By Sara Thornhurst.
Accessibility is a trending topic in PR. Like Lizzo’s TikTok dance it’s pretty much everywhere you look. But in Lizzo’s own words “it’s about damn time” that accessibility started to be taken seriously by the communications sector. On Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), a day dedicated to digital access for all, it’s an opportunity to revisit and refamilarise ourselves with the huge spectrum of people we claim to both communicate with and represent.
The public relations sector is often guilty of prioritising action and solutions ahead of education, personal and emotional development when it comes to DEI. We jump to the fix without considering how we came to this juncture in the first place. This is true too of accessibility. The growing desire to create inclusive comms is heartening to see, especially as someone who needs accessibility options to participate in industry events, but I urge the PR and comms sector to scratch below the surface of alt text and captions, contrast and formats and have some introspection on this particular awareness day.
Over the years I’ve increasingly struggled to get behind assigned cause calendar days, particularly those related to disability. GAAD is no different. Proclamations of the need for and importance of accessibility from an industry in which disabled people comprise a mere five percent are hard to take and even harder to believe. Being loud about creating content we can engage with whilst simultaneously holding firm on barriers which prevent disabled people from applying for jobs or staying in jobs in PR is quite the dichotomy.
Accessible content alone doesn’t make us disability inclusive. Right now, the industry is at a pivotal junction on the DEI yellow brick road, at least as far as disability is concerned. Awareness is up, interest in inclusive comms training is up, greater media visibility is opening up conversations on disability where previously it was missing entirely from DEI agendas. When I think about these facts small sparks of hope start to ignite in me that things are changing. But the other fork on this road is leading us to a place where we’re hyper focused on accessibility, where we’re carving out accessibility as a standalone monolith which benefits everyone and bringing it back around to typical capitalism where overall profits and growth matter more than people – specifically marginalised people.
Taking that fork will not get us to the right destination. Whilst better accessibility does benefit everyone, awareness is up because disabled people became visible enough to be listened to in mainstream discussions around access and exclusion. Decades or more of campaigning about access needs has finally started to seep into the consciousness of non-disabled people. To then remove disability from the discussion to broaden the appeal of accessibility, as I’ve heard suggested more than once, is to undermine and exclude the very people who brought it to your attention in the first place.
Taking this path runs the very real risk of continuing to exclude disabled people and, ultimately, failing on accessibility. Accessibility is not the fix in and of itself. Especially if disabled voices are not being included to form and shape strategy and action around accessibility. We see the results of such an approach in things like wheelchairs that go up steps, gaming gloves which were made without any input from disabled people. The phrase ‘nothing about us without us’ has a long history and has been used in disability activism since the 90s; used in this context we’re saying don’t push disabled people out of spaces where their experience and knowledge and need of accessibility is a requisite for success.
This emerging fork in the road speaks to a larger gap between accessibility and the overall attitude towards disability in society and in PR – we need to ask ourselves why we feel the need to separate accessibility from disability. On Global Accessibility Awareness Day, instead of big statements and doubtful promises, take some time to read up on disability history and activism, learn more about the ongoing fight for access and how that has fed into the wider discourse on accessibility with which we’re becoming more familiar and which we view, from a communication point of view, as the easier, more sellable end of the discussion. Maybe then we can avoid divergence and keep improving accessibility whilst at the same time changing attitudes and narratives about disability in our sector.
Sara Thornhurst is a Chartered PR practitioner and a disability activist and educator. She has been a visiting lecturer in digital marketing at Leeds Trinity University and was cited as one of the Shaw Trust’s top 100 influential people with a disability in 2018. Sara has spoken on disability inclusion, accessibility and diversity issues at multiple industry events. She is also the Chair of the CIPR Yorkshire and Lincolnshire regional committee.
Some helpful accessibility resources are available on the CIPR Accessible Communications webpage.