How organizations can become more inclusive of people with disabilities

shapes of women and men illustration

(first published on opensource.com)

“Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” -Verna Myers

With this in mind, communities should invite as many individuals as possible to dance the night away. Diversity and inclusion get a lot of attention in the tech community these days, perhaps more than in any other industry. Many experts agree that when people of different backgrounds work together to find solutions to problems, the result is a broader scope of innovation and better outcomes.

Many organizations, including open source projects, publish reports on diversity to ensure that everybody understands its importance and participates in efforts to support it. But often diversity initiatives are limited to gender (specifically, bringing women into technology fields) and ethnicity.

Gender and ethnic/racial equality in the tech community are both important, and I certainly don’t want to downplay these issues. But limiting diversity efforts to gender and race excludes many other worthy groups. One of these is people with disabilities.

According to many sources, at least 15% to 20% of people in the U.S. alone struggle with some type of disability. About 70% of these are disabilities such as blindness, cognitive challenges, or chronic disease, which are not visible from the outside. This group includes many talented individuals who can bring unique and valuable experiences and insights to projects and workplaces.

Oscar-winning actress and activist Marlee Matlin said, “Diversity is a beautiful, absolutely wonderful thing, but I don’t think they consider people with disabilities, and deaf and hard-of-hearing people, as part of the diversity mandate.”

Inclusion means everybody, not just specific groups. When diversity efforts focus only on specific groups, many others are excluded. And often, the loudest group wins attention at the expense of others.

Open source communities are particularly well-positioned for workforce inclusion, because technology can help level the playing field for people with disabilities. But the community must be willing to do so.

Here are ways organizations can become more inclusive of people with disabilities.

Making conferences more accessible

Scheduling a conference at an ADA-certified building doesn’t necessarily mean the conference is accessible to all those with disabilities.

Providing step-free access from streets and parking lots and wheelchair-accessible restrooms is a good start. But what about the presenter’s stage?

Accessibility to events should consider both presenters and attendees. Many conferences have likely missed out on a great deal of valuable insight from disabled speakers who were unable or unwilling to participate based on previous negative experiences.

It’s also important to scatter reserved seats and areas that can accommodate mobile devices and service dogs throughout the venue so all attendees can be seated with their friends and colleagues (a big shout-out to the fine folks at AlterConf for understanding this).

Visual impairment doesn’t need to preclude people from attending conferences if efforts are made to accommodate them. Visual impairment doesn’t always mean total blindness. According to a 2014 World Health Organization report, 285 million people worldwide suffer from some form of visual impairment; about 14% of this group is legally blind, while the rest have low or impaired vision.

Finding the way to sessions can be a challenge for visually impaired individuals, and an open and welcoming community can address this. For starters, be sure to make accommodations for guide dogs, and don’t distract them while they’re working.

Communities could also implement a “buddy system” in which a sighted person teams up with a visually impaired person to help guide them at sessions that both individuals plan to attend. Attendees could find a match using IRC, Slack, Forum, or some other tool and meet at a designated location. This would be a win-win from a community standpoint: Not only would the visually impaired attendee get to the session more easily, but both would have an opportunity to connect over a topic they share an interest in. And isn’t that sort of connection the very definition of community?

Preferred seating can be provided to ensure that attendees with limited vision are located as close as possible to the stage. This would also benefit people with physical disabilities who rely on assistive devices like canes (yours truly), wheelchairs, or walkers.

If you are a speaker who is sharing your insight with the community, you deserve respect and credit—it is not always easy for people to stand onstage and address a large audience. However, if you use slides and graphics to enhance your presentation, and if these images show key data points, the words “as you can see on this slide” should be eradicated from your talk. This is considerate not only of people with visual impairments, but also anyone who might be listening to your talk while driving, for example.

Another group to consider are people with hearing impairments, or D/deaf people. Enabling them to participate presents a technical challenge I would love to see addressed as an open source solution. Live speech-text-transcription would be beneficial in many scenarios. How many people reading this use the closed-captions on TVs in sports bars or at the gym?

Providing sign language translators is great, of course, but this can present a challenge at international conferences because sign language, like any other language, is regional. While ASL (American Sign Language) is used in the U.S. and English-speaking Canada, there are also dialects, as in other languages. Speech-to-text may be a more realistic option, and accommodations for CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) would benefit many, including non-English speakers.

Making content more accessible

Sometimes you are simply unable to physically attend a particular conference due to conflicts, distance, or other factors. Or perhaps you did attend but want to catch up on sessions you were unable to fit in. Not a problem, thanks to YouTube and other sites, right? What if you’re D/deaf, and the videos online don’t include captions? (Please don’t rely on YouTube captions; the hashtag #youtubecraptions was created for a reason.)

Fortunately, you can provide your own recordings. Be sure to format event content, including any posted slides, so that visually impaired users can use an open source screen reader like NVDA on Windows, or Orca on Linux, to navigate both the site and the slides. Correct formatting is key so that screen readers can follow the flow of the document in the right order. Please include ALT IMG tags for pictures to describe what the image shows.

Conclusion

Perhaps the first step toward creating a more inclusive community is to acknowledge that it involves a much wider group of individuals than is typically discussed. Communities have a lot of work to do, and particularly for small teams, this can present an extra challenge. The most important part is to take note of the problems and address them whenever possible. Even small efforts can go a long way—and for that I offer my heartfelt thanks.


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