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1.2: Accessibility

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    Summary: Accessibility
    • Accessibility is the quality of being able to be used, reached, entered, engaged with, or obtained
    • Reasonable accommodations are modifications made to a person’s environment to make something accessible to someone with a disability
    • For something to be accessible, it needs to be able to be physically, cognitively, and socially reachable
    • Universal design makes things accessible to everyone, but care must be taken to address conflicting access needs

    This book frequently discusses “accessibility.” Accessibility will come up in the context of civil rights and equitability, and in the context of history and policy. Accessibility is woven into disability culture itself, and is made explicit in the tenets of critical frameworks such as disability justice.

    Awareness of accessibility is part of thinking critically about disability, including how lack of access relates to structural ableism. Exercises [ADD LISTING AND LINKS] give you an opportunity to practice your own awareness of accessibility in the world around you. This textbook also aims to demonstrate some key aspects of accessibility.

    This introductory section provides some foundational information about what accessibility means and how it can be implemented.

    What Is Accessibility?

    “Accessibility” is the quality of being able to be used, reached, entered, engaged with, or obtained. If that seems very broad, it is. Accessibility can apply in many ways to many settings; for example “is that activity accessible to people without disposable income?” or “please do not make that accessible to the toddler.” Here we focus on accessibility in the context of disability. In other words, can people with disabilities use, reach, enter, engage with or obtain something.

    Reasonable Accommodations

    Unlike the broad concept of accessibility, “reasonable accommodations” only exist in the context of disability. Reasonable accommodations are modifications that are made to a person’s environment in order to make something accessible to someone with a disability. The term is connected to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability policy and law that is discussed in more detail in Chapters 4 – 7.

    Reasonable accommodations do not make things easier for disabled people. They make things possible.

    Types of Accessibility

    Accessibility is a large, interdisciplinary topic. It is of interest to engineers who design doors, designers who create user interfaces for software, special educators who work with students in classrooms, occupational therapists who work with patients in hospitals, stage managers who coordinate theater spaces, and countless others. There is more than one framework (Chapter 2) for understanding accessibility. For our purposes we will use the Information Worlds framework [REF].

    Physical accessibility – Can people use it?

    Physical accessibility relates to being able to manipulate, employ, or otherwise make use of something. For example, can people see the picture? Can they see visual formatting such as bold text or line breaks? Can they hear a recording or a sound that indicates a warning? Can they pick up the tool and use it? Can they enter the building?

    Examples of strategies to improve physical accessibility might be image descriptions or descriptive text for movies, tags that indicate the meaning behind visual formatting, subtitles for films or transcripts for podcasts, a light that displays along with a warning sound, specialized grips on tools, wheelchair ramps, lower counters, or sign language interpreters.

    Try It: Image Descriptions for Physical Accessibility

    There isn’t a single right way to describe images for people who cannot view them. Some people think it’s best to be very precise and literal; others think it’s best to capture the essence of the image. There’s even a group turning image descriptions into poetry (Chapter 8).

    In deciding how to describe an image, it may be helpful to consider the context in which the image is being used. Is it purely decorative? If not, what is the critical information it is providing? Is that information very specific, like a technical diagram, or is it more for the image’s emotional impact, or maybe to show what a speaker looks like? Another thing that may be helpful is to ask yourself, “If I was talking to someone on the phone and couldn’t text them this image, how would I describe it to them?” In any case, the image description should be short and pithy.

    Imagine that the first image is included on a web site about disability-related discrimination. What text would you use to describe it for someone who could not view it?

    Imagine that the second image is used by a family reading app to introduce the two hosts of the program. What text would you use to describe it to someone who could not view it?

    Cognitive accessibility – Can people understand it?

    Cognitive accessibility relates to being able to comprehend something. Do the words make sense? Are the sentences clear? Was the necessary background included? Were acronyms defined? Is it possible to figure out where to go, where to look, or what to focus on? Is it clear what the images or diagrams mean?

    Examples of strategies to improve cognitive accessibility might be using plain language (optimizing writing for a specific audience); providing easy-read versions of materials; presenting the same information in more than one way or multiple types of media; or using summaries, bullets, or highlights to emphasize key information.

    Plain language is language that enables people to find what they need, understand it on the first try, and use it to meet their needs ( ). Using plain language does not mean “dumbing down;” all of the key information needs to be retained, just delivered in a more accessible way. Plain language also does not always mean using simple words; indeed, sometimes removing technical terms or acronyms makes things harder to understand or removes key information. One example of this is that patients may not understand when healthcare providers ask, “would you like us to push on your chest and put a tube down your throat,” but they may be able to understand asked, “would you like us to give you CPR?” However, the technical terms may need to be defined or explained.

    Try It: Plain Language for Cognitive Accessibility

    Consider the following statement of rights from the American’s with Disability Act Subpart C:

    No qualified individual with a disability shall, on the basis of disability, be subjected to discrimination in employment under any service, program, or activity conducted by a public entity.

    How might you rewrite the text in language that’s accessible to a disabled adult with a middle-school reading level who needs to know their rights?

    Social Accessibility – Can people reach it economically / culturally?

    Social accessibility relates to being able to reach or engage with something from a socio-economic, geographic, or cultural perspective. People in general—and that includes people with disabilities—have a variety of lived experiences and come from many different regional or cultural backgrounds. Disabled people also may intersect with disability cultures and bring those backgrounds with them as well.

    Examples of strategies to improve social accessibility are being mindful of assumptions regarding lived experience or material access (for example, not assuming everyone has been able to travel abroad, or that everyone can pay for a coffee if someone in your group wants to meet up at a coffee shop); avoiding language that is derogatory or offensive; and using symbols that the community values.

    Social accessibility can be particularly difficult to achieve, in part because of the way that ableism is engrained in our culture. It can also be difficult for outsiders who may not understand the history and culture of specific disability communities. One example of this is the use of the puzzle piece symbol to represent autism. Outsiders to the Autistic community who have little insight into how the symbol has been used as a means to oppress autistic people may think it’s appropriate to use; however it is likely to turn off—or outright offend—most autistic people. To make materials more socially acceptable, instead use one of the community’s own symbols such as the rainbow-colored infinity symbol. Like the nuances surrounding respectful language, if you don’t know the socio-political landscape of a disability community, ask insiders before taking action.

    Universal Design

    Universal design is about creating things to be accessible for everyone. Universal design posits that making something more accessible to disabled people also makes it more accessible to everyone else. For example, the multi-use of wheelchair ramps for baby carriages, shopping carts, rolling suitcases, people who use other types of mobility devices, and anything else with wheels or difficulty climbing that needs to get up the stairs.

    While in theory universal design is a way to improve life for everyone, in practice it can meet with barriers when accessibility needs conflict. For example, making a piece of writing cognitively accessible to someone who requires a lot of specificity and technical jargon to accommodate their language pragmatics or social disability may make it inaccessible to someone who requires simple words and short sentences to accommodate their learning disability. In these cases, it may be necessary to compromise or to provide multiple ways of doing something to cover everyone’s access needs.

    Further Reading and Resources on Accessibility

    Resources for Audio and Visual Accessibility

    • Ways your native operating systems and common programs can help create transcripts
    • How to write good image alt text, with examples

    General Accessibility Resources

    • Really comprehensive, practical “How To” resource from Harvard that focuses on accessibility for people creating content (that would be you in this class!).
    • Web Accessibility Laws and Policy
    • Small intro to Universal Design

    This page titled 1.2: Accessibility is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dora Raymaker via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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