Russell Willerton | STC Member
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every part of work and life over the past two years. Activities that we once completed without much thought — going to the grocery store, grabbing a bite at a local café, going to school or sporting events — suddenly became opportunities to catch a potentially dangerous virus.
There was a lot we did not know about the virus early in the pandemic. Early on, the best way for people to greatly reduce their risk of exposure to the virus was to limit their contacts with others. Over time, we learned more about ways to prevent the spread of the virus. Eventually, vaccines provided some protection for those who received them. But we know dangers persist with the ongoing presence of the virus.
Businesses and organizations who make money from face-to-face activities had to adapt to the new environment. Schools were forced to pivot to online teaching in most classes. Some restaurants pivoted from in-person dining to serving takeout. Musicians and singers gave performances online from their living rooms instead of crowded concert venues. Some stores offered online ordering and curbside pickup.
This pandemic has provided many opportunities for us to think again about access and accessibility. Access is a means of approach, or the ability to use something or approach someone. Accessibility is the quality of being usable or approachable, or the quality of being usable by someone with a disability. We frequently evaluate the accessibility of websites as the degree to which they work with adaptive technologies like screen readers. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which has been amended over time, requires federal agencies to ensure that their technological systems (such as websites) are accessible to people with disabilities.
Access and accessibility vary according to the situations that people face. The grocery store, school, or community center down the road that is normally accessible becomes less accessible to a person whose body cannot fight infections well. The online class session replacing in-person learning may be less accessible to people with impaired hearing or learning disabilities. Any activity may be less accessible to those enduring the ongoing effects of the pandemic — depression, fatigue, malaise — if not those effects of the virus itself.
The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that a person’s disabilities are not always on display in ways that others notice. The pandemic has also reminded us that a person’s abilities may change with their circumstances. A person dealing with fatigue or memory loss might use captions on videos even without the challenge of a hearing impairment. A person who is worried or depressed over fears of catching or spreading COVID-19 might struggle reading materials that are not presented in plain language.
The human cost of the pandemic has been high. How many of us have missed seeing friends, coworkers, mentors, or family members? How many occasions ordinarily marked in the company of family and friends took place at home, in sparse outdoor settings, or online? How many of us remember someone who is gone too soon because of the virus?
Even without laws requiring that systems must be accessible, I think it is ethical for organizations to ensure that their goods and services are widely accessible. I think it is ethical for organizations to not only be aware of the barriers their customers and constituents face but to remove those barriers whenever possible.
Humanizing accessibility involves moving away from abstract platitudes about accessibility and instead moving toward specific solutions that help people. The U.S. General Services Administration’s Accessibility for Teams1 website provides some specific suggestions for incorporating accessibility into UX design. These include covering accessibility and inclusive design2 issues when conducting user research, incorporating accessibility concerns in user personas or user stories, using assistive technology to see how others access a website, and including users with disabilities in user research.3
That said, humanizing accessibility involves much more than following a set of steps during product development. Humanizing accessibility means that you treat your users with respect. It means that you view their problems not as burdens you must bear, but rather opportunities for you to help solve problems and produce meaningful results. It means that you seek to partner in your users’ successes rather than simply sell them another product or check a box in a list of requirements. A number of authors in technical communication have used the dialogic view of ethics as a means to humanize the relationship between those who provide goods or services and those who use them. Willerton’s Plain Language and Ethical Action4 provides a summary in the second chapter.
By humanizing accessibility when designing goods and services, organizations can pursue ethical goals while also seeking to serve new clients and constituents.
- General Services Administration. n.d. “Accessibility for Teams.” https:// www.accessibility.digital.gov
- Swan, Henny, Ian Pouncey, Heydon Pickering, and Léonie Watson. n.d. “Inclusive Design Principles.” https:// www.inclusivedesignprinciples.org/
- U.S. Access Board. n.d. “U.S. Access Board.” https://www.access-board.gov/
- Willerton, Russell. 2015. Plain Language and Ethical Action. New York: Routledge
RUSSELL WILLERTON is chair of the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University. Send comments or questions about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.