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The Essence of Accessibility

Posted December 14, 2022


Posted December 14, 2022

Accessibility icon surrounded by boxes
Accessibility icon surrounded by boxes

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In this post, Itto Outini explains why accessibility means more than being able to browse a website or navigate a physical space.

In our public conversations about disability and inclusion, it seems that we’ve fallen into using the term “accessibility” in a fairly narrow sense. I make this observation not just as a blind woman, but also as an immigrant and international traveler. To me, “accessibility” means a great deal more than being able to navigate websites with a screen reader and physical spaces with a cane and/or sighted assistance. These are important aspects of accessibility, but they’re not its essence. The essence of accessibility can be found in the ways we think, behave, and relate to each other. As such, social, cultural, and linguistic norms all play a role in making spaces more or less accessible, not just to people with disabilities, but to everyone.

Language Can Be a Barrier, or It Can Be a Bridge

When I landed in the US back in 2017, I was already fluent in English. I could pass grammar tests, read books, and carry on long conversations with native speakers. There were things I couldn’t do in English, though, and one of them was grocery shopping.

In Morocco, I’d become accustomed to the outdoor markets, where I could smell and touch the goods and talk with the sellers before making purchases. I also knew what everything was called, so if I couldn’t find what I wanted, I could ask for it easily. When I got to the US, I found that nearly everything comes in packages, so I couldn’t identify things by touch or smell. To make matters worse, it turned out that my English was better for studying journalism than for running errands.

One day, I needed aluminum foil, but I didn’t know what it was called. In French, it’s “papier d’aluminium,” and since English and French are related, I decided to Anglicize the word and see what happened. “Excuse me,” I said when I found an employee, “can you please tell me where’s the poppy aluminium?”

Of course, I could’ve described what “poppy aluminium” feels like, or what it’s used for, or I could’ve tried a translation app. If I weren’t blind, I might’ve shown the employee a picture. As it was, none of these strategies occurred to me, or to the employee. Instead, I went several years believing that there’s no aluminum foil in America!

It would be easy to blame America’s monolingual culture for this misunderstanding, but the fact is that there are over seven thousand languages in the world, far too many for anyone from any culture to master them all. What we can do is familiarize ourselves with common strategies for overcoming them. The more such strategies we learn, the more likely we’ll be to find one that’s appropriate and accessible in any given situation. Since we never know when we might encounter such communication barriers, raising awareness of such strategies can benefit us all.

Accessibility icon, ear, hand, eye, and brain

We All Have Disabilities, and the Worst of Them Is Fear

Too often, we’re taught to be afraid. People who identify as disabled are taught to fear asking for help lest we seem weak or needy, and people who identify as nondisabled are taught to fear offering help lest they cause offense or seem presumptuous. On top of that, we’re all taught to fear embarrassment at every turn and hide our true selves so that no one can judge us.

Luckily for me, I was never taught any of that. I ask people for help all the time. Friends and family members, store employees, Microsoft tech support, Be My Eyes volunteers, civil servants, neighbors, random people on the street—all are fair game. The best part is that they’re almost always eager to help. Some of them have even become my closest friends.

Once, not long after arriving in Arkansas, I got home from school and found a bunch of letters in my mailbox. They were all printed, of course, so I needed someone to help me read them. I dropped off my things in my apartment, then went to the neighbors and knocked on their door. A couple answered. “Excuse me,” I said, “I live next door and I’m totally blind, but I’ve got all these letters…can you please help me read them?”

They politely helped me sort the mail, and I thanked them and went back to my apartment. Only when I sat on the bed after throwing out the junk mail did I find the dress I’d been wearing all day exactly where I’d left it: on the mattress. Dress codes aren’t strict in the US compared to what I was used to, and ever since arriving in the country, I’d felt freer—so free, apparently, that I’d absentmindedly taken off my dress when leaving my things in my apartment and forgotten to put on another one. I’d gone to visit the neighbors wearing nothing but my underwear, and they hadn’t even said anything!

The next time I got mail, I didn’t hesitate: I went straight to their door, knocked, and asked for help again. They didn’t bring it up this time, either, so after we sorted the mail, I asked, “Hey, did you guys think it was weird that I was only wearing underwear last time?”

We all broke down laughing right there on the doorstep. We’ve been best friends ever since, but our friendship never would’ve started if I’d been too afraid to ask for help the first time, or too embarrassed to go back, or if they hadn’t dared open their door.

And They’re All Named Itto!

Once, on a bus in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a young man struck up a conversation with me. He asked where I was from, and when I said Morocco, he replied, “Wow! I’ve never been there. Is everyone in Morocco short like you?”

I’d had a long day and was feeling too tired to think of a tactful reply. “Yes,” I said, “and they’re all blind, too. And guess what else—they’re all named Itto!”

The whole bus erupted with laughter. The driver even had to pull over so he wouldn’t crash, he was laughing so hard. The poor guy who’d asked was embarrassed, but hopefully not too badly. Maybe he’d had a long day, too.

The truth is that we’re all susceptible to this mode of thinking, generating stereotypes by grouping people together based on superficial features. Stereotypes are heuristics, and heuristics save us time and mental energy, and we often need that time and energy for other things. What’s not healthy is forgetting that stereotypes are merely thumbnail sketches, not accurate descriptions of complex individuals—which is why it’s important that we laugh at ourselves, or sometimes at strangers on buses who blurt out questions we often think but rarely ask. When we forget how to laugh at our heuristics, we’re at risk of turning mental shortcuts into harmful public policies.

I’m reminded of this every time I fly solo because I always request a personal assistant, and the personal assistant always does what they’ve been trained to do: they bring a wheelchair. Airport policy requires them to put all travelers with disabilities in wheelchairs, no matter the disability. If you’re blind, you get a wheelchair. If you’re Deaf, you get a wheelchair. If you’re in a wheelchair, congratulations, you get another wheelchair! (And it’s usually worse than the old one and might even cause you harm.)

Trite as it sounds, it bears repeating that whatever else we are, we’re individuals first and foremost, with different life experiences, different strengths and weaknesses, and different needs. Standardized solutions to complex social problems of access and equity are never truly feasible, no matter how tempting, but they’re what we end up with when nobody laughs at the people who propose them. I appreciate that guy on the bus to this day, not just because he meant well (though I think he did), nor even because he dared to put his own assumptions to the test by asking (which many people never do), but because he gave us all a chance to practice laughing at the fallacious mode of thinking his question revealed.

Four accessibility icons

Accessibility Is a Journey, Not a Destination

Even if we were all short, blind, and named Itto, there’s another reason that stereotypes, and the simplistic, standardized solutions they justify, are never good policy. The world is constantly changing. New barriers to access are arising all the time, and navigating or eradicating them requires constant vigilance and creativity as well as courage, good communication, and cooperation. This is equally true in the physical and digital realms, in the lives of individuals, the daily operations of organizations, and the ebbs and flows of whole societies. It’s true in times of relative stability and great upheaval. It’s a basic fact of life no matter where you’re from, how long you’ve lived, or however else you might identify. This is why we all benefit from building more accessible cultures.

To do this, we must work together. This requires, if not a common language, then at least effective strategies for navigating language barriers. It requires the courage to approach one another. It requires awareness of each other’s differences and needs. Finally, it requires practice staying on our toes and solving problems as they arise, before they become so deeply entrenched that we resort to ill-fitting solutions.

Accessible culture is a necessary precondition for building accessible infrastructure, whether physical or digital, and maintaining it over time. The good news is that cultures are constantly changing, and individuals can always impact how they change. Our daily lives are rife with opportunities to fine-tune how we think, behave, and interact with others. Let’s take full advantage of those opportunities. Let’s incorporate the essence of accessibility into everything we do. Let’s make that our common goal.

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