Creating a culture of accessibility

Taylor has produced an alternative audio version for readers who wish to listen instead. (Taylor Katzel/ CBC)

“I’ll give you a little tidbit that a coworker once shared: one ‘ding’ means the elevator’s going up, two means it’s going down.”

“Does three mean it’s going back in time? Fingers crossed!”

On my first day of work at the CBC, my department manager was kind enough to share this accessibility wisdom with me, and even kinder for laughing at my dad joke (no disrespect to the many dads out there — don’t worry, you’re totally funny! Trust me).

As the day continued, dozens of strangers became acquaintances and co-workers, each receiving my standard spiel:

“I’m Taylor. Just so you know, I’m visually impaired. If you see me around and want to say hi, just make sure you identify yourself so I know who’s speaking.”

Disclosure in the workplace is a tricky subject in the disability community since it can very much feel like telling a secret. Because we have such loaded histories tied to this information, it can feel like an incredibly intimate exchange, especially when it’s the first thing you say to someone.

For me, it’s proactive damage control. When I first became visually impaired and legally blind three years ago due to a deteriorative genetic disorder called LHON (Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy), I did not disclose. I was ashamed. I dealt with internalized ableism. I am convinced that all of the people who waved at me during this time — from across streets, cubicles, cafes, or otherwise — have dedicated a Facebook group in my honour where they probably brainstorm ways of one day getting me back for all of their unreciprocated waves.

Thankfully, everyone at CBC seemed incredibly receptive to my request. Within a few hours, several co-workers had approached me, almost delighted to re-introduce themselves.

“Hi, it’s Cathy.”

“Hey Taylor, we met earlier — I’m Rachel.”

“Megan here!”

Like my department manager from before, many of these people entertained my terrible sense of humour in a way that felt natural and genuine.

OK — sometimes their reactions read as, “That was genuinely a bad joke,” but at least my being gregarious didn’t catch anyone off guard. Believe it or not, many people in my day-to-day life are surprised that someone with a disability can have a sense of humour. This is just one of the many ways that stigma manifests itself, and why it’s so important to have things like the PWD (Persons with Disabilities) initiative now offered through the CBC, which I am proudly a part of.

Integrating persons with disabilities into our public broadcasters, our law firms, our parliament, our hospitals and our Tim Hortons is critical to “de-othering” a community that is often looked at as less-than and cumbersome.

Ding!

Still crossing my fingers at the possibility of time travel, I enter the elevator by myself for the first time. I am glad to see the touch-screen navigation but more so relieved to see that there is also a tactile keypad since — even though touch screens make me feel like Elon Musk — I can’t read the interface. My fingers quickly find the braille dot on the center of the keypad and use it as a marker to locate the other numbers.

The CBC has practised good accessibility by including both options. Unfortunately, accessibility is more often completely overlooked when embracing new technologies.

For example, Subway recently abandoned most of their manual fountain drink machines in favour of touch-screen soda dispensers. Even though the former will celebrate its 200th birthday next year (I’m serious, Google it), it’s the fancy new machine that isn’t accessible for me. Somehow, the largest fast food chain in the world forgot about its 300 million potential customers who are blind or visually impaired.

Ding, ding!

This time, the sound is an alert from my insulin pump. I know what you’re thinking: wait, he has diabetes, too? Is it because he’s so sweet? The answer is yes to both questions, and it’s also because I’m a bit of a genetic nightmare. In fact, many people in the disability community live with multiple disabilities, which interact in complicated ways.

Take me in this moment, for example, craning my neck down awkwardly to press my face up right against my pump, using every ounce of peripheral vision to read the tiny on-screen alert. Taking insulin this way can, of course, lead to a lot of inaccuracies, but there are no insulin pumps in Canada that are accessible for the visually impaired. Even though vision loss is the number one complication of diabetes, and even though insulin pump technology is highly advanced, there is no voiceover or simple vibrate function to emulate menu toggling. Again, new technology leaves accessibility by the wayside, in a wheelchair, with no ramp in sight.

But all hope is not lost. In fact, there is perhaps more hope than ever. For example, Riya Karumanchi — a 15-year-old from Canada — recently innovated the white cane to help blind people navigate better, integrating GPS and vibration into its design. Remarkably, this update seemed hardly innovative to her. In fact, she had “always thought that the white cane had some sort of technology in it to help a person navigate.” Growing up in a culture of technology, Riya’s schema leads her to view our inventions as already conforming to a certain tech-standard, a standard that has only been set in her lifetime. When things lag behind that standard, their inadequacy is not only egregious, it’s downright confusing. In Riya’s case, it was actually shocking.

Now, imagine the opposite. Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to live in a culture of accessibility. Where accessibility is muscle memory. Where the way we view new technology is funneled through a schema that dictates full accessibility as the standard. Imagine — in some future submarine sandwich shop — the full-out breakdown someone like Riya would have in witnessing the same soda-fountain oversight. And remember, again, what can be — what has been — accomplished in her lifetime.

So how do we create a culture of accessibility?

Ding, ding, ding!

Finally, my finger-crossing pays off, and the elevator moves forward in time a whole two weeks. Ninth floor.

I head off to my meeting with Patrick Dunphy, Program Manager for digital accessibility, to talk about the assistive technology I use and the content types I find challenging as a visually impaired user. Throughout our conversation, Patrick is animated and clearly passionate about the topic. It isn’t long before we’re talking big picture, and Patrick shares a point that I find particularly resonant:

“Knowledge and awareness of accessibility can no longer be held solely at the level of people who create the experiences.”

This idea gets at the crux of what I believe may lead to that cultural shift: Too often, workplaces, universities, and other institutions adopt a top-down approach to accessibility education. Problem is, this approach to dissemination means that the knowledge often stays at the top. A co-worker recently echoed the same sentiment while referring to a previous workplace:

“We were told to make things accessible but didn’t really know what accessibility meant.”

Well, what does accessibility actually mean?

Truth is, the definition is constantly evolving, and with so much diversity in ability, it’s entirely unique from person to person. So, when people are told to “think accessibility,” even when presented with slides, fact-sheets, workshops, or otherwise, an aspect of pragmatics — and humanity — is lost that is key to a flexible understanding. The most effective education involves a change in thinking, where seeing through the eyes of people with disabilities becomes reflexive.

In my opinion, greater representation is the key to cultural change and to building this schema. When people with disabilities are represented in the workplace, the effect goes even further than de-othering to a more powerful place of empathy. Accessibility becomes a personal investment for the able-bodied. If you see Saana, a hearing-impaired co-worker who sits to your left, work through dozens of accessibility barriers on a daily basis, you are not only given an education but can also more readily see yourself in her position.

Then, when writing that next article, thinking, “How can I make this more accessible for Saana?” is more intuitive. More importantly, changing the way people think instead of relying on top-down dissemination promotes creative foresight — the skills needed to predict accessibility barriers beyond what a workshop could ever tell you. The more representation, the more people are comfortable disclosing, the more visibility, the closer we get to a culture of accessibility.

After our meeting, Patrick invited me to present to CBC’s UX (User Experience) Roundtable — the people who are responsible for designing CBC’s various digital products (i.e. websites, apps, etc). Naturally, this group plays a large part in accessibility.

The following week, I entered a room with the 20 or so people on the UX team. To begin the presentation, I moved into a small alcove branched off from the larger presentation room and perched behind a recycling bin. In an effort to paint myself as someone important enough to have LinkedIn premium, I projected back to the group through the door frame:

“FEEL FREE TO APPLAUD — LOUDLY — AS I RE-ENTER THE ROOM.”

I started by asking who knew someone close to them with a disability (spoiler alert: it was everyone). Then, I talked about my story. I talked about Subway and I talked about insulin pumps. I talked about how when things aren’t accessible, it slows us down and perpetuates the idea that we are lazy. We are not lazy. I talked about the irony of this, how we — people with disabilities — are constantly working twice as hard just to catch up. And we desperately want to be in the lead.

Most importantly, I talked about how people, especially designers, can make a difference. By making things accessible, they allow us to work. They allow for representation. They allow us to catch up.

In the weeks afterward, several people from the presentation shared personal anecdotes with me over email:

“My mum has macular degeneration…so accessibility means a lot to me.”

“It’s nice to be reminded that the people we design for aren’t homogenous. A close friend of mine has mobility issues.”

These messages made me smile. Perhaps they will think of their mum, their close friend, or even me when designing their next project. This is the power of personal connection, of personal investment.

For the record, I think that CBC is miles ahead as far as accessibility goes, not only because of initiatives like the PWD placement program, but also at the employee level, where I’ve found people to be quite “woke.”

However, CBC’s head start is all the more reason to push the envelope. As the public broadcaster and as a Crown corporation we are looked at as a role-model. So, the higher we push the standard, the closer that cultural shift becomes. Beyond this, the CBC is a storyteller, and authentic storytelling relies on lived experiences. Including people with disabilities — with our loaded histories, with our resilience, and with our superior sense of humour — creates greater depth in our content and expands our capacity for storytelling beyond the same old narrative. We are a well waiting to be tapped.

Now, if you’re ever in an elevator and see a guy with his face pressed up to his insulin pump, feel free to say hi. Just make sure to identify yourself first.