Representation Matters

This year I had the pleasure of re-launching The Accessibility Project. I spend a lot of time researching and writing about accessibility and inclusive design, so this felt like the cumulation of a lot of that effort. The site now uses all sorts of cool web features like CSS Grid, @supports, and media features, aria-current, Service Workers, and Eleventy. But that’s really not the important bit.

The important bit I learned this year is the same thing I learn over and over again: When it comes to disability, representation matters.

In my exploration, the importance of representation is a layered truth I find myself re-internalizing as I learn more about the different communities that make up the accessibility space. I am extraordinarily thankful to be welcomed into these communities, and grateful to be able to participate in them. 

We must, however, acknowledge that it is a lot easier for me to enter into these communities than the other way around. Disabled people frequently face many barriers towards representation in many industries, ours included. Considering that, I thought I’d ask disabled people who work on the web what they’ve learned. Here’s what they told me:

Developer Jennilee Rose comments on increased awareness of accessibility in the framework space:

As an advocate for accessibility in web design/development, something I’ve noticed (not exactly learned per-say, but a trend I’ve seen) is that in probably the last 2-3 years there has been a shift in prioritizing accessibility in JavaScript libraries. I think some of it is that there are devs out there like me who care and are holding devs who create these libraries accountable and helping to create change.

Software Engineer Nadhim Orfali comments on their experience working with design systems, accessibility, and documentation:

After a company-wide shift to Vue, it’s easier and faster for teams to adopt the design system. Due to the release of scoped packages along with CI/CD architecture and intertwined with documentation, the process is more streamlined with most of the accessibility built-in. I’m seeing teams much more aware and interested in all matters relating to accessibility, which can only be a good thing!

User experience designer Francis C. Rupert comments on how quarantine has affected everyone:

In 2020 everyone was struck with a shared Situational Disability by everyone wearing a mask. Hearing loss isn’t necessarily always about volume, but speech discrimination. We collectively lost the ability to distinguish between consonants and vowels, and everyone else sounds garbled through their masks.

Speaking of quarantine, web designer Jen Diaz tells us about some benefits that come with remote work becoming mainstream:

Clients are super-keen to work with remote business partners now that they have little or no choice not to. Which is great — it truly levels the playing field. On a Zoom call, nobody knows that my hands are shaped like lobster claws or that I physically cannot participate in the company bowling league — both things that have raised eyebrows for me at in-office jobs.

Anne Berlin, technical SEO and web manager, also comments on some remote work benefits:

I don’t have to worry about someone coming in with strong fragrance, which can send my brain into haywire. I can control the light level of the room and brightness level of my monitors, and a bit more control over the noise level.

It’s not all good vibes, however. Web developer Olu also chimes in about remote work: 

Quarantine has also shown how adaptable companies can be when their backs are against the wall. It’s funny how disabled people can ask for accommodations for years and then when they have no choice suddenly these accommodations are becoming permanent for everyone. 

Anne also mentions:

Pressure to pass as abled due to ignorance about “invisible” disabilities or lack of proactively inclusive culture for a range of things including cognitive styles, or issues with overstimulation.

Disability is more than physical access. Managing Director Josh Clayton mentions the cognitive fatigue that comes with framework churn:

The continued use of React is concerning. The JavaScript ecosystem is fragmented, with a lot of people doing a lot of work and nobody producing anything new. I don’t mind investing in technology where I feel like I’m getting something. There’s just so much churn, I don’t bother to keep up. I would like to think it’s not sacrificing future employability if I was going to look for a new job, but when it comes to other person’s money, there’s the “newshiny,” or “is this actually the right thing you should be doing right now?”

Developer EJ Mason doesn’t mince words:

What I have learned about the industry is that it is unrepentantly ableist.

While I’m happy to see progress being made on some fronts, we need to understand that doing technical work to make websites accessible is only part of the picture. We need to realize that usable products can be created in exclusionary spaces. Only by including disabled people in the product creation process can we truly improve as an industry.

Thank you to Jennilee Rose, Nadhim Orfali, Francis C. Rupert, Jen Diaz, Anne Berlin, Olu, Josh Clayton, EJ Mason, and everyone else who shared their experiences with me.

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