Why digital accessibility has to get more diverse

Every day feels like a diversity day, a week or a month. It's Disability Pride Month now - whatever that may be, I've neatly ignored it. Maybe able-bodied people need events like this to feel really inclusive and show it. You can then spend the rest of the year with the good conscience of having done something.

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Symbolism is something

Today - at least in my bubble - there is much more discussion about inclusion and diversity than, say, 10 years ago. I deliberately say bubbles because few people outside of our group care. It's not that they're against it, it just doesn't play a big part in their lives. Many medium-sized and some large companies are run by people who aren't old white men, things are looking better at the second and third levels of management. Whether it was diversity or simply the lack of alternatives, I'll leave it open. And most people are okay with that, or accept it. We just hear about the cases where it doesn't work. The situation is still bad, but slowly getting better, at least for some groups.

Unfortunately, the web and social media have led to an excess of symbolism. You show your support for LGBTQ* people by coloring your profile picture in rainbow colors. You show support for all sorts of topics by clicking Like or Share. I'll tell you something: The climate will not be saved by like buttons. And sharing any content hasn't rid anyone of stupid ideas. Participating in Christopher Street Day does not make your organization LGBTQ-friendly. Using the Ukrainian flag doesn't help the Ukrainians one bit in their fight. Delimiting rights does not help people with a migration background to find a job or an apartment. For my taste, it's pure self-portrayal: you show your own bubble that you're on the right side and otherwise sit back and relax. Narcissism is the secret to the success of social media.

It may be right to contradict idiots publicly. I think it's like nailing pudding to the wall though. A hard-nosed Rightist is unlikely to be dissuaded by argument, much less yelling at them. Telling your own bubble how stupid you find their attitude is of no use to anyone, because your own bubble is on your side anyway. It would make sense to talk to those who are willing to engage in a discussion, but we're too lazy for that, you'd have to put down your smartphone for that.

But symbolism can't be everything

There is nothing inherently wrong with symbolism. The problem begins when symbolism is confused with action. Sometimes such actions are simply intended to cover up the fact that the respective organization is not taking any concrete action to hire more diverse employees or to support the existing ones. It's a green wash for inclusion. Today I'm rather suspicious when organizations communicate such things. I prefer people who do something useful and don't put three times as much energy into PR afterwards, so that everyone knows what they've done. I even prefer people who do nothing and say nothing, they are more honest.

An organization is not inclusive or accessible because it runs campaign after campaign on these issues. It has non-disabled people demonstrate the expertise. I'm sorry if I keep repeating this: talkin is not action, words are patient: I can say I'm inclusive 1000 times a day, but that doesn't make me inclusive. I can run a thousand accessibility PR campaigns, that doesn't make me accessible. With its current campaign for accessible online shops, Aktion Mensch is an example of how not to do it.

The German accessibility community also unfortunately didn't understand my criticism: Today it is no longer enough to say that you are committed to accessibility: It is also about giving disabled people the opportunity to speak as experts themselves. That doesn't happen when a discussion group is made up entirely of able-bodied people. If these disabled experts hardly exist, then it is also due to the structures, which hardly give newcomers the chance to establish themselves. It's no coincidence that grey-haired people dominate accessibility panels today and the youngest person in the round is 50. Even people who are credibly committed to accessibility can prevent disabled people from participating.

Actually, everyone agrees that panels and other institutions should be diverse, but that doesn't seem to apply to inclusion and disability. The latest example is the 2024 Accessibility Conference organized by the German Rheinwerk-Verlag. I'm a bit disappointed from the Rheinwerk Verlag. While the first program probably had to be put together quickly, the third edition would have given more chances. Not only the speakers, but also the topics are so conventional that you have to look twice to see the differences to the previous conferences. Also, I had to think about whether this should now be an accessibility panel or a gathering of old Caucasians - it's both.

There also seems to be an unwritten rule that you can't criticize people who do (or pretend to) anything about inclusion and accessibility. Because they are the good guys. Sorry folks, everyone is allowed to criticize everyone and you can also do nonsense with good intentions. In the same way, disability activists have to deal with being criticized, when the criticism is constructive.

It's not my concern that non-disabled people say something wrong, disabled people can also spout nonsense. Having disabled people there is not a value in itself, but simply shows that there are also disabled experts. It's not just about them that are talked about. Of course, people with disabilities also talk about barriers in a different way than people who only know it third-hand. And finally, the presence of disabled people who can express themselves competently goes a long way towards showing that inclusion and accessibility have been successful, otherwise they wouldn't be sitting there. Of course, people with disabilities who say that this and that doesn't work are also important. But the picture becomes lopsided when the disabled say what isn't working and the able-bodied say how to fix it. This reinforces the thought of caring once more.

A lady from Google Germany is currently telling us in a video how important keyboard usability is. And I wonder if she even knows what she's talking about: Has she ever spent a whole day trying to get by without a mouse? Google is perhaps the best example when it comes to the lack of accessibility at a large company , the goat was made into a gardener. Maybe they should raise awareness within Google.

I remember with horror a round at Microsoft Germany in which several people discussed accessibility. None of them had a disability and thematically had no real connection to digital accessibility. What kind of image does that make? I had drawn the attention of my that time client to this problem internally, but Microsoft didn't really care. That was a few years ago, but I'm not sure if they learned anything from it. Probably not. Such events are more about name dropping - some people or companies that you know and therefore have a pull effect. They don't have to understand anything about the topic, if in doubt they have employees who write the speaking notes for them.

The events are also important because they give the speakers prestige. It is quite difficult for newbies to gain notoriety. So it makes sense if they have the chance to appear at conferences. How that doesn't work can be seen at the for 2024 planned conference of the Rheinwerk Verlag, where they again invited the predominantly male seniors from the German accessibility scene. In the third edition, you could really have mixed in a few new faces, but apparently that was too exhausting.

Act more, talk less

An organization can call itself inclusive and accessible if it makes its offers accessible and not only uses disabled people as testimonials, but also allows them to speak on topics that are not directly related to their own situation. In my opinion, it's not about being perfectly inclusive and accessible. These are processes, not states.

It's about designing a strategy, taking action, measuring progress and identifying problem areas. You can communicate that. Everything else is just PR. Practice what you preach, preach water and drink wine - unfortunately there are many organizations in our sector that are not aware of their double standards. Or they are aware of it and don't care.

Without wanting to offend anyone, the entire nonprofit sector is anything but diverse. Many take the position that they represent a good cause and are therefore inclusive and diverse and should not be criticized because they are nonprofits and want to do good things. However, some companies are much more advanced when it comes to the diversity of their workforce.

How many of the big organizations are run by women, queers, disabled or migrant backgrounds? I can't think of one spontaneously. How many have an inclusion action plan? A publicly available diversity strategy? A general accessibility strategy? How many of the big charities still follow the caring spirit in their local organizations and just have inclusion pasted on the front? In how many organizations does the publicly displayed image not match the internal conditions?

I actually don't know. But there may be more exclusives than we would like. And like I said, that's not the problem. The problem is that the problem is not recognized and no action is taken against it. Ultimately, nonprofits are just as power- and elite-oriented as commercial companies or authorities, only that they can hide it better. In order to rise here, you have to have the right background and have spun your network early on. Unfortunately, most people from minorities haven't done this and therefore no chance of gaining a leading position outside of self-help organizations.

Personally, I have come to the conclusion that I will only appear as an expert and no longer as a testimonial. Unfortunately I can't do more.

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