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How Can Universal Design Apply to Small Non-Profits?

Businessman in a suit and tie using interpretive services at a meetingThe principles of universal design revolve around a simple concept: design a space, an event, or a program from the ground up in a way that provides access to everyone. Rather than looking at people with disabilities as a special case that requires unusual accommodation, universal design takes for granted that users will have varying needs including physical, mental, emotional, social, cognitive, and sensory, and builds a project with that in mind. No one has to present a diagnosis, argue that their needs matter, or be called out as “special” in a space that fully integrates universal design.

Though these principles most frequently come up in areas such as building design, event planning, and website/technology design, I’ve been thinking about how they might apply to the workplace, and specifically to smaller offices. My experience is in small non-profits, an area that presents some interesting challenges. While many non-profits are built around social justice principles and the leaders may be more enthusiastic than most about providing equal opportunities to potential employees with disabilities, small non-profit leaders often assume that their capacity to provide “reasonable accommodation” will make it impossible for many PWD to work there.

Small non-profits tend to work on a very limited budget, often in shared space or whatever discounted space they can find. Redesigning work space, providing assistive technology, etc. may just not seem feasible for many non-profit leaders. But non-profits are normally masters at getting things done on a shoestring and going up against ridiculous odds to do the right thing. Why should this be any different?

I would suggest a few basic principles, borrowing from universal design, to non-profits looking to provide employment opportunities to all qualified candidates:

1. Incorporate access when making changes. Any time your organization makes a major change, it’s a great time to improve access. Don’t think about your current employees only, but consider diverse access needs and how to make your office, website, or event friendly to everyone. For example, I know of one non-profit that, when switching offices, put the refrigerator in a place that would make it physically impossible for anyone in a chair or anyone over about 250 pounds to access. Though it wasn’t a problem for any employees working at that organization at that moment, it could mean major inconvenience, making a fat person or a person with disabilities feel burdensome, in the future when already-installed furniture needs to be shifted. Similarly, a website redesign is a great time to consider accessibility. When seeking quotes from developers and designers, the organization should specify that the site must follow universal design principles. Building a site that’s accessible from the ground up is much easier than trying to implement ad-hoc changes later.

2. Write accessibility into funding. When you write a grant proposal, make sure you include line items in your budget for all access needs that will cost money. For example, a conference grant proposal should be based on the cost of space that is already accessible and should include things like ASL interpreters and printing cost for Braille and/or large-print materials. Similarly, a proposal for a technology grant should include accessible hardware and software. Even if it doesn’t seem feasible to buy specialized technology that wouldn’t be useful for someone without disabilities, think about future needs and purchase computers that will support that technology as an add-on. This practice normalizes access both within the organization and among funders. As funders see more and more proposals that include accessibility line items as a standard practice, they’ll come to expect these line items and question proposals that don’t include them.

3. Don’t assume that you can’t accommodate a potential employee. I’ve seen organizations miss out on talent several times due to simple ignorance. Don’t be that organization–ask appropriate questions and look into resources that will allow your organization to carry out its EEO policy in a genuine fashion. Though every employer can’t be fully accessible, too many non-profit leaders get an idea of what access means for a particular person in their head and then automatically assume that they can’t provide that access. I know of several DC non-profits, for example, that don’t advertise internships at Gallaudet University, though they list internships at every other area school. At least one of these non-profits’ leader doesn’t advertise at Gallaudet because that leader assumes that a Deaf or HH student wouldn’t be able to communicate with the staff and the organization couldn’t afford an interpreter. In fact, Deaf and HH students’ needs vary greatly, free technology can address many communication gaps, and Gallaudet provides interpreters for at least some of a student’s intern hours free of charge to the non-profit. It’s much easier for a Deaf Gallaudet student to access internships in mainstream organizations than it is for a Deaf student at almost any other school, yet local organizations often don’t bother to look into it, letting assumptions rule the day. The same is true of other disabilities–there might be free community resources, a candidate might already own assistive technology or be able to suggest free or low-cost access solutions, or there might be a remote work solution available. It’s not the employee’s responsibility to know every answer, of course, but it does a disservice when employers just assume that access is impossible.

Universal design seems like a daunting concept to many, but it’s not that complicated.  We can look at simple principles used by small convention planners, for example, who set aside a self-care space or set a scent-free policy at the first stage of planning. Though the budget may be shoestring, when these considerations are made early on, as part of the entire planning process, they’re not that hard to implement and the benefits go far beyond people with disabilities.

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Blogging Against Disablism Day: Rethinking Access

Over the past five months, my thoughts on access have shifted to such a degree that some friends wonder if I might be lying about how I experience the world.

Until this January, I never asked for access and I didn’t identify as Deaf or HoH.  When I did question the way I hear, I often dismissed my own concerns as lying to myself or being dramatic.  It’s hard to know, after all, how you hear relative to others.  I frequently make “silly mistakes” in interpreting another person’s words, and these mistakes have always been an embarrassment.  I’ve always hated phones.  I do a lot of “filling in” that I don’t really think about to get the full meaning of a sentence, and I hadn’t really noticed how that differs from others’ experiences.

It wasn’t until a conference in January that I considered asking for PSE (ASL signs in English word order, basically) interpretation.  I felt like such a fraud asking, and every other word/sign in my request was an apology.  Even as witnessed how much of a difference it made for my ability to understand without strain and frustration, I felt guilty.

One interpreter, though, said something that resonated with me.  He said that it doesn’t matter what your disability is, or even whether you have one.  You don’t need a diagnosis.  If interpreters give you greater access, and improve your experience, you have a right to request them.

I can’t say that my feelings on the issue have magically reversed in five months. I still ask myself if my hearing issues are “real,” or “enough” to ask for help.  I suspect I have an auditory processing disorder, and I feel fraudulent when I identify as HoH as a shorthand.  I don’t want to minimize anyone’s Deaf identity by using terms that imply a more difficult experience than I have.  But I have been learning to ask for access, to request interpreters without fretting over the cost to event organizers and to ask for friends to repeat themselves when I don’t understand.  I’ve also been attending Deaf events whenever I can, to surround myself with people who don’t see ASL as a “language of the disabled.”

One of the hardest things I’ve had to do, but one of the most important I think to fighting ableist attitudes, is to demand access and not accept excuses.  When an organizer says “no,” “it costs too much,” or “we can’t find interpreters,” I’m training myself to challenge that attitude and confront organizers about their hypocrisy as social justice activists.  I’m learning to stop myself from saying “it’s okay, I understand, I can hear enough to follow” and to instead explain that my access is limited and I’m getting less out of the event I paid for than other attendees.  Who knows what effect these protests will have in the future, but my hope is that they will raise at least some awareness.

This post is for the Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012 event.  Follow the link to read all the posts.