Making (government) services accessible — what needs to be considered
What is Accessibility? Resident experiences are key.
For the last couple of months, my team has been working with residents to define accessibility. Asking people, in-person and online, “What does it mean to be accessible?” and “What barriers do you face when trying to obtain services at the city?” Getting diverse input from residents has been vital to our work because accessibility means different things to different people, in different situations.
While city services may be fairly standardized and uniform. Make an appointment. Mail in a form. Walk-in between 9 am and 4 pm, except on the third Friday of every month. The experiences of accessing services are as diverse as Austin residents. The complexity of residents’ lives are often at odds with the rigidity of services. In order to bridge this discrepancy, it is necessary to identify where and why these contradictions become barriers to access.
Several themes emerged early on in our outreach like mobility, digital and sensory access. Other issues like time and equity emerged as we talked to people about their experiences. Below are some of the main insights gleaned from residents’ and City staff feedback, with supporting insights beneath them.
What We Learned
Services have hidden costs and requirements, which create barriers for residents, especially those with limited resources.
People need help immediately, but receiving a service can take weeks or months. Service timelines aren’t built for urgency. A long wait time discourages people causing them to disengage, and in some cases results in additional costs, which leads to a more desperate situation for residents.
In-person services have rigid hours that don’t align with residents’ schedules. They force people to choose between obligations when they can’t afford to, like choosing between work or receiving services.
“Affordable” services aren’t truly “affordable.” They take more time to access them. And for residents with scarce and uncertain funds, time is precious.
Requirements like IDs, proof of an address, lack of a criminal record, proof of income, exacerbate inequities for Austin’s most vulnerable residents.
The systems that enable services suffer similar accessibility issues and dependencies.
Accessing services digitally is conditional. It requires infrastructure like wifi, devices to access the internet, content that’s resident-friendly and responsive to mobile or desktop devices, and digital literacy.
When accessibility isn’t integral, it stops people before they can even attempt to access services. People who can’t read English aren’t aware of services because English is the dominant language in outreach materials and social media. Residents with mobility issues are discouraged from using transit because current infrastructure design devalues shaded spaces, sidewalks, stops or benches.
Limited options restricts the people who are able to receive a service.
Several services only offer a single option for entry, which excludes individuals and whole communities. For example, requiring residents to make an appointment by phone excludes individuals who have hearing or speaking impairments. Additionally, only offering services online excludes people who need in-person help or have digital barriers.
Services that only accept checks or that are cash-free exclude people who don’t have access to credit.
In-person services don’t accommodate child care needs. Without child care options, parents have a difficult time accessing services or must bear the costs of private childcare.
Services aren’t designed for comfort or safety, putting residents in a vulnerable position that forces them to weigh personal wellbeing against services.
There are permanent, architectural barriers, and temporary, movable barriers. These barriers make infrastructure, like sidewalks, and physical space where individuals receive service inaccessible. Individuals want, need, have every right to know whether a space is safe. The lack of information regarding a space’s accessibility makes people unlikely to engage in services.
People who come in to access services feel devalued and stereotyped because there is a perception that city services are only for poor people.
Staff are stuck in a continuous cycle when trying to provide more accessible services.
Inaccessible services hamper engagement. Staff realizes that’s there’s a need to partner with people in the community with lived experience. But because services are inaccessible people with lived experience don’t bother to engage in those services. So city staff isn’t exposed to residents who could identify accessibility barriers in their services.
Residents need services and staff to continually adapt and improve, because being American with Disabilities Act,“ADA”, compliant alone isn’t enough. Exceptions and issues not covered by policy arise and need to be addressed.
The underlying theme of all of these insights is that the burden is always on the resident to access and use City services.
Services are inflexible and success uncertain. They exclude individuals who don’t have the luxury of being flexible. Residents have to maneuver City services with little to no support. They have to know what services are available, if they’re eligible, how to access services, and ultimately what to do if something goes wrong. They must trust that the space they’re entering is safe, or at least malleable enough to navigate. And that the gamble they’re taking will have benefits that outweigh potential risks and costs.
What we’ll do with what we learned
As city employees, we’re responsible for continually improving services to make them as accessible and effective as possible. Because we are empowered, we have agency to operate the levers and tools that affect the institution in which we work. We make decisions, which determine whether or not someone receives services. As well as the type, amount, and quality of the service delivered.
Our team is currently working with City employees in different departments and asking them how they believe they can make their services more accessible. We have a survey out and will identify projects for the upcoming year. In the next month we’ll have an update on those results.
Feedback is our watchword.
In the meantime we’d love to hear from you. What are your thoughts and experiences in making services accessible? Please leave a comment below or reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.