentions.”
“You can’t blame us for not knowing.”
“You should just be grateful for what you have.”
“Why is it such a big deal?”

Why is it such a big deal?

This is why:

Because a response like this doesn’t dismiss the practical struggles of the disability, but it dismisses the real, raw struggles of the disabled person.

Why ask a question if you’re unwilling to accept the answer? Why take the time to invest in our stories if your response invalidates what we’ve shared? Why ask about the challenges we face with systemic inequality and discrimination if you’re going to defend the actions of the very ones who discriminate against us?

This, my friends, is why it’s a big deal. And it’s also why I’ll keep making it a big deal. Because I’m not talking only about accommodations or adaptations or a theory to be debated.

I’m talking about the lives of people you love—your neighbours, your friends, your families.

It’s our lives.

It’s my life.

And you can’t guarantee that it will never be yours, either.

If we don’t take the time to ask, we’ll never know the answer. And they’ll never know we cared.

And if you never take the time to listen, we’ll never know you heard us.

And we’ll never make progress toward equality and accessibility. That will only happen once we stop segregating the able-bodied from the disabled and start asking, “What can we do to make this a better world for all of us?”

ON ACCESSIBILITY — IT’S JUST THE RIGHT THING TO DO

Accessibility is near and dear to the hearts of many a person with a disability.

Why?

Because for me, it’s how the world tells me, “Hey Rhianna, we value you. You are important. We value your contributions to society as a person, and we want you to know that you matter.”

But unfortunately, this isn’t always the message that I receive.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this:

After moving to a new city in early 2021, I was in search of a family doctor. I happened upon one practice in my neighbourhood and they had an application for prospective patients to complete. When I called the clinic to enquire if they had an electronic version that they could send to me, the receptionist rudely informed me that the application is only available in hard copy print and in no way could they provide an alternative format. My only option was to have a sighted friend fill it out for me. Having no other choice, I did just that.
My landlady picked up the form, and before leaving the office, asked that same receptionist about their policy of no electronic documents.
“We cannot provide electronic forms due to the possibility that someone may copy it for their own purposes,” came the clipped reply.
“Like they can’t do that with a photocopier,” my landlady said as she walked out with the printed application.
Needless to say, I never returned the form to that practice, resolving to find one that prioritized their patients’ needs above their convenience.

Yes—I said convenience. Because the truth is that it is often more a matter of convenience rather than an inability to accommodate.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a perfect example. When it became unsafe to attend medical appointments in person, and appointments went to virtual platforms, I breathed a tentative sigh of relief. On one hand, previously inconvenient obligations were now made easier and more accessible as I didn’t have to arrange rides to and from the clinics, spend money for the time and transportation, and I was able to handle my affairs independently. But on the other hand, a question was niggling at me, and the friends in whom I confided in, were also wrestling with this question.

Why did the change that disabled people had been lobbying for only come about when it became an inconvenience for the able-bodied? How come, when the world was thrown into unprecedented chaos, could we so quickly adapt to alternative means of living, yet, it was too inconvenient or “not available at this time” when a disable person asked for it before?

Was the voice of the non-disabled truly that much more valued than that of the disabled?

Let me tell you another story, thankfully one with a happier ending. I do not want this post to be all doom-and-gloom because there are people and businesses out there that do prioritize accessibility and the people who live with disabilities. It’s just sadly, the rarity.

It was November 2020, and I was sitting on the guest bed at a friend’s house, dialing the number for the walk-in clinic to ask for a prescription for antidepressant medication. When the receptionist answered, I launched into my explanation, undoubtedly a defensive tone to my voice: “I’m calling because I’m fully blind and use a screenreader on my laptop, but I wasn’t able to do the booking online as you requested. But I really need this medication for my depression and I was wondering if I could book a doctor’s appointment through you, please?” I waited, a bundle of nerves in the bottom of my belly.
“Of course. I’m sorry that the website was not accessible for you. Let me connect you with one of our nurses who will help you complete the mental health questionnaire for the doctor.”
I was astounded. Did they just accommodate my blindness without so much as a blink? I wasn’t reprimanded for going against their written request to book online only. I never once felt like a waste of time, or an inconvenience. I was heard, accepted, and treated like a valued individual.

How different are those two experiences? Where one wasn’t willing to think outside the box and offer their best service to a potential patient, the other was willing to recognize where their system was lacking and remedy that the best they could in the interest of getting me the help I needed. Where I felt excluded and devalued by the first practice, the second overwhelmed me; they cared about me, and I don’t know if any able-bodied person can truly understand how amazing this feeling is.

The problem is that it shouldn’t feel amazing. It should feel normal.

That’s what it comes down to. Accessibility is more than a laundry list of physical adaptations to be made in order to appease the disabled person. It’s making the world accessible for every person that lives in it, ensuring we know that you see us as valuable and equal.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a few suggestions for those physical accommodations I mentioned, as, making a space, digital or physical, a welcoming and inclusive one for all, is a vital part in the wellbeing of
Let’s consider a few scenarios and how you can work to improve:

• Your website isn’t accessible for screenreader users? Hire an accessibility tester to offer feedback on ways you can improve.

• Are your virtual presentations audio-only? Provide closed captions for those that may be hard-of-hearing.

• Do you post lots of photos on your social media? Write an alt text [alternate text] description of the photo so that your visually impaired followers know what the photo is.

• Do your clients need to complete forms or paperwork for your services? Offer them the option to fill it out online or in an electronic document so that their personal information (like medical records, and identification) can be disclosed privately without a third-party.

There are countless ways to be more inclusive and accessible to someone with a disability, and so often, it’s simple and easy to incorporate into your business plan or process.
But the simplest, and best, thing to do for accessibility?

Ask.

If you want to know if your business is accessible, reach out to the disability community for input. Trust me: we won’t berate you for not already being accessible; we’re just grateful that you value us enough as people and as consumers to make your business accessible for us.

This article, “7 Reasons Accessibility is Good for Business” sums it up well in their 7th point: “The previous 6 reasons all amount to one main one: building sites and apps that are accessible is just the right thing to do! Just like you would hold open the door for your elderly neighbor who has trouble walking, you’d want to extend that same courtesy to everyone who wishes to enter your digital environment.
And this doesn’t even have to be for ethical/moral reasons – even if business outcomes are your number one priority, you’d naturally want as many users and/or customers as possible. Preventing people from purchasing your products or using your services would be the near equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.”

I am a person who, day in and day out, lives on the cusp of accessibility; every time I visit a website, download an app, or walk through the door of a brick-and-mortar store, I don’t know if I’ll be facing a welcoming and accommodating space, or one where I have to fight for what the able-bodied take for granted. When I visit a doctor’s office, will I be able to independently fill out my medical information or be subjected to share it with a third-party because they only have a printed form? Will the cashier at Walmart address me as my own person, or direct all conversation to the able-bodied friend that I’m shopping with because they don’t realize that I’m 25 and don’t need someone to speak for me?

Accessibility isn’t an inconvenience. It’s a necessity. Don’t do it just because I’m asking you to. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. Do it to show that you love and value your disabled friends and neighbours.

Do it to make this world a better one for all of us.