Pushing back against the rising tide

A common refrain in accessibility efforts, both online and in physical spaces, is that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” I’ve said it myself, in many client meetings and in public presentations. The idea is that designing an accessible space or website makes it better for all users. In the case of technology, an accessible website is typically easier to navigate and more simply designed. In physical spaces, the way that curb cuts, ramps and other access features benefit people without disabilities has been well-documented as the “curb cut effect.” Sounds great, right?

But if you peer past the veneer of the rising tide, what are technologists and planners really saying? It seems that the message is “make it accessible because it’s good for people with disabilities and everyone else.”

What if equity for people with disabilities in public spaces--online and off--was reason enough?

The idea that “everyone” should benefit from accessible public spaces is not new. The rhetoric first emerged in the post-World War II era, when individuals with disabilities gained new visibility in our society as soldiers returned from war. White men experienced disability in record numbers, but were not institutionalized. Instead, society strove to re-integrate them. The goal of early access innovations, such as prosthetics, wheelchairs and ramps, was to “perform, seemingly at any cost, the familiar activities of middle-class, white, and gender-appropriate life” (Bess Williamson, Accessible America). Disabled men returning from war still needed to be productive citizens and breadwinners.

The first accessibility standard for public spaces, ANSI 117.1, was created in 1961 and codifies the idea that access must be discreet and beneficial to all. The standard’s lead author, Timothy Nugent, stated “all standards which will be recommended to benefit the permanently physically handicapped will be of benefit to everyone.” But as Aimi Hamraie writes, “In portraying accessibility as broadly beneficial, barrier-free design supporters treated access to public space as a reward for being a productive citizen” (Hamraie, Building Access). And given the era, “everyone” frequently left out people of color, queer individuals and other marginalized communities.

Recently I attended an event for accessibility professionals at which there was a lot of self-congratulatory discussion about the “rising tide” and the “curb cut effect.” The event was hosted at the offices of a very large telecommunications company here in Philadelphia. I was struck that in the conversation about how accessibility makes technology better for “everyone,” no one raised who is left out of “everyone”--the individuals who cannot afford the latest cable device or fastest broadband access, or those who do not have stable housing in which to use such technology. No one discussed that people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty, and Philadelphia is the poorest large metro area in the United States. I was reminded of Anand Giridharadas’ writings on “win-winism,” a signal to the rich and powerful indicating “a form of change that won’t cost you.” This is change that will allow the wealthy to prosper further by ceding a small amount to the marginalized. If Big Tech just makes its technology “accessible,” can it absolve itself for neglecting a disability justice framework?  

Most discussions about curb cuts celebrate the “guerrilla activists” who “hacked away” at steep curbs in Berkeley, California under the cover of night in the late 1960s, creating a DIY access scheme until the city government mandated curb cuts in 1972. This history is contested (read Hamraie’s text for more) but through curb-cutting, “disability activists produced a set of ideas that later influenced an academic theory of the ‘social model,’ which is often taken to argue that disability is a system of disadvantages that societies produce and not solely an embodied pathology” (Hamraie, Building Access).

When we focus solely on how curb cuts benefit everyone, we miss the opportunity to wrestle with the complexities. We remove the activist history of those who prototyped curb cuts and lobbied for inclusion. We sidestep the uncomfortable reality of who is excluded from “everyone,” and particularly how people of color were implicitly segregated in this era. Finally, we leave out the histories of experimentation, learning and negotiation among people with disabilities that were instrumental in the creation of the modern curb cut and are instructive to us today.

Hamraie writes that as activists began to experiment with curb cuts, “it became evident that access needs are not uniform across all users. Blind people, in particular, pointed out that when a curb cut smoothly intercepted the street and the sidewalk, it disoriented their learned sense of the city’s layout.” More iteration, including the creation of tactile signals on the curb cut, was required before landing on curb cut styles that worked for people with different kinds of disabilities--a lesson we would do well to learn from. Today’s curb cuts often use tactile dots and colored lines to signal to different kinds of users that a change in grade is coming.  

By centering the needs of people with different kinds of disabilities, activists ultimately iterated towards a better curb cut. Certainly, it has had positive ripple effects for able-bodied individuals. But why do individuals with greater power need to benefit when we design for those who have historically been excluded from public space?

The same you

Earlier this year, actress Emilia Clarke, famous for her role on Game of Thrones, publicly shared her experience of surviving two brain aneurysms. In a first-person article in The New Yorker and follow-up interviews, she recounted exercising with her trainer one February morning in 2011, then suddenly feeling as if “an elastic band were squeezing [her] brain.” Her aneurysm led to a stroke. Clarke had no time for medical emergencies and brain damage. She was busy riding the wave of success from season one of Thrones. Clarke went public with her story to launch a foundation funding research into rehabilitation for brain injury and stroke for young people.

The foundation’s name? Same You.

I paused as I read the foundation’s name and mission on their website. I reflected on all of the longing and optimism wrapped up in those two words.

Same You.

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I'm done with rehab: Moving beyond cure

No one sent me to rehab, as the Amy Winehouse song suggests.

After my accident, I sent myself. Scared of the changes rapidly appearing in my body and mind, I asked for help.

I was methodical, attending speech therapy to address my slowed, foggy cognition, my sudden inability to focus and my stutter. After “graduating” from speech I moved on to physical therapy to remedy my shaky balance and consistent headaches. I wanted to feel strong again, to hike again, to resume my confident stride on cracked Philadelphia sidewalks. Finally in the summertime I began vision therapy to retrain my eyes, which, terrifyingly, were unable to hold focus and contact the way they were before. I didn’t want to be socially “weird” or “awkward,” I told the optometrist.

In short, I wanted to be me again. And I was counting on rehab to make it happen.

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Legibility, visibility: Envisioning meaningful inclusion online

This is the conclusion of a three-part series on legibility, visibility and access for individuals with disabilities. If you haven’t had the chance to read parts one and two of the series, I advise that you scroll back and start there.

As Aimi Hamraie writes in their work Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability, “access to public space is a litmus test of freedom.”

The Internet is our public space and built environment for the 21st century, much like our buildings and streets. It is where we socialize, learn, shop, apply for jobs and, increasingly, do those jobs. In the same way that accommodating people with disabilities in the physical environment has focused on adhering to standards (primarily the Americans with Disabilities Act) and serving those with legible disabilities, I assert that we are replicating this same “compliance regime” (Hamraie, Building Access) on the web.

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Legibility, visibility: "Disability made manifest"

Part 2 of 3

This is part two of a three-part series on legibility, visibility and access for individuals with disabilities, both online and off. If you missed part one, you’ll want to scroll back and begin there.

Since my accident in late 2017, I have continually wrestled with how to assert the differences that have felt overwhelming in my brain and body, but are often imperceptible to the naked eye. At times the changes have been noticeable in my slowed speech and gait, my stutter or my poor balance. But in most circumstances, especially for those who didn’t know me well before or met me after the accident, the needs that felt alarming inside of me were truly invisible. Though I didn’t have the vocabulary for it yet, I was trying to navigate illegibility.  

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Legibility, visibility: Who gets access, online and off?

Part 1 of 3

When you think of “disability,” what image comes to mind? A wheelchair user? A person using a white cane to support a visual impairment? Most of us think of individuals exhibiting difference that we can immediately perceive with our five senses. This is not an accident. Our modern architectural and sociological systems have conditioned us to associate disability with “legible” devices like wheelchairs or canes that (crucially) facilitate access to buildings and streets, asserts disability scholar Aimi Hamraie. This is most evident in the the International Symbol of Access (ISA), which was adopted in the 1970s.

To be clear, this legibility in our built spaces has been hard-won through work by disability activists. But the work is not over.

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Web accessibility: It begins at your front door

Hello there. I’d like to inaugurate this as a space to reflect on accessibility and inclusion. I write from the lens of a woman who is researching and designing for the web every day, but always bringing my own experience with disability to the table. And I know that what happens on the internet and off have everything to do with each other.

If you are thinking about web accessibility as an issue confined to your screen, I invite you to take a step back from your computer. Way back. All the way back to your front door.

Too often designers and developers view accessibility as a mere checklist or a set of standards to be met. I frequently observe an intense focus on conforming to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). While the WCAG have created a common standard that improve the web experience for many users with disabilities, they also fail to push technologists to ask bigger questions about disability and access in our products and our industry. They excuse us from examining who can get through the door and contribute to the work we’re doing. I want to use this space to change that conversation.

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