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Gatekeeping and Accessibility

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In my final post about gatekeeping in technology, I have to come clean about something. Let’s go through this journey together.

[Edit: At the end of August 2020, Grace Anderson — president and co-founder of I Am A Fighter — reached out to me to share A Comprehensive Guide to Strategies and Benefits of Building a Diverse Workplace, which I encourage you to read.]

In the first post we spoke about what gatekeeping is. In the second we looked at choosing our words carefully. In the third post, we looked at diversity in the workplace, and also how it extends to our personal lives.

In this post we will look at the I in D&I: Inclusion. We also necessarily cover Accessibility, because in order to include someone in a thing (in a safe, welcoming environment), that thing has to be accessible. (Aside: there’s an accessibility hashtag #a11y, with the letter “a,” followed by the number eleven, then the letter “y.” 11 represents the number of letters between the “a” and “y” in “accessibility.” The more you know.)

This, dear reader, is my weakness. I use phrases that are ableist (discriminatory in favour of able-bodied people). I don’t use alternate text on images on my website or on Twitter, which would help blind people. In my public sessions I forget that someone might be Deaf and turn my head away. In other words, I forget that disabled people exist, even when I talk about diversity and inclusion.

I’m embarrassed by this. I am autistic, according to two separate diagnoses in two different countries. I am in the 99th percentile, which means I scored higher than 99% of people who took the same test. There’s no “higher” score for me. Comorbid with this (other things I have that are common with autism) is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It is a mental disability, affecting mainly my executive function, as well as causing anxiety around social interactions. I won’t bore you with the details, but I’ve written about it on my personal blog.

The point is, I’m legitimately disabled but I forget that other disabled people exist, even people close to me. Some examples: physical disabilities including partial and total loss of sight? My late aunt. Partial or total loss of hearing? My spouse and a couple of other friends. Partial or total loss of movement? My sister-in-law. I literally have people close to me who I care about that are disabled, and I go through life not thinking about their disabilities unless I’m doing something like writing this post.

You’re thinking about it too, aren’t you? How many people do you know? The visibility of disability is embarrassingly low. Wheelchair access, disabled parking, captions that don’t suck even when they’re included in video, sign language interpreters — yeah we’ve got those — and the lack of access to them still sucks. And that doesn’t even begin to discuss people who don’t look disabled.

So this last post on the subject isn’t going to be explaining to you how you can be better at inclusion and accessibility. It’s going to be me writing about how I want to be better. It can start with little things, like adding alternate text or descriptions to my tweets that contain graphics. It could also be transcribing an audio or video recording, or short film I make. If I’m giving a public talk, I could ask if anyone in the room has hearing issues and relies on lip-reading — so that I don’t turn my face away while I’m presenting — though that puts people on the spot to identify themselves while under peer pressure. Inclusion and accessibility should become something you include automatically.

These small steps that I can start with now can become habits, which become behaviour, and slowly but surely I will be more inclusive. But beyond that, in my professional career it means responding to questions in a way that isn’t confrontational. It means adding definitions to my writing that may seem obvious to me, but are not intuitive. It means explaining things in my sessions without assuming prior knowledge. I haven’t completed a formal computer science degree, and I have to keep in mind that there are people in the room who have not had access to the same learning experiences that I have; that my privilege has given me access to experiences that I should share freely with others.

I can hear imaginary people reading this and thinking that they won’t give away their livelihood — their skills — for free. I’m not suggesting that at all. In a work environment, my knowledge has value and I expect to be paid accordingly. What I’m suggesting is that we can recognize when a person is learning something, versus a person trying to take advantage. Even if I do get taken advantage of here or there, the benefits of helping others far outweigh the inconvenience — not because I might feel good about myself, but because it is actively making other people’s lives better.

There are many resources available to us to make the information technology profession more welcoming, diverse, and inclusive. There are also ways to measure our progress. The hardest thing (for me anyway) is making the decision to be more inclusive, because it means not resorting to stereotypes. It means retraining ourselves to do away with unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias): those pattern-matching algorithms we learn as kids, that all X are Y.

That is especially hard to change in a corporate culture. Keeping in mind that diversity and inclusion go together, these strategies (driven not just by human resources, but senior management) might include:

  • Creating behavioural standards and holding leaders accountable for results;
  • Training people at all levels on topics like unconscious bias;
  • Integrating diversity and inclusion strategies in recruitment, performance management, leadership assessment, and training;
  • Creating employee networks (e.g, employee resource groups, community outreach groups);
  • Creating an externally visible scorecard to measure progress including metrics for recruiting, promotion rates, compensation levels, turnover, and supplier diversity.

Breaking those habits, being conscious of and actively listening to the people we interact with who are different to us even if it’s not immediately apparent (not all disabilities are physical), catching our microaggressions, apologizing for insensitive comments and not making jokes at the expense of those unable to defend themselves, respecting gender pronouns, not parking in disabled zones, asking people how to say their names correctly, asking permission to take someone’s photograph, being mindful of their religious beliefs, the list goes on. Your homework is to figure this out in your own environment, and where your own personal weak spots are that need extra attention.

For our industry specifically, it also means designing systems that are accessible to all people who have to use it, whether it be larger buttons on the user interface, better (and clearer!) documentation, or voice-guided instructions, to mention just a few. Both Microsoft and Google have entire sections on their websites dedicated to accessibility in tools, and software development.

I’m not pointing fingers, because I’ve been guilty of a lot of these things too. The point is that you can start making changes now, and that making an effort on even seemingly small things add up over time.

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo by Mario Purisic on Unsplash.