Inclusivity as an ‘ethos’ not a function: Top tips for improving accessibility online
This blog has been written by and Mirika Flegg, Accessibility Inclusion Champions for the and Dr Amanda M L Taylor-Beswick DigiCritical Social Work Academic, School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast. It also includes ideas shared and discussed at collective events with Boingboing and the Centre of Resilience for Social Justice and through our work with the Nothing About Us Without Us project. We acknowledge all contributors and hope what we have written encourages more discussion.
Accessible Online Sessions
We are spending a bit more time online these days than normal (especially via our online engagement work around activism with the Nothing About Us Without Us project). We thought we would offer you some additional tips around accessible online spaces. We have included some resources in our Inclusivity as an ‘ethos’ not a function: Top tips and disability resources Blog. However, we wanted to give more information around digital and virtual spaces. Those of us facing different types of adversity in the Boingboing / CRSJ / Resilience Revolution have talked about the sorts of things we find helpful here. We have also talked to lots of people with experience around making things accessible. In this blog we share what we have found.
Anxiety can make going into an online space really terrifying. People facing certain challenges may already be exhausted before the lesson/meeting starts because they have been worrying about it.
- It can be helpful for hosts to introduce themselves ahead of a session. They may also consider sending physical packs ahead of the session that includes an outline (i.e. like a description of what will happen and when), and list of who is involved.
- It can be helpful if you think about the resources we need. Items like devices, printers, notepads, session snacks, pens, stress balls, fidget spinners, coloured sleeves… Remember it can sometimes be hard for us to get our own supplies when we either can’t go out or feel we can’t for whatever reason.
- It can be helpful to do a quick check in with people at the start of lessons/meetings and remind everyone it is a safe space and they won’t be judged for what they say or what they don’t say (i.e. bullying isn’t tolerated).
- It can be helpful to do an activity that helps people feel connected to one another (and not just focus on the task that has to be done).
- Memory loss can make it hard to fully participate. People with these experiences sometimes have to choose between being fully present in the lesson/meeting and taking notes (so they can remember what is said in the meeting).
- It can be helpful to send people instructions on how to use an online programme before the event and also do a little refresh at the start of sessions. Send link for specific accessibility instructions too (e.g. videos about how to use a programme, specific accessibility features, etc.). Remember some people may need instructions in different formats. Recognise that it may take a while for people to adjust when programmes change little features and functions.
- It can be helpful to provide a brief project description to people before the lesson/meeting and the names of the people involved. Take time at the start of the meeting for people to introduce themselves.
- It can be helpful if notes are taken in the meeting and circulated to everyone.
- It can be helpful if people can have access to training or support around managing all the digital information linked with that task (i.e. files, website links, platforms, passwords, etc.). Similarly, those hosting meetings/events could benefit from learning how to share information in ways that make it easier to keep track of them. This is especially important when it is not a one-off event or people are working on multiple projects. Little practices really help- like people using the subject line of an email to say what something is, or colour coding activities or tasks against the names of those that are responsible for them. You may need to involve people with disabilities around this because this isn’t something that has been talked about a lot (that we know of).
- Screen Fatigue impacts a lot of us, and it can be harder for some people with disabilities to spend a lot of time on-screen. The term ‘screen fatigue’ is really a catch-all here. People can have all sorts of reasons why they struggle to be engaged in online sessions for a long time. For example, visual and other sensory impairments can mean it takes a lot more energy for your brain to send and receive information. For others, the lack of sensory/visual cues in online interactions means some have to think harder about what people are thinking and feeling because they can’t always see people’s expressions and body language. Those of us who experience sensory challenges don’t always experience it the same way all the time. So for example, sometimes we may have to rely more on listening to understand information because our vision is bad. Other times we may not be able to hear a thing because our ears are ringing (so we need to rely more on visual cues). It’s not always predictable, but spending more time online has been making it worse for a lot of us.
- It would be helpful if people who are leading sessions took some training on disability inclusion because often people say/try to be accessible, but things really aren’t. It could be helpful if there was a recognisable symbol that tells people online events are accessible. They have a symbol like this in Canada to tell people a course is accessible.
- It would be helpful if sessions/meetings are shorter when they are online, there are more breaks, and/or the host is really clear that you can take extra breaks if you need.
- It would be helpful if you meet us half-way (i.e. we work together to find a way to blend online and independent learning/working).
- It would be helpful if 1:1 tech support could be offered to help change the settings on individual devices to reduce screen glare and support sensory/visual impairments.
- It would be helpful to have access to audio briefs, visual diagrams and resources in various formats so we can reduce our screen time.
- It would be helpful to make coloured overlays available or others such tangible resources (e.g. like printed documents) available.
Stigma can make it hard for us to tell you we are disabled. There are lots of reasons for this, but at the end of the day, disabled people don’t owe you disclosure! We should be able to enter into any space (online or otherwise) and feel accommodated and valued. The systems are set up so we only get help if we say we are disabled. It can be especially hard for some to talk about their challenges with people they haven’t met in person.
- It would be helpful if accessibility is embedded at the start of every project/product and activity. Lots of people call this ‘Universal Design’, but others call it ‘Inclusive Design’ or ‘Design for All’. We don’t care what you call it, please just do it. Just a note, some people take this idea and apply it only to certain situations (e.g. a universal design approach to education). That’s just annoying. Remember inclusivity is an ‘ethos and not a function’. You can make an ‘accessible curriculum’ but if the platform you use to deliver it isn’t accessible, it won’t be accessible. AKA -Nothing is inclusive unless everything is.
- It would be helpful if those of us who are comfortable talking about our experiences of disability are listened to and celebrated. This links with an inclusivity ethos, because if things aren’t accessible, disabled people are going to have a harder time getting to the top and being recognised.
- It would be helpful if we know that if we do disclose, we will be telling someone who actually has knowledge about disability (some of us find speaking to other disabled people WAY easier).
We also think it is important to share our learning around online spaces and that they are not functionally equivalent to offline space. And what we mean by that is we often can’t achieve what we can in a physical space. Paying attention to what is possible and not trying to be as we might be when we are together is really important to making online spaces work.
These are just some of the things we have talked about as a group, but we hope reading this blog will encourage you to keep the conversation going.