by Christina Ryan, DLI CEO
What would you do if you turned up for work and you had to climb a 3-meter brick wall to get into the office? What about if everyone conducted team meetings in auslan, and you can’t speak auslan? How would you feel if you complained and nobody seemed to care?
Some colleagues of mine went to work the other day.
No big deal, hey. Lots of people go to work every day.
The difference is these colleagues are disability leaders. They are well respected in their various fields and regularly lead the public conversation about disability. They are some of the toughest people I know, not much gets in their way.
Except the other day.
The other day my colleagues had all registered to attend a conference. They were all attending this conference as part of their work. Some had travelled interstate.
None of them were able to fulfil their work obligations as expected because the conference was inaccessible. Very inaccessible.
I’m not going to name the organisers, or the leaders involved. There has been plenty of online discussion and media relating to the incident. What I am particularly annoyed by isn’t the inaccessibility, well actually that does annoy me, rather I’m very annoyed that a bunch of disability leaders went to work expecting to perform at their usual high standard, and they were unable to do so.
Most of them left. Those who stayed had a very difficult time. Several were adversely affected by staying and will need recovery time. All of the disability leaders involved were distressed by the situation and by how unexpected it was. Some said to me: “I just won’t go to conferences anymore”, or “perhaps I shouldn’t be doing this work”.
How is that the answer? Should disability leaders be giving up their work, or should conferences and workplaces be more committed to ensuring accessibility?
Newsflash: accessibility isn’t an extra or a nice thing to have, its mandatory if you want disabled people in the room. If you think diversity is of any value at all then accessibility is part of your regular processes, it’s just how you operate. You budget for it, make it happen, build it in from the outset. You choose venues that work, and make sure there are rapid responses to any issues that arise. You don’t argue and ablesplain and put the onus back onto the disability leader to get less disabled, you take responsibility for making accessibility happen and you fix it quickly when it doesn’t.
Most importantly, you make sure the people designing the access are those who know about access and have professional experience in accessibility. This means they will also be disabled people. These access experts should be paid for their work, just like your sound technicians and caterers.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. It happens every day, in all corners of the globe. This incident was quite high profile because of the people involved and that makes it unusual. Most incidents of inaccessibility happen to individuals, often in workplaces that aren’t supportive or have managers who think they know better, or they are single barriers affecting individuals at conferences rather than everyone, so we never hear about them.
This incident resulted in a formal apology delivered by the conference organisers during the final plenary. Unfortunately, most of the disability leaders affected weren’t there by then to hear it. The apology also didn’t include a commitment to recruit disabled people onto the organising committee in the future, nor did it include a reference to the same situation happening at the previous conference and this incident being a repeat.
There are still significant barriers to disability leadership. This is just one story.
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