Have you ever considered whether you’d survive in a completely different world? Not just one with street signs in a different language, or narrower roads. Think living in the world of Planet of the Apes, or The Walking Dead… After all, you’ve been skipping the gym since lockdown hit. You certainly can’t fly a plane. And even assuming you felt no guilt at evicting a handful of penguins, Phillip Island would fill up pretty fast.
Pop culture-fueled nightmares aside, a surprisingly large number of Aussies have a more down-to-earth experience of living in a world that just wasn’t built for us. We’re reminded every time we try to enter a store, read an article online, or turn on the TV. Which prompts the question - are we able to function and thrive simply because we’re excellent, capable and brilliant, or conversely, because society has been shaped to cater to our wants and needs?
OK… where am I going with this thought?
The reality is that this question informs the rationale behind the social model of disability – that is, that disability isn’t a divergence from what is ‘normal’, but rather a failure of society to accommodate diverse needs.
While accepting that impairment exists, and is impactful, this puts the onus on us to, as People with Disability Australia (PWDA) puts it, “Challenge the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment to accommodate impairment as an expected incident of human diversity”.
Agencies are taking significant strides for team members with disability. Alongside our people and culture teams, we are working towards the kinds of disability and inclusion policies that make our workplaces not just accessible but fulfilling to all.
On deciding to join Spark Foundry, I was asked in a private, non-judgmental forum about my accessibility needs – long before I arrived at the office for day one. This allowed me the time to make, for applicable colleagues, a disclaimer that I’ve now learned by heart:
"One of my ears doesn’t work, so sometimes it’ll look like I’m not facing you. I promise, I’m not ignoring you."
No strange looks, no awkward moments. In fact, some of my new co-workers even responded with some of their own accessibility needs. I was surprised, but… should I have been?
There are 2.3 million people with disability in the Australian workforce – not to mention the myriad of other accessibility needs that don’t fall under this definition, like an injury or pregnancy.
However, as communications professionals, we’re not just catering to our colleagues – we’re curators of the experiences had by millions of Australians every day, 4.4 million of whom live with disability.
We’re also commissioners of the creations (and therefore indirect financial backers) of some of the most powerful media organisations in the country (and the world).
So, how can we – and our partners – “Challenge the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment to accommodate impairment as an expected incident of human diversity”?
I am lucky enough to work on the Westpac media account, a client at the fore of this conversation. As part of a recent workshop, we were challenged to relook at some everyday consumer journeys with the lens of a person with disability – reviewing some common accessibility needs of touch, speech, hearing, sight, cognition and movement. We also consumed some beloved campaigns across video, audio and text formats.
These are the key actions that came out of the session to ensure we step up to our responsibility in ensuring communications are accessible for all:
1. Think early, think often Many accessibility issues were spotted once a structure had been put in place that made them tough to address – think an already-developed website structure, or a signed-off brand guideline.
2. Take a media journey with empathy While there’s no exhaustive list of potential accessibility roadblocks, just viewing an ad format with ‘how would I experience this if…’ at front of mind was eye-opening. My beloved ‘man dances around with airpods’ didn’t fare too well. How do your fave ads stack up?
3. Get the right help Empathy is essential, as is community consultation and an in-house commitment to diversity and inclusion. That said, there are some experiences that just can’t be imagined. In making accessibility a natural part of work processes, it can help to take advantage of guidelines and tools which allow us to test communications.
Some of these include Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), Vision Australia’s suite of low-vision tools, Australian Network on Disability’s language guidance and NVDA’s tester screen reader, which can be used on presentations, as well as media and advertising, among others.
The most important take-home was this:
The human journey is nuanced, complex and evolving. Progress isn’t about taking down our website, creating essays of description for every image’s alt text, or dismissing design principles forever – it’s about remaining conscious as we create for the multitude of lenses through which our world is perceived.
And to send a message to people with disability: "I promise, I’m not ignoring you".
Sources: People with Disability Australia ‘Social Model of Disability’ https://pwd.org.au/resources/disability-info/social-model-of-disability/
Westpac Group ‘Accessible Communications Training’ (18/08/2021)
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