• August 21, 2019
  • Luke

Accessibility Advocacy & Disability Etiquette

In July, #a11yTO hosted a meetup to provide a starting point for members of the tech community interested in improving the accessibility of our digital world. 

#a11yTO (shorthand for the 11 characters between “A” and “Y” in ‘accessibility’) is all about welcoming people in the GTA to the conversation about digital accessibility and inclusive design. They host regular Meetups, and a conference in the fall, to provide a welcoming place for people to learn, share ideas, experiences, and solutions, and collaborate on building a more inclusive web. 

Janis Yeeexplored what it means to advocate for accessibility in technology. Advocacy work aims to influence decisions within a system or institution, and is all about using soft skills to make space for accessibility at every table. She described a progression of impact from yourself as an individual, to your peers, your team, your company, and your community: 

Becoming an advocate means starting with your passion and strong beliefs. She reminded us that it is not enough to just be the squeaky wheel – you have to ‘bring your own grease’ and be ready to do the work! 

Sharing that passion with your peers doesn’t require you to be an expert, but to be oriented towards learning and asking questions. At the team level, accessibility touches all sides of your product. Janis highlighted the role of Product Owners in understanding the diversity of users, and acting as a hub between business, design, and development. 

At the company level, you may begin anywhere on the Accessibility Maturity Model, but the ultimate goal is full executive support and thought leadership. At the community level, we are lucky to live in Toronto with opportunities to attend events, like #a11yTO’s conference, and share our experiences and strategies. 


Accessibility Maturity Model

She used the example of The Little Engine That Couldto remind us that the intention to learn and advocate is all you need to get started, asking us “Who can make accessibility happen?” – anyone! 

After Janis spoke, John McNabb presented a brief, but thorough, crash course in Disability Etiquette. 

He covered many topics, from language to Spoon Theory, but a few key takeaways were: 

  1. Disability strategies are about removing barriers 

    With Disabilities (PwD’s) are the largest minority – we will all be counted within this group at some point in our lives. Disability is now understood to be a mismatch between human traits and the environment. This places the emphasis on removing barriers, not on individual adaptation. 

    The Persona Spectrum infographic by Microsoft illustrates that disabilities can affect any of our senses, and can be Permanent, Temporary, or Situational. 

    One example would be, for Touch, an amputee may permanently use only one arm. However, non-disabled people may become temporarily (broken arm) or situationally (holding a new baby) disabled at different points in their lives. 

  2. Design accommodations can benefit everyone 

    John reminded us that many assistive technologies are now considered commonplace, and useful for everyone. When we culturally forget something was originally assistive technology, this is known as the “curb cut effect”. Curb cuts were originally designed for people using wheelchairs, but are now used by bicycles, skateboards, strollers, shopping carts, and to indicate crosswalks. Other examples of originally assistive technologies: typewriters, audio books, close captioning, & electric toothbrushes! 


    Equality vs. Equity vs. Liberation


  3. Equality vs. Equity vs. Liberation 

    When thinking about designing for disability, it is always useful to remind ourselves of the distinction between equality, equity, and liberation. With equality, we all have the same thing. With equity, we all have what we need. With liberation, the systemic barrier or challenge has been removed. Our current understanding of disability focuses on liberation, as the best way to move forward, together. 

In Toronto, we are lucky to have welcoming groups like #a11yTO hosting important conversations and knowledge-sharing events like this Meetup. To continue learning, John shared some hashtags you can follow on Twitter (#YouDontLookSick, #Ableist, #Ableism, #AbledsAreWeird, #Spoonie), and recommended a new CBC show, You Can’t Ask That.

Many summer camps take actions large and small to remove barriers from any camper participating in their communities. As Janis emphasized, soaking up information like a sponge is the first step towards deepening our disability awareness, and gaining confidence as advocates to address structural and cultural barriers in our personal and professional lives. 

Anyone can make a difference, as long as we tell ourselves, “I think I can!” 


Luke wearing a baseball cap covered in birds

Love your Software, LukeW lukew@campbrain.com