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This blog post is written for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010 celebrated on May 1.
Our community's name – AccessAbility – is a play on the word accessibility. The first "i" in the correct word is replaced by an "a" to emphasize ability. Our name puts focus on the ability to access… whatever. Our community focuses on accessibility as it applies to technical communicators and the field of technical communication; how to prepare material that is accessible by everyone or how can we make the preparation of material accessible by any technical communicator. An example of the last point could be a blind person being able to prepare documentation without the authoring tool creating a barrier. In the year 2010, a focus like this ought to be a given.
You see, there is a core of people who work on the topic of accessibility on a daily basis in their professional lives. There are also those who need "things" to be accessible on a daily basis in their lives. Aside from these two cases, is anyone even aware of accessibility issues? A blank stare seems to be the standard reaction when you ask "what about accessibility"? Are those of us who think about accessibility all the time a minority? How do we spread an awareness of inclusion and equality in a way that sticks?
To me, this is a matter of a mindset. Personally, I have to go outside the contraints of the technical communication category. I look at everything in life, but I can always bring the lesson learned back to technical communication.
- When I take the Metro and see a sign declaring the elevator out of order, I immediately think of people in wheelchairs or with canes or baby strollers who cannot take the stairs like I can. I don't ignore the sign because it really doesn't apply to me. I think, "how could this be fixed so no one has a problem?"
- When I listen to the bus driver make an unclear announcement about the next busstop, I think about the blind person who is dependent on a clear and ungarbled message to get off at the right stop. I think that the bus companies should do an overhaul of their loudspeaker system and train their drivers in the importance of clear speech. (This is actually happening in my corner of the world as GPS systems are being put in place and professionally made taped announcements are being used, which let the driver focus on driving.)
(I think my interest in technical communication and accessibility is what now makes me aware of accessibility issues all the time. In fact, now I can't stop noticing accessibility issues everywhere!)
The examples I list here are outside an office workplace, but a technical communicator can use her skills to evaluate the situation and communicate the issue and possible solutions in writing to the authorities. I like to think that we can do a better job than many people simply because of the skills we have from our work. One of those skills is responsibility. If we discover a bug in the product while preparing documentation, we report it to the developers. I call my examples bugs, so I'd treat them the same way.
Let's go back to the workplace.
- How do you deal with a colleague with a broken leg? Do you have to make a lot of adjustments for that person and how do you feel about it?
- What if a job candidate came in – in a wheelchair? Would you focus on their skills with FrameMaker or their wheelchair? (And could the person even get into the building in a wheelchair?
- What if you had a colleague or employee with stress, bipolar disorder, or some other "invisible" disability? How would you deal with that? Would you care about them or the "bottom line"?
Could you think beyond the label of "disability"?
Ableism (or disablism as it is known in some countries) is sneaky, and invades even those with the best intentions. Pity is probably a typical reaction. "Poor thing." "I'd hate to be born like that." "How can they cope?" Those pity remarks are not well received! How do I know? Because I have read blog posts by people on the receiving end of those remarks. I've seen advertisements in old magazines soliciting support for a children's home – general children in poor health and with one or no parents. A photo of a child with a leg brace and crutches would be sure to bring in some money. Did anyone look at that child and think "that is a young person who can become a neuroscientist or an inventor"? Generally, the reaction is "poor thing". This is not a constructive attitude for anyone ever.
Making products that pose barriers to some users is also a form of this slap-in-the-face pity. "Sorry you can't use the mouse to access our wonderful offerings." "Oh, you can't hear the audio in this instructional video? Can't you find a friend to explain it to you?" "What do you mean by assistive technology?" "We don't have blind customers."
I have posed a lot of questions in this post. Sorry, but you have to do some work. We all do. We all have to look inside ourselves and think about our mindset when it comes to matters of inclusion and accessibility. I talked a lot about accessibility here and not directly about disablism. Accessibility is an area where technical communicators (of all abilities) can shine. There are subtopics of accessibility in so many other areas, too, such as management, so it should be easy to find an area where we can all take action right away. Taking action and looking forward is what I want to do.
P.S. Next time you hear someone say "we don't have blind customers" or basically write off the need to consider people with disabilities, tell them the UN enable website's Factsheet on Persons with Disabilities states there are 650 million people with disabilities in the world, and in the U.S. alone, the U.S. Department of Labor says people with disabilities are the third largest market segment.
For more articles written for "BADD2010", visit the home of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010.