Is truly inclusive communication a myth?

Belinda Coleman Belinda Coleman
QLD Lead, Associate, Engagement & Change Advisory – Australia
11 October 2022
6 min read

Years before audio content such as audiobooks and podcasts became a trend, social worker Wendy Miller found the information superhighway useless. Since becoming completely blind at the age of eight, print publications such as magazines, newspapers and newsletters were of no use, unless someone read aloud to her. Even then, Wendy didn't have the freedom to choose the kind of articles that interested her. Until a friend introduced her to Lynx in the '90s – a text-only browser that sent text through screen reader software and a voicebox. Finally, the worldwide web was fully accessible to Wendy and she could freely catch up with anything she wanted to 'read' online.

The empowerment the technology gave Wendy was priceless. She not only gained regular access to content of interest, but felt she belonged with others too. "When you are a blind person, you understand that it's a sighted world," she said, "but you also have to understand that it's your world, as well."

According to the World Health Organisation, about 15 per cent of the population currently experience disability with numbers only increasing. That's roughly over 1 billion people experiencing accessibility challenges on a daily basis in a world that was not initially built for them. 

With the increasing demand for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, many organisations have been trying to introduce more inclusive policies and practices and address their employees' accessibility needs. However, before policies are introduced, the question that should be answered first, and most often forgotten, is: did everybody understand it? Because if not, all initiatives that will follow ironically defeat the purpose of what's trying to be achieved. 

As George Bernard Shaw said, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." 

Communication needs to be inclusive and accessible for it to be truly effective. That being said, given the way we communicate has been entrenched for so long, how easy is it to truly design communication with inclusivity in mind? 

Universal has evolved to unique

In the 1980s, the Center for Universal Design founder Dr Ron Mace coined the term 'universal design', which refers to "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design". It suggests that creating a single design solution for everybody as much as possible, ultimately makes everyone's life easier. 

Complexity arises when the needs of one do not complement or completely clash with another's. This is where mismatched interactions occur. For example, videos, while very engaging, are not friendly for people who are visually impaired. And video subtitles, while particularly helpful to a person who is hard of hearing may not be accessible to those who are hyperlexic, because they may get too distracted with the letters or words and ignore what's happening in the video.

Although it's not practical or cost effective for organisations to end up developing 20 versions of material to cater to different languages or mediums – there are options. For example, stakeholder teams now engage with communities through either face-to-face or virtual town halls, roundtables, social media and the use of digital tools, alongside the trusty old letter drop. 

While some progress has been made in this space, considerably more can be done.

What does good look like?

The Social Model of disability says that disability occurs not because of a person's impairment or difference, but only when they engage in a world that is not designed for them. Their environment matters. How can people with a disability participate in a community if they cannot communicate and properly interact? 

The United Nations Office at Geneva created a set of guidelines on disability-inclusive language that must be used in oral and written communications, highlighting how much impact the language and words we use has on the inclusion of the PWD community.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were also created to provide an international standard on how to make web content accessible to people with disabilities like alternative text for images, captions and subtitles for videos, and text formats. 

Microsoft, for its part, has incorporated tools in its products for accessibility and inclusion such as Read Aloud, Dictate, Immersive, Reader, Captions, Translate, and Accessibility Check, which creates a standard for accessible content. Most recently, they introduced the Cameo feature in PowerPoint, where users can insert a live camera feed in their presentations to make lip reading much easier for people with hearing impairments. 

Creating something for everybody

The Human Rights model for disability builds on the Social Model, recognising that while barriers exist, they are only one piece of the puzzle. Even once these barriers have been removed, many people with disability will still require a range of disability-related supports so that they can enjoy their rights on an equal basis with others. Governments and organisations all have a role to play in upholding these rights, and creating goods and services that are accessible to everyone. 

However, accessibility is only a bare minimum and only a facet of inclusive design. Once these barriers are removed, many still require support to enjoy their rights on an equitable basis with others.

The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University has identified seven principles of universal design to guide the design of environments, communications and products. These are equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use.  

To create more meaningful engagement, diversity, equity, cultural and linguistic variety should also be considered – among many other differences that make humans unique. Discussion around diversity, equity and inclusion is a lot more complex than many think. It is more than about race, gender, disabilities, or age. There is culture, linguistics, socio-economic status, beliefs, background, history, and other factors that may not be captured in photos – factors that we only come to know if we engage with people. 

The key is that everyone, no matter their situation, has the right to equal opportunities and participation in society.

All about audience

Ultimately, designing for every single difference that humans have is virtually impossible. There are thousands of languages and cultures in the world, different types of disabilities with different needs, and there are nuances for each. In spite of it being difficult to cater for all, inclusive design is still doable.

The key lies with your audience – knowing who may have additional requirements and encouraging those to request adaptations when needed. Of course, it's exhausting for people with additional requirements to constantly self-advocate but, until we get better at proactively considering these elements, it will likely be needed. To inclusively design for everyone means to design for intended users – and for that, we have to engage users early on during the design process and understand what kind of accommodations they need. We don't know what we don't know.

The biggest mistake is to always assume what they need. Silence doesn't always mean it's okay and is, in fact, the polar opposite of the communication we are trying to achieve.


Belinda Coleman
Written by
Belinda Coleman

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