A few years ago, I found myself in the middle of a crowded conference hall, partaking in a developers’ conference that was set to unveil the latest breakthroughs in the realm of artificial intelligence. It was your typical tech event, complete with its obligatory array of luminous screens, persuasive speakers, and a captive audience that seemed to hang onto their every word. While I had attended many such events before, this one was about to become a turning point in how I would view and understand inclusive communication.
The main conference room was dimly lit, its dynamic main stage bathed in the soft glow of projected images and promises of an AI-driven future. Amid the audience, one particular attendee caught my attention. He was seated in the front row, a gorgeous golden Labrador service dog resting faithfully at his feet. Despite the vibrant images that danced across the screen and the energetic delivery of the keynote speaker, the man’s eyes remained closed.
While listening to the presentation, the man was frantically typing on the keyboard of the computer sitting on his lap. The computer’s screen was pitch black, and yet, his fingers were moving at an impressive speed across the keys. A quick look at the scene made it obvious that he was blind. This man had likely arrived with the same keen anticipation as the rest of us, eager to grasp the nuances of this ground-breaking new technology and excited for its potential. Yet, the visual-heavy presentation meant he was excluded from the core information being shared.
I watched him for a while as he listened attentively to the presenter, trying to piece together the information through the spoken word alone, capturing however much he could on his laptop. It struck me then how the presentation was so heavily skewed towards the visual, leaving behind anyone who couldn’t participate in that way. And then, BAM, it hit me.
Looking back, I can say that this realization evolved into one of my main guiding principles: “If we’re not addressing the diverse needs and expectations of everyone in the room, then we’re only appealing to the needs and preferences of a limited subset of that same audience.”
This powerful wake-up call still underlines gaps in the way we collectively approach communications today. Far too often, as speaking and communication professionals, we design and deliver our message with a one-size-fits-all approach. A restricted viewpoint which ignores those falling outside of our narrow definition of “normal.” When accessibility and inclusion aren’t baked right into our design and presentation, we risk sidelining a significant part of our potential audience, who will then miss out on latent talent. This is, of course, bad, but it also limits our market reach.
Turning barriers into bridges on the path to digital inclusion
Today, digital accessibility plays an increasingly pivotal role in our digital-first world. It first grew from an oddity to become foundational in how we communicate, work, and socialize. Recent data from the World Economic Forum underscores this spectacularly. Across the globe, there are over 1.3 billion people (roughly 20% of the global population) living with disabilities, and representing a multitude of individuals from all walks of life. Each one with their own unique abilities and challenges. Each one potentially encountering hurdles when interacting with digital content and interfaces. Our digital content and interfaces.
1.3 billion people. Consider for a moment the vastness of this number. That’s roughly as many people as the entire population of China! This is an immense and diverse group of prospective customers, collaborators, and innovators waiting to be acknowledged and cared for. Viewed through the lens of digital accessibility, it’s a myriad of interactions and experiences potentially impeded by unnecessary barriers. As we navigate the digital landscape, businesses need to see these barriers not as obstructions but as uncharted paths to growth and innovation. Embracing digital inclusion is not just about creating accessible experiences. It’s about promoting a richer diversity and tapping into a market that remains largely under-explored, under-served, and untapped.
That said, the path to comprehensive disability inclusion and digital accessibility extends beyond just ticking off boxes on a compliance checklist. It requires adaptation, a shift in perspectives, so the full spectrum of human experiences can be recognized. It demands a design process that puts all potential users at the heart of what we do — those with visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, and neurological disabilities. This isn’t just about accommodating their needs and expectations. This is about enriching experiences for everyone. This is about implementing intuitive features such as captioning, screen reader compatibility, simple navigation, and user-friendly layouts, so the digital world can become a welcoming space instead of the perplexing maze that it defaults to otherwise.
Cultivating an inclusive culture with empathy and understanding
Yet, the key to a digitally inclusive environment extends far beyond the realm of technology. It requires us to genuinely nurture a culture that values empathy and respect above all else! This means committing to educating teams about diverse needs and expectations. This means cultivating an environment where understanding and learning from differences becomes the norm, not the exception, by actively listening to user feedback and adapting based on those learnings. The objective transcends the creation of products and services that will work for everyone, to becoming about facilitating and fostering an ongoing dialogue that continually strives to make digital experiences better, more intuitive, and more inclusive for all.
Disability inclusion and digital accessibility are long and winding roads. Journeys that require ongoing commitments, shifts in perspectives, and the willingness, humility and courage to learn from diverse audiences. By choosing to embark on this journey, speaking and communication professionals not only create more inclusive digital spaces, but they also tap into the richer tapestry of human experiences and ideas. Doing so not only addresses the needs and expectations of a wider audience, but also enriches our collective digital experiences. This is pretty dope.
The unseen opportunities in inclusive collaborations
So, what became of that blind man from the seminar? Well, the incident that day turned into an unexpected opportunity for both him and one of the product teams that was showcasing the machine learning algorithms they had been working on. The man, driven by his own lived experience of exclusion, ended up being invited to collaborate with the developers to introduce audio descriptions into their presentations, so they would be more accessible to everyone. This addition wasn’t a mere accommodation to do the right thing… it significantly enriched the product experience, bringing the project and its team to new heights.
His valuable contribution opened a new door of understanding for the product team as well. Thanks to audio descriptions, the team’s presentations became accessible not only for visually impaired individuals such as himself but also to a wider audience who preferred auditory to visual information: those engaged in multitasking or individuals with certain cognitive conditions that favour listening over viewing. This collaboration served as a powerful example of how focusing on inclusion and diversity elevates innovation, enhances user experiences, and benefits everyone.
This shows that inclusion and accessibility are not mere embellishments, secondary considerations or afterthoughts; they can (and do) form the bedrock of effective communication and successful businesses! In an age where digital interaction forms the crux of our daily lives, the importance of designing with everyone in mind is amplified like never before. Long gone are the days where we would consider accessibility a magnanimous gesture. Today, it’s simply a smart business decision. A commitment to validating the lived experiences and capabilities of all people unlocks a world bursting with untapped potential and opportunities. For ourselves but also for those who are otherwise left out.
From inclusive musings to meaningful actions
The journey of disability inclusion and digital accessibility is an ongoing narrative, and we are all authors in this story. Each decision we make, every product we design, every team we lead, and every audience we communicate with provides us with opportunities to practice inclusive design and thinking! It’s our responsibility to strive towards understanding, valuing, and respecting the diverse needs and expectations of everyone involved.
It ultimately comes down to this realization that still guides me today, so many years later: If we’re not addressing the diverse needs and expectations of everyone in the room, then we’re only appealing to the needs and preferences of a limited subset of that same audience.
This inclusion narrative goes so far beyond adding a ramp to a building or incorporating alternative text to images on a website. It’s about changing our perspective and recognizing the wealth of human experiences. It’s about ensuring that everyone gets a chance to participate fully and equally as we redefine the very concept of normalcy. It’s also about acknowledging any unconscious biases we might have (and we have quite a few) while working diligently to make our world more accessible and inclusive.
Now, how can we each make a difference in our own fields of expertise to constantly extend the boundaries of inclusion and accessibility? How can we ensure that we’re not just addressing a select group but truly acknowledging the vast spectrum of human diversity? This is a deep question, not just idle musings. It’s an actual call to action! A challenge for all of us to reflect, to reconsider our approaches, and actively contribute to building a world where everyone’s needs and expectations are acknowledged and met. Are you up for it?
Denis Boudreau is a world renowned disability inclusion and digital accessibility management consultant and trainer, best selling author, and professional speaker. His first book, The Inclusive Speaker, is available on Amazon.
This post was originally published on InklusivComm’s Info-Hub as: https://inklusiv.ca/addressing-the-needs-of-everyone-with-bigger-picture-thinking/
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