A painting of Don Quixote by Honoré Daumier

If you set a minimum standard…

 that’s what they’ll strive for. 

I was recently asked how I would change something to make the accessibility elements more in line with inclusive principles. The honest answer is I don’t know. The problem is that the purpose of the thing was to get people to change things, to change practice or technology etc. And when people do that they want to know what they need to do. “Tell me what it would look like if these websites were accessible?” “Tell me what accessible practice looks like?” And after working in accessibility for a long time, I know that the follow-up question is often, “What’s the absolutely essential thing I should do?” And usually when someone says essential they mean minimum. 

This month we were met with the headline:

Moodle LMS 4.0 achieves WCAG 2.1 AA Accessibility compliance

Digital accessibility is an inclusive practice that allows everyone, including people with disabilities or some form of impairment, to perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the online environment. 

The thing that we keep confusing is that accessibility is not the same thing as inclusion. In reality, we have not moved beyond the traditional concept of accessibility, something that is measurable, something we can benchmark, such as web accessibility “regulations” to a broader notion of inclusion. Accessibility has been a crucial stepping stone in creating environments that accommodate individuals with disabilities, but its language and approach can sometimes inadvertently complicate the goal of achieving true inclusion.

The Limitations of Accessibility

Accessibility, as a concept, primarily focuses on providing accommodations and removing barriers for individuals with disabilities. It has undeniably played a significant role in promoting equal opportunities, especially in physical spaces and digital platforms. However, the language of accessibility can unintentionally reinforce a sense of otherness, creating a divide between those with disabilities and the broader population. This linguistic distinction can perpetuate the perception that people with disabilities are a separate category needing special provisions rather than being integral members of society.

Toward Inclusion

Inclusion goes beyond mere accessibility; it creates an environment that welcomes and embraces the diversity of all individuals, irrespective of their abilities or characteristics. Instead of focusing solely on removing barriers, inclusion seeks to dismantle societal, attitudinal, and systemic barriers that prevent equal participation and representation. By prioritizing inclusion, we foster a sense of belonging, acceptance, and mutual respect among all members of society.

The Linguistic Barriers

The language we use plays a crucial role in shaping our perceptions and attitudes towards individuals with disabilities. The term “accessibility” inherently implies an external modification or adaptation needed to accommodate a disabled person, while “inclusion” emphasizes the idea of full participation and belonging. By shifting our language, we can shift the narrative from one of limitations to one of empowerment and equality. This linguistic transformation helps break down the barriers between different groups and promotes a more integrated and unified society.

While accessibility predominantly focuses on physical spaces and digital platforms, inclusion encompasses a broader range of aspects. It extends beyond ramps, captioning, and assistive technologies to encompass diverse representation in media, employment opportunities, education, healthcare, and social interactions. Inclusion acknowledges that individuals with disabilities have unique perspectives, talents, and contributions that can enrich society as a whole. It calls for proactive efforts to ensure that everyone has equal access, representation, and participation in all aspects of life.

It’s not just about Disability

There are many categories of marginalisation in society, in education we have spent a lot of time and energy on disability for a variety of reasons. But the scope of inclusion has always been wider and includes a diverse array of marginalized people who face systemic barriers due to race, gender, and poverty. By extending the definition of inclusion, we acknowledge the interconnectedness, the intersectionality, of these forms of marginalization and recognize the importance of creating equitable environments that embrace everyone. Inclusion means breaking down societal structures perpetuating discrimination and ensuring that all individuals, regardless of race, gender, or economic status, have equal opportunities to participate, contribute, and thrive. It requires actively dismantling the systems of oppression that perpetuate marginalization and fostering environments that celebrate diversity and promote social justice. Embracing this expanded definition of inclusion empowers marginalized communities, uplifts their voices, and fosters a society where everyone can access their full potential, free from the constraints imposed by societal biases and limitations. Read bell hooks, read Kimberlé Crenshaw, read!

Collaboration and Codesign

Accessibility has in many organisations slowly become a box to be ticked, and the release of a WCAG AA compliant Moodle is one of those boxes for some people. Moving towards inclusion requires collaboration among stakeholders, including marginalised individuals, policymakers, designers, educators, employers, and communities, involving all relevant parties in codesign and decision-making processes. It is through the co-creation and codesign of processes that we can encourage empathy, understanding, and the cultivation of environments that celebrate difference.

I cited Moodle earlier, I should state that I like Moodle and also run my own instance of it. But they knew when they put the headline and first paragraph out they were being economical with reality. Toward the end of the press release, they stated: 

Although our Moodle LMS is WCAG 2.1 AA compliant, our users should also know that how they organise their sites and create courses and content impacts accessibility. 

While accessibility has been a vital starting point in improving the lives of marginalised individuals, the language is perhaps now limiting, maybe it is time to move beyond this concept and embrace a broader vision of inclusion, shifting our focus from mere accommodation to inclusive environments that celebrate diversity.

If we design with the most precarious people in mind first, then we design for everyone, I’m not sure that we can benchmark or set a standard for that though. 

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