Empathy is the Foundation of Accessibility Culture

Man in sunglasses with a tablet at a conference table with a group of people

Accessibility Testing is only One Aspect of Accessibility Culture

Not technical knowledge, but empathy, is the foundation of accessibility culture. In recent years, educational technology (EdTech) has made a greater effort to design learning materials that are accessible to everyone, regardless of learning style or ability.  Accessibility for everyone includes both students and teachers with disabilities, meaning both student-facing and teacher-facing components EdTech must be accessible. This is known as “full-stack” accessibility.  In order to accomplish full-stack accessibility, a method is required to test and measure the accessibility of their tools and content. I completed my educational career by designing a toolkit for accessibility testing in Educational Technology (EdTech). 

But before this can even begin, an understanding of the end-users is necessary.  A checklist, toolkit or deep knowledge of accessibility is not enough. These are technical measuring tools that can only function as well as their intent.  They can only function as well as their robustness.  Tools for “blindness” and tools for “deafness” don’t take into account the needs of, for example, the deaf-blind. This means that people with multiple disabilities can fall through the cracks when using a checklist. It is vital that organizations seeking to achieve “full-stack” accessibility understand and empathize with the needs of all people using their tools and accessing their content, including assistive technology users and people who have disabilities. Empathy is the foundation of accessibility culture. 

“Trying on” disabilities isn’t a good way to gain empathy

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”  But it is more than just “trying on” a disability.  Practices such as wearing a blindfold or spending an afternoon in a wheelchair, or imagining without evidence what it might feel like to have a disability are not the correct approach.  “Trying on” disabilities gives a skewed view of what it means to live with a disability every hour of every day. This simplified and situational simulation will not give a clear understanding of the needs of a person with a disability.  Wearing a blindfold isn’t the equivalent of living as a blind person, it is the equivalent of becoming blind quite suddenly. These practices can lead to feelings of fear or pity that are unhelpful in creating workable solutions to real obstacles faced.

Blind people who use a white cane to travel aren’t afraid of not being able to see because they know how to use this tool and interpret the cues it provides them in their environment.  Simply “trying on” a white cane while wearing a blindfold will not give you a good idea of what it is like to blind.  Using a white cane requires training, as does a wheelchair, a screen reader, and even closed captions. Unfamiliarity with disabilities can cloud your ability to clearly understand the barriers faced.  People who use these tools don’t want pity, they want practical solutions.  

Interacting with real people with disabilities: a better path to empathy

Using resources such as videos and articles produced by people with disabilities that discuss their needs is a better choice. Even more useful is working alongside and having honest discussions with people who will be using your organization’s tools and content. This means working with them, discussing the barriers they come across, and listening to their suggestions for functional, usable solutions.  These types of interactions will lead your organization to a better understanding of real people’s real needs. Personal input from someone interacting with your organization’s resources gives far better information than trying to simulate having a disability.  

It’s also useful to engage with people with disabilities in the community.  This can be in the form of testing groups for your organization’s tools and content, discussion groups between your staff and people with disabilities, and interaction with disability groups in the community. 

Inclusive hiring practices are one of the best ways to foster empathy. Including people with disabilities in your organization builds familiarity, camaraderie and a deeper understanding of the way in which people with disabilities interact with your organization’s tools and content.  

Leadership is a key component to empathy in accessibility culture

If empathy is the mother of accessibility culture, then leadership is its father.  Buy-in from management from the top down through the staff of your organization will foster serious engagement with people who have disabilities. Inclusive hiring practices lead to solutions that have the support needed to succeed. Management needs to support these inclusive hiring practices, disability working groups, and collaboration with people who have disabilities to encourage real empathy for those who use your tools and content differently. Support of an inclusive environment and accessibility culture from the top will promote its adoption at all levels of the organization.  Empathy is the foundation of accessibility culture, and your organization’s leadership can foster empathy with inclusive policies. 

Accessibility happens when the design of products, devices, services, and environments takes into consideration the needs of the full range of human diversity. However, as Jutta Treviranus emphasizes, “Accessibility is a precarious value; almost everyone agrees it is important, but often it is the first thing that is compromised when there is a time or budget crunch or when other priorities arise.” Leadership must ensure that accessibility happens, that empathy is gained, and that solutions are created addressing the real needs of real people with disabilities. Accessibility culture goes beyond checklists and toolkits to include a true empathy with the intended end-users, and that empathy for all users is what truly drives accessibility within an organization. 

Want to learn how empathy builds accessibility culture within your organization?  Equidox can help

   

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Amelia Wang

Amelia is a passionate and enthusiastic accessibility practitioner and inclusive designer. Before joining Onix, Amelia worked as an Accessibility Specialist for several Ministry departments of the Ontario Government in Canada. She assisted the Ministries in making their public-facing websites and web content compliant with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA. Amelia has also trained government employees in creating accessible has a master's degree in Inclusive Design at OCAD University. Her master’s thesis, entitled Inclusively Designed Toolkit for Monitoring Technology Accessibility, was presented at the Guelph accessibility conference 2018 and CSUN conference 2019. She was a member of the Inclusive Design Research Cente.