Happy Disabilities Day!

Today is the International Day of Disabled Persons! (3 Dec 2018). The UN’s theme for 2018 is “Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality”.

Image shows four icons depicting a person in a wheelchair, a brain inside an outline of a human head, two hands making a sign in sign language, and a person walking with a cane. Below this are the words INCLUSION MATTERS

[Image shows four icons depicting a person in a wheelchair, a brain inside an outline of a human head, two hands making a sign in sign language, and a person walking with a cane. Below this are the words “INCLUSION MATTERS”.]

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines disability as resulting from a situational mismatch “between people with impairments and the attitudinal or environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society”. In other words: people aren’t inherently disabled, they become disabled when presented with barriers.

There can be all sorts of barriers to participation in society, but even complex needs can be much easier to accommodate than you think. It’s important that you don’t provide a separate, degraded experience for people with disability (for example: “accessible version of this document available by request—one week after everyone else gets to read it” or “wheelchair entrance available—but it’s around the back in the loading bay”).

Here are a few simple things we can all do to turn things around…

Design for accessibility

We can improve accessibility for all users by using the principles of inclusive design. This approach works much better when accessibility is “built in from the start”, as opposed to “retrofitted afterwards”. By applying a few simple tricks, you can lift the game for everyone, not just the disabled!

  • Use captions and alt text for your images. If a concept is important enough to present graphically, then it’s important enough to describe in text as well. This makes your message accessible for people using screen readers or braille devices—and people with terrible wifi connections.
  • Use subtitles in your videos. When you upload to YouTube, it’s easy to automatically generate (and then manually correct) a subtitle track for your video. This makes your message accessible not just for the deaf audience, but it also helps people with English as a second language, or people watching with the sound turned down in open plan offices…
  • Write in Plain English using “Styles”. Styles make it simpler to maintain your documentation, and they help people using assistive technology. Plain English helps people with English as a second language and people with intellectual disability—or people in a hurry.

Engage with the disability community

One way to lift engagement with the disabled community would be to hire more disabled people! Nearly 25% of New Zealanders identify as having some sort of disability, and about 75% of disabled people are unemployed. Disabled people are a fabulous untapped pool of loyal and committed employees who bring unique, diverse perspectives.

  • Ask the disabled community what they need, please don’t guess or make assumptions. Also make sure to ask multiple people—everyone has unique needs and experiences. I’ve found that people with disability are generally happy to answer “silly questions” … that’s far preferable to blank stares!
  • Learn to recognize exclusion among customers and employees. There are many disability advocacy organizations who can help you understand the barriers people face. Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see barriers everywhere.
  • Check out the LEAD toolkit from the New Zealand Ministry of Social Development (http://www.ssc.govt.nz/lead). This is a great set of resources to help bust myths and build a more inclusive workplace for people with disabilities.

Finally, here’s a 7 minute YouTube video of Geoff Adams-Spink talking about his experience of getting hired as a correspondent for the BBC.

Some terminology

  • Alt text is descriptive text which functions as a stand-in for graphical images. A visually impaired user of a screen reader will hear the alt text in place of the image, and browsers will display alt text if the image fails to load.
  • Assistive technology is an umbrella term for software and hardware solutions that “read the page for you” and present information in a more accessible way. Software solutions include screen readers (e.g. text-to-speech and screen magnifiers) and input devices (e.g. speech-to-text), while hardware solutions include braille devices, hearing aids, and input devices (e.g. “sip-and-puff” or “big button” devices). Check out this link for an introduction to how people with disabilities use the web: https://www.w3.org/WAI/people-use-web/
  • Braille devices are hardware solutions which allow blind users to read and navigate a page by displaying text as raised pins on a “braille screen”. Braille devices require information to be well-structured using styles and alt text.
  • Inclusive design considers the full range of human diversity to inform better outcomes for everyone. Most importantly, this means including and learning from people with diverse perspectives. It doesn’t mean that you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways for everyone to participate in a product, service, social structure, or environment.
  • Plain English uses simpler words and simpler sentence construction. This makes information easier to understand for people who are less familiar with the language, people who have trouble concentrating, and people who are simply in a hurry or distracted.
  • Screen readers are software solutions which interpret and present content for people who are blind, visually impaired, illiterate, or who have a learning disability. Some screen readers simply increase colour contrast or magnification, while others use text-to-speech to read the page aloud. Screen readers require information to be well-structured using styles and alt text.
  • Styles are a modern way to structure documents by separating content (what you’re saying) from presentation (how it looks). This makes it easier to manage your documentation, and also helps users to navigate and interact with the content. In Microsoft Word, use the Styles toolbar to mark text as “Heading 1”, “emphasis”, and so on. Then it’s easy to change the format of all headings at once, for example by changing all Heading 1 elements to large, green text. Screen readers rely on documents being marked up with styles, so users can skip between headings. If you apply formatting directly to text in the document, then the screen reader struggles to explain to the user why the text is large and green…

I have two teenage boys: the older kid doesn’t suffer from cerebral palsy, he has cerebral palsy (and proud of who he is), and the younger kid doesn’t suffer from dyslexia, in fact many people with dyslexia consider it their “super power”. Happy Disabilities Day!

Putting diversity in the picture

Today I was putting together a presentation that I’m delivering tomorrow (at way too early in the morning – who schedules 7:30am meetings? wind turbine technicians, that’s who).

Anyway, I was poaching photos off the internet for my slides, and here was my shopping list:

  • Someone driving a car
  • Someone working on machinery while ticking things off on a clipboard
  • Someone pulling electronics to pieces or maybe doing electrical testing

Here’s the sort of screen which comes up in your search results if you search for “someone driving a car”:


My other search results were similar. Where the women at? I was scared to see what kind of misogynistic nonsense might turn up with a search like “woman driving a car”, but it turned out ok.


In the end I got the reasonable photo diversity I was looking for by just going a bit further with my search terms to get beyond the default “white guy” filter. The search terms that I used in the end went something like this:

  • “woman driving with a cup of coffee”
  • “working on machinery with a clipboard”
  • “woman electrical fault finding”

Putting a bit of diversity and inclusion into your content isn’t difficult, you just have to be aware that it’s something worth doing, and try to be aware of your own biases. Here’s that slide: