by Lauryn Smith
In my short time working for Keshet, I have already gained such an appreciation for all the programming, fundraising, and countless things our organization does to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Yet, even more so, working here has made me consider so many aspects of inclusion and accessibility in daily life that, unfortunately, have gone unnoticed for me throughout much of my life. Even something as seemingly handy as technology and social media can create lack of access for certain people.
There are many simple things that we could be doing on a daily basis that would not only improve the lives of those with disabilities, but pretty much everyone. Inclusion and accessibility measures shouldn’t just be done at an organization like Keshet, but within every facet of our lives. I would love to share my wisdom particularly for those who may not have a disability or hold knowledge on the topic of accessibility. And, once we can shift our attitudes to reflect this wisdom, we have the ability to enact real, meaningful change. So, without further ado, here is a list of some ways each of us could learn to be more inclusive and accessible for all in our everyday lives:
1. Ensuring everyone has a “seat at the table”
Right off the bat, it should be communicated that all people, regardless of ability, are welcomed, valued, and respected. This means that those who have a disability, or those who are a part of any marginalized group for that matter, should be included in any sort of conversation or experience that anyone else would, especially when those decisions may directly affect them. This goes for both the general makeup of the community as well as within leadership. Here at Keshet, one of our adult participants serves as a liaison on our board, and helps contribute to meaningful conversations and plans for our organization. It’s important that our participants’ voices are represented as stakeholders in the organization and this approach should be applied to other workplaces and spaces. The concept of diversity, equity, and inclusion must include disabled representation.
2. Ask the person directly how they want their disability to be identified
In recent years, there has been a shift in talking about those with disabilities in using what is called “person-first language,” which emphasizes the person rather than their disability. An example of this would be using a phrase such as a “person with autism” rather than an “autistic person” to describe someone. However, there are people who may prefer the latter and find that type of language patronizing and avoidant of the important ways their disability shapes who they are. As a result, the best practice to ensure people feel welcome and respected would be to ask the person directly which approach they prefer. On a similar note, terms like “special needs” or “differently-abled” suggests a negative implication about disabilities, because these are not “special” needs; they’re simply human needs. Rather, the term “disability” itself is the most comprehensive and acceptable to use as a whole.
3. Including alternative text and/or image descriptions on social media posts
You may have seen the button on your Facebook or Instagram posts to “edit alt text,” without realizing what it means. But it’s actually a really simple way to help those with visual impairments. Including alternative text allows those who are unable to see your image be able to learn and understand what it is by using screen reading programs. Many social media sites have default alt text embedded within, but oftentimes they are not accurate to what is enclosed in the actual image. Just taking those extra few seconds to edit the text and accurately describe in detail what is occurring is an easy way to make your own feed that much more inclusive for all. In the event those platforms do not have an option for alt text, you can just add the text in the form of an image description (ID) into the caption itself. Check out this article to learn some of the best tips and tricks for embedding alt text and ID’s.
4. Adding in captions to videos
Another simple accessibility measure is including captions in all videos that you post. Captions aren’t just a benefit to those with disabilities, but it could also be helpful for those who don’t have sound access or want to better understand what’s being said. Again, many social media websites include default captioning options, but there are so many apps such as AutoCap or MixCaptions that are free and easy to use. Even platforms such as Zoom have built-in captions that can described what is being discussed on these calls. So whether your putting together your company’s promo video or uploading your soon-to-be-viral TikTok, captions will help make your content just that much more accessible for all!
5. Avoiding language that appropriates a disability in a negative way or as a means to insult someone
“Spread the word to end the word” is a campaign I was heavily involved in when I was an active member of Best Buddies in high school. While it was an amazing way to spearhead inclusion and helped eradicate a highly offensive word from many people’s vocabulary, in my opinion, I believe we have a long way to go in terms of ableism in our language. To this day, I still hear people misuse phrases that are a part of someone’s disability, such calling someone “deaf” or “blind” because they can’t see or hear you, or even tokenizing a mental illness by claiming to be “OCD” because you like things clean or organized. I will admit these are phrases I’ve been guilty of saying in the past, but I now recognize that they can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and are frankly offensive to those who do belong to those identities. Just like you would no longer use the “r-word” to describe a person or a situation, you should use the same consideration when you feel the need to use a disability or diagnosis as an insult.
6. Representing an accurate portrayal of those with disabilities
In my research learning about ways to be more inclusive in my work at Keshet, I came across a term called “inspiration porn,” which is not what it sounds like. Inspiration porn, which is typically exploited by those without a disability, embodies the ways that people often objectify and highlight the experiences of those with disabilities as a means of inspiration or benefit to those without. In other words, just because there is something that may make someone different doesn’t mean that they need to be a poster child for overcoming all adversity. For example, a person in a wheelchair shooting a basket or carrying groceries up to their apartment is not something that is newsworthy. Oftentimes these sentiments are well-intentioned, but they actually end up being harmful, implying that we have lower expectations or even assume inferiority of people. Rather than attempt to glorify the experiences of those with disabilities, Lauren Beller suggests that we should always presume competence and take the time to focus on their actions and attitudes rather than the disability itself. Because at the end of the day, we are all just people who strive to belong.
7. Living life with a lens of “universal design”
In my opinion, this may be the biggest takeaway from my time so far at Keshet, and encompasses much of what this article has discussed. The concept of universal design means creating an environment or community so that it can be accessed by all people no matter their age, size, ability or disability. Creating spaces and programs that work as much as possible for all has completely changed my mentality on how I ensure that my surroundings are inclusive and accessible. Universal design considers from the start that everyone is living with differences, rather than accommodating certain people after the fact. For example, a building’s accessible ramp doesn’t just benefit someone in a wheelchair, but it could be helpful to a mother pushing her baby in a stroller. And, when you think of it that way is when you realize that these policies don’t just benefit a certain group, they can benefit each and every one of us.
Ultimately, what I’ve realized is that all of these steps towards accessibility and inclusion simply require a mindset change. Every single person in this world has a range of abilities—we all have something to contribute that adds value to the communities we are a part of and helps us achieve our ultimate goal of belonging. As cheesy as it sounds, the second we start focusing on what each of us can do, rather than what we can’t, is when we are able to make this world a better place. Though it’s not entirely comprehensive, I hope this list allowed you to reflect on ways that you can celebrate differences and foster inclusion in your own lives. I urge you to step outside your comfort zone and follow my lead toward the path to a more welcoming, inclusive world around us…there’s no better time than right now to start.