What Being in the Disabled Community Has Taught Me About Accessibility and Inclusive Design

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In this post, I’ll share some lessons I've learned about disabilities, accessibility, and inclusive design.

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Reading Time: 8 minutes

Introduction

Imagine you’re shopping for a few groceries you need for dinner tonight, but the aisles with the items you need are roped off. Signs read, “Items in this aisle may be requested from the service desk.” Annoyed, you ask for what you need, but the clerk tells you it will take a few days to get the items. Annoying, right? Now imagine the clerk removes the ropes from the aisles when someone else wants the same items, so they can get them immediately. That’s not fair, is it? Yet that’s what many people with disabilities experience every day. If a person has to ask for an accessible version of a document, website, or course, that’s not inclusion. And it’s not fair. I want to challenge everyone in L&D (myself included) to prioritize accessibility and inclusion so the learning experiences we design are equitable for all.

As I mentioned in a previous post, until I developed disabilities of my own, accessibility was not at the forefront of my thoughts. Like many in the L&D industry, I thought mainly in terms of captions and alt text. And—I’m ashamed to admit it—I viewed accessibility as a compliance task, something I checked off because it was required.

But ten years ago, I sustained a concussion that never fully healed, leaving me with acquired dyslexia, dyscalculia, chronic migraine, and other challenges. I later developed additional disabilities that led me to start connecting with members of the disability community. 

This experience has taught me to consider a broader definition of disabilities and accessibility so I can build learning and development opportunities that are truly inclusive. In this post, I’ll share some lessons I’ve learned about disabilities, accessibility, and inclusive design. I’ll continue the discussion in next week’s post, when I’ll focus on inclusive design principles.

A Few Words About Words

First things first. “Disabled” is not a bad word. Some people use euphemisms like “differently abled” or “dis/Ability” instead of “disabled” or “disability.” However, those words indicate a discomfort with disabilities and are not generally seen as positive by members of the disabled community.

Second, most publications advise using “person-first” language, such as “person with autism” instead of “autistic person.” Some people with disabilities, however, view person-first language as inauthentic, as if their disability is an accessory they carry around with them rather than an integral part of who they are. When in doubt, it’s always best to ask the individual.

Third, I’d like to clarify what I mean by accessibility and inclusive design. You may see varying definitions for these terms. In my view, accessibility is the bare minimum—like asking someone to a dinner party and making sure they have a place at the table. But inclusive design is like talking to your guests ahead of time so you can plan the dinner especially for them—caring enough to find out their food preferences and dietary restrictions, as well as knowing what topics of conversation they’re interested in, or what party games they might want to play. In short, it’s about empathy and making everyone feel like they belong.

“Accessible by design means embedding accessibility, and the insights of people with disabilities, into the design process.”

Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer for Microsoft

Not All Disabilities Are Visible

You can’t always tell whether someone has a disability just by looking at them. I remember one particularly exhausting work trip a few years after my injury. Chronic fatigue was a huge issue then, and on that day, I had a horrible migraine that came with dizziness and nausea. After managing to drive two hours to the Dulles airport to catch my flight home, by the time I reached Atlanta for my layover, the pressure from the flight had me feeling even worse. I took a seat on the train between terminals so I wouldn’t lose my balance. A passenger standing near me glared at me with open contempt, probably assuming I was stealing a seat from someone who had “real” disabilities.

As the saying goes, you never know what people are going through. I’ve had clients tell me their courses don’t need to be accessible because “we don’t have any blind employees” or other statements to the same effect. Remember, just because you can’t see a disability doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Many employees don’t self-report disabilities. Some aren’t comfortable with the label “disability.” Others may be concerned that reporting a disability would have detrimental effects on their career. So instead of relying solely on HR records, we could simply ask employees: “How can we help you do your job better?” This question could uncover many types of improvements in the workplace, not just for people with disabilities.

Challenge Your Assumptions

At first glance, some invisible disabilities might look like behavioral problems, social awkwardness, or something else. When we notice someone’s behavior seems “off,” we sometimes make assumptions. Consider these examples:

  • If a person doesn’t look at you when speaking to you, do you assume they’re distracted, untrustworthy, or disrespectful? For people with autism, eye contact can be extremely uncomfortable or even painful.
  • If a person doodles all through a meeting, do you assume they’re not paying attention? For many people with ADHD, doodling makes it easier for them to concentrate. In fact, it’s been shown to improve focus and memory for many people.
  • If someone has slurred speech, talks slowly, or mixes up words, do you assume they’re drunk or not very smart? These can all be symptoms of a brain injury or other neurodiversity and are not indicators of a person’s intelligence.

I used to wear a special T-shirt when I had to run errands on “bad brain days” (as I called them). It said, “I’m not drunk. I have a brain injury.” Awkward? Maybe, but it helped buy a little patience with cashiers or bank tellers when I struggled with word finding or sensory processing issues. However, hidden disabilities don’t usually come with a label.

I’ve often heard dismissive statements like, “My brother had a concussion and was completely fine in a week,” or “I’m allergic to strawberries, but I eat them all the time.” (If you’re wondering what food allergies have to do with disabilities, read this post.) To paraphrase Anja Hartleb-Parson from her recent TLDCast episode about her experience with autism, if you’ve seen one person with a disability, you’ve seen one person with that disability. Everyone is different. We need to stop making assumptions.

Some Disabilities Are Dynamic

Maybe you’ve seen the meme that shows a woman in a grocery store standing up from her seat on a motorized cart. The caption declares something like, “Miracle in Aisle 5!” This attempt at humor plays on the assumption that if a person uses a wheelchair sometimes, but not all the time, they’re lazy or faking their condition.

But dynamic disabilities exist, meaning symptoms can vary from day to day. A person with a chronic illness may be able to perform tasks on one day they can’t do on another. Many people who can walk short distances use a wheelchair for trips to the store, the zoo, or anywhere else that requires a lot of walking.

It’s not only mobility issues that can be dynamic. In the first few years after my head injury, there were some days I could facilitate meetings, write reports, and manage projects as well as I used to. Other days, I had trouble forming coherent sentences or following conversations. Stress and fatigue exacerbated my symptoms, so I had to learn to closely manage my workload so I could manage my condition. To put it in L&D terms, I had to manage my cognitive load.

If an employee says they need accommodations, we shouldn’t question why they need them or assume that because they can do a task without adjustments on one day, they don’t ever need those adjustments.

We All Benefit from Inclusive Design

No one is exempt from disabilities. Although some people are born with a disability, others may develop one from an illness, injury, or other medical condition. Many people experience temporary disabilities such as a broken leg, shoulder surgery, or concussion. When you create accessible courses, the person you end up helping might even be yourself.

Inclusive design benefits everyone. In fact, you might already use accessibility features. For example, you might set your phone to vibrate, taking advantage of haptic technology. You might be part of the 41% of adults who use voice search at least once per day. Or you might watch movies with captions on like I do—and like a majority of people do, according to a national survey.

Nothing About Us Without Us

One in four adults in the U.S. has a disability that impacts major life activities. Yet all too often, accessibility is treated as an afterthought. Even when accessibility is built into the design, people with disabilities are rarely consulted to find out if the features included are the ones they need.

Did you know more than 37.5 million adults in the U.S. have difficulty hearing? Many more have an auditory processing disorder, in which the ears and brain don’t work well together. Yet, most movie theaters still don’t show captions on the screen. Thanks to a 2016 update, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires movie theaters to provide closed captioning devices at a customer’s seat on request. However, these devices force the moviegoer to choose whether to look at the handheld screen for the captions or the big screen, where the action is. That’s not inclusion. It’s almost as bad as these photos of unusable wheelchair ramps.

Another example of an accessibility fail is adding narration to a course to make it more accessible to those with low vision, without giving learners a choice. Have you ever listened to a blind person use a screen reader? Since they use screen readers so frequently, most become accustomed to listening at high speeds. As Chancey Fleet shared in a tweet, she processes speech at 600 words per minute, whereas the typical narrator speaks at about 160 words per minute. Courses that force her to wait out this relatively snail-paced narration before proceeding are ableist—discriminatory against people with disabilities.

Screenshot of a tweet from @ChanceyFleet that reads: Dear instructional designers: I process speech at 600 words per minute. My brain does not want to listen at 160. If your "self-paced" learning module presents the text but makes me wait out the speaker before I advance, I can't focus on learning because I'm boiling with frustration.

Tweet by Chancey Fleet April 29: Dear instructional designers: I process speech at 600 words per minute. My brain does not want to listen at 160. If your "self-paced" learning module presents the text but makes me wait out the speaker before I advance, I can't focus on learning because I'm boiling with frustration.

Summary

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my own experience with disabilities in the last ten years is that I still have a great deal to learn. Listed below are some resources I’ve found to expand my understanding of these topics. And my favorite way to learn about accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities is by connecting with others. You can find me on LinkedIn, or post a comment below to start a conversation.

Resources for Learning More

What I'm Reading

As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn a small amount if you purchase from the above links. This does not affect the price you pay.

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