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Accessibility in communications: We can and need to do better

Posted by: Matisse Hamel-Nelis
on 15, Jul 2022
from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I recently had the privilege and honour to attend and speak at the 2022 International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) World Conference. My session, "Putting the 'A' in IDEA," was focused on the role accessibility plays in professional communications while providing easy tips and tricks that attendees could start applying right away.

However, my presentation was on the last day. So, I had the opportunity to hear from other professional communicators, their best practices, and how they strategized and created diversity, inclusion and equity-related campaigns and employee culture. Yet, during the two full days of incredible sessions and idea sharing, something that was consistently missing was the role of accessibility and the disability community.

Realizing we aren't where we need to be

Now, I admit, whenever I attend conferences, I'm always curious about how others in my field view and embrace accessibility in their work. So, I ask questions like:

  • How do you and your team ensure your campaigns are accessible to everyone?
  • When creating your internal communications strategies, how do you ensure your staff with disabilities are included in the conversations and access the content/campaigns you produce?
  • How do you weave accessibility into your diversity, inclusion and equity (DE&I) initiatives?

Sadly, more often than not, I get the response, "We haven't thought about or considered accessibility in what we do."

While I've somewhat become used to this response, I've also looked at it as an opportunity to educate and promote the importance and benefits of creating accessible content. 

But, something stood out at this conference and left me feeling disheartened. During a plenary session at the end of Day 1, the three panellists, which included a former lawyer, were talking about the communications profession in 2030. With a packed room hanging on their every word, I took this as an opportunity to ask a question:

How do accessible content and accessibility legislation play a role in the comms initiatives/campaigns as we move forward? Is this an area communications professionals need to embrace more, just like diversity, equity and inclusion?

I was hopeful these panellists, a couple I've looked up to, would provide new insights and a voice for accessibility for everyone in the room. But instead, I was shocked and in disbelief by their answers - they didn't have one. Instead, they chose to remain silent. They didn't even take the opportunity to show vulnerability by saying something like, "You know what, I don't know. Accessibility in communications is something we should be considering, but it's not something I've done myself yet."

That was when I realized we, as professional communicators, have much work to do. Thinking about the sessions, except for mine, only one other presenter found a way to have live captions (thank you, PowerPoint). Documents uploaded to the app, like presentations and handouts, were inaccessible. Presenters used images to share stories, but most weren't describing them. 

With all of this, I wasn't mad. I wasn't angry. Instead, I was asking how we can improve this experience next time? How can we make sure that we take steps to make this conference more accessible, even if it's implementing just one more accessible tactic than the previous year?

Changing the narrative around accessibility in communications

How can we say we're inclusive if we're not being accessible? 

In my last blog, I talked about the need to change the terminology we use from DE&I to IDEA, otherwise known as inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility. Thinking about IDEA versus just DE&I, we would be a way to ensure that accessibility is always top of mind when working on any project.

But more importantly, I believe the most significant issue around accessibility in professional communications is a simple one - we don't know what we don't know. And a part of that is being afraid to ask. 

Progress over perfection

There's this preconceived notion that we need to be perfect at everything we do right from the start, and this is particularly true when it comes to accessibility. I've heard people say they think it needs to be all or nothing because there's a fear of litigation or, perhaps worse, the potential backlash at attempting to be accessible but doing something. 

I'm here to say we must stop being fearful of asking questions and trying things. Instead, we should focus on progress over perfection regarding accessibility. Meryl Evans has a great post on her website entitled, "Accessibility: Why You Need to Work Toward Progress Over Perfection," where she talks about how we need to focus on progress, making those small steps to accessibility, versus thinking we need to be perfect at accessibility right away. 

Accessibility is a journey with stepping stones and key milestones that help us achieve our overall goals. Baby steps are a good thing. I like to think of the accessibility journey using the 1% marginal gains theory. As Forbes describes this as the "notion that small, incremental improvements in a business process, when added together, can make a significant improvement."

So why don't we embrace this theory and apply it to accessibility in communications?

Ideas for your first 1%

If you're looking for ways to start implementing accessibility in your communications, here are some quick wins:

  • Add alt-text to all the images you share on social media.
  • Add captions to your videos.
  • Use camel case when writing multi-word hashtags, like #SomethingLikeThis.
  • Write in plain language.
  • Check the colour contrast in your images and text.

Of course, there are always things like ensuring your website is accessible and usable or your documents are fully accessible. These may take a bit more time, energy or investment, but these should also be on your digital accessibility journey. 

And don't forget, if you're unsure how to do something in an accessible way, ask for help. Whether you're asking me (you can email me at mhamelnelis@abledocs.com) or the accessibility community, we're always here and happy to help you learn. 

As professional communicators, we're the gatekeepers to content creation and promotion. We have the power to make everything we do inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible. 

So let's work together to make this happen!

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