Written by Celestine Fraser, published on 17 May 2023
Image description: A screenshot of the Google website. On a white background, blue, red, yellow and green letters read the search engine’s name. Below, a search bar. In it, the sentence ‘What does accessibility mean?’
What comes to mind when you think of the term ‘accessibility’? Do you think it means that something is available – or easy to reach? Perhaps you think of wheelchair access, or a sign language interpreter. Does the word feel personal – or even political?
As an organization that describes itself as an accessibility consultancy, our team at Tilting the Lens recognizes that language shapes our society. Creating a shared understanding of what accessibility means is therefore key. We are constantly updating our own working definition — it evolves and changes with our practice:
“Accessibility is a continuous and evolving practice. It is achieved through intentional, meaningful and intersectional participation of people with lived experience of exclusion. Accessibility must be key to each stage of a product, place, or policy development, from ideation through to delivery. Solutions must be designed with Disabled people to prioritize form and function. Meaningful and deliberate accessibility builds inclusion, equity, agency, creativity, innovation and pride.”
This Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), we’ve decided to amplify the conversation around defining accessibility, by furthering a dialogue. Over the past few months, we have been asking our community to share their own personal definitions, highlighting once more that the Disabled community is not a monolith.
For example, when we asked how people define accessibility on Instagram, @LeviWaterhouse shared that accessibility is “to use tools of action, instead of exception in the inclusion of all.” @DrJennCook said that it is “preemptively removing barriers to engagement” and @ellarobertson defined it as “everyone being able to have a frictionless experience.”
While each individual has defined accessibility differently, we have noticed a few common threads. Below, we have summarized some of the core principles of accessibility, according to members of our community.
Now we’d love to hear your definition of accessibility. Please DM or tag us on social media @TiltingTheLens, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to learn from you.
Accessibility is about intersectionality
Globally, there are over 1.3 billion Disabled people – this represents about 16% of the world’s population, or 1 in 6. Disability can be visible and/or invisible; it can be physical, learning, sensory, mental health, neurodiversity, disease, or chronic illness. Disability can be congenital, accidental, or acquired. It can be temporary, intermittent, or permanent. Disability is also dynamic, meaning it can change over time, and so can the accommodations that someone needs. Accessibility therefore requires a very individual, nuanced approach.
Dom Kelly, Co-Founder and CEO of New Disabled South, says that recognizing intersectionality is essential to understanding accessibility: “When I think of accessibility, I think of class, I think of millions of Disabled people who are living in poverty. It’s really fantastic that we have accessible technology, but is it affordable for people? Because if it’s not affordable for people, then it’s not accessible.” For Dom, accessibility is not just about disability – it involves other aspects of identity as well: “Are we thinking about race? Are we thinking about ethnic background, culture, language? All of those things play into accessibility.”
For Deaf-Blind Human rights lawyer Haben Girma, accessibility begins “with our own lived experiences.” She says: “We start with what we as individuals need for access and that is how the definition starts.” However, Haben finds that when a person begins to have “cross-disability experiences” – that is, meeting other Disabled people – they “start to grow [their] definition of accessibility.” By connecting with other members of the Disabled community, a person realizes that there are not only “completely different disabilities,” but “different adjustments needed in the environment.”
Accessibility is about equity and choice
Our CEO and Founder Sinéad Burke often describes accessibility as “equity of experience.” Dom expands on this idea: “Accessibility is the ability for everyone to access the same information, the same tools, the same resources, as everybody else, no matter the means by which they need to access it.” Model Aaron Rose Phillip agrees: “What accessibility means to me is having the full ability to function and live life in a way that is suitable for everyone.”
Meanwhile, for musician and RAMPD founder Lachi, accessibility is about choice and agency – what she calls “the ability to make a decision.” She explains: “If I, let’s say, do not have the ability, due to whatever circumstance, to go up a staircase. I don’t want it to be the building’s choice whether or not I’m able to get into the party. I want to be able to make the decision as to whether or not I can get into the event, the party, whatever is going on behind the door. That is what I believe accessibility is. It is the ability to freely, independently, or interdependently make the choices that you want to make, in order for you to achieve your goals and live the best life that you want to live.”
Accessibility requires a conversation
Too often, accessibility is understood as a process of ticking boxes or meeting guidelines. Yet, as Haben explains, “Accessibility should not be a static list of things you need to meet.” While guidelines certainly have their place (the WCAG guidelines, for example, are an essential resource for understanding web accessibility), Sinéad agrees with Haben that compliance should only be the “starting point.” True accessibility is developed through meaningful conversation and collaboration: talking to communities and finding out what they need.
Haben stresses that we cannot create accessibility without the intentional and intersectional participation of Disabled people: “You need to talk to Disabled people, have conversations with Disabled people.” She references the famous mantra of the Disability movement, “Nothing about us without us,” and emphasizes that organizational leaders need to hire Disabled people “at every stage,” so that accessibility can be embedded in a culture from the inside-out.
Accessibility is about patience and flexibility
If accessibility is a conversation, then “What are the human behaviors that we have to adopt,” asks Sinéad. At Tilting the Lens, we believe that patience and flexibility are core pillars of accessibility and that fostering psychological safety is essential. For Deaf artist Christine Sun Kim, accessibility is synonymous with this very sense of safety: “There’s no tension, there’s a sense of welcoming, a lack of anxiety. You wouldn’t have to worry, you wouldn’t feel stressed. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to ask for interpreters, interpreters would just show up at the ready.”
Meanwhile, actress and advocate Selma Blair defines accessibility as “a systematic shift in being thoughtful towards all our fellow beings.” She equates accessibility with care and understanding, and asks that we “see what could make things a little more workable in the way of people around us,” by “being more aware and non-judgmental.”
In the Disability community, the idea of access as love or care is well-established, and is perhaps best expressed by writer Mia Mingus in her blog post Access Intimacy.
Accessibility is about creativity and innovation
When we think beyond compliance, accessibility can become a rich and rewarding opportunity for creativity and innovation. Sinéad explains that accessibility need not be regarded as sterile or under the “medical model” – it can actually be a fertile ground for beauty and design. Once an “experience in a museum, an art gallery, a concert, a venue [is] equal if not equitable to everybody else’s experiences,” then the question becomes: “And how do we give a sense of pride, design and aesthetic to it?”
For an example of accessibility as art, we might look to the work of artists Shannon Finnegan and Bojana Coklyat, who created “Alt-Text as Poetry”, an online resource which encourages writers of alt-text to consider its exciting creative potential. Or we might instead take inspiration from British Vogue’s recent launch of the first ever Braille edition of the magazine: when editor Edward Enninful shared the first images of the Braille version on Instagram, the word that kept recurring across the hundreds of comments was “beautiful.”
Accessibility is always evolving
Accessibility is not easy to define – and even among Disabled people, each individual has a different perspective on the word. After speaking to members of our community, we might define accessibility as a continuous practice that strives for equity for Disabled people. But accessibility is always evolving because – to use Haben’s words – “our bodies change, our understanding changes and our planet is always changing.”
There is no doubt that accessibility can be daunting, and it can be easy to be overwhelmed by its seeming enormity; by the idea of compliance or guidelines and standards. But in those moments, we might remind ourselves that ultimately, accessibility is about people – how we meet the world and each other. Defining it more precisely remains an ongoing mission.