It’s estimated that there are a billion people in the world with some kind of disability. That’s one in eight people globally who potentially may struggle to access communication channels and content.
Those people who cannot access or understand the content created by public relations and communication professionals are at a significant disadvantage that is impacting their ability to do their jobs well and to thrive in their life, in and out of work.
Ultimately, it’s our job and responsibility to communicate things effectively, but if we can’t communicate with disabled and diverse groups of people in a responsive and effective way, then we are failing in that responsibility and failing in our role. Ultimately, the organisations and clients we represent, and society as a whole, are also failing them too.
By not thinking about accessibility in our work, we are marginalising people and inadvertently discriminating against them, and whilst there are legal considerations relating to that, making communication channels and content accessible to all is also an ethical responsibility for the public relations and communications profession.
Aside, from being the right thing to do from a human perspective, it’s also the smart thing to do. Just from a purely economic standpoint, unleashing the potential of the talent pool of people that have a disability with more accessible communication, could be a tremendous economic force.
With more and more businesses and organisations embracing Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) and Inclusivity to ‘do the right thing’, there is the potential for more investment to be made in resolving accessibility as an issue, to make communication inclusive for everyone.
Permanent, temporary and situational barriers to communication
We should be thinking more broadly about accessible communication, particularly in the digital context. This isn’t just about disabled people, but all people, because barriers to communication can be permanent, temporary, or situational.
We often think about accessibility in communication in connection with permanent physical and mental disabilities such as visual impairment, hearing loss or cognition issues, but it can also be related to a temporary disability or simply situational circumstances such as trying to view a video with no captioning or subtitles in a noisy environment.
At some point in our lives any of us could encounter physical, mental and environmental issues and consequently permanent, temporary or situational barriers to communication and our understanding of information. This could be about both the method of distribution or issues related to format, content and design.
The impact of the pandemic
In some ways the impacts of the pandemic exacerbated existing barriers to communication for some people. Whilst lockdowns and a sudden massive shift towards digital communication methods and platforms might have been advantageous for some with, for example, a mobility related disability. For others it made them more excluded and more disadvantaged as their accessibility to information and communication was eroded.
There are over 400 million people in the world with severe hearing loss, and the pandemic impacted them in a number of ways, some more obviously than others.
For lip readers, the widespread adoption of face coverings and mask wearing was an obvious and distressing barrier to communication. But a lack of the right design features in digital platforms, such as quality audio, accurate subtitling, or no subtitling, and small images, making lip reading impossible, created even more barriers.
This experience highlights how accessibility is, all too frequently, overlooked in the design of communication platforms and content, or consciously dismissed as being an inconvenience not worth the investment of time or money to properly resolve it for, a ‘minority’ of people.
For public relations professionals, thinking about the barriers we might be invoking, not just with the technology we use and the content that we create goes beyond just thinking about those with a permanent disability. We need to be thinking about our audiences, and their accessibility to communication as a ‘people’ issue, and responding to the diversity that simply being human implies.
Representation in the PR and comms industry
PR already has a diversity problem and the low representation of people with lived experience of accessibility issues working in the industry is exacerbating this. There needs to be more people with lived experience actually helping to create accessible communication products and platforms.
These people don’t actually need to be existing PR professionals to help with user research and user testing. Potentially, organisations and agencies could be reaching out more to customers, employees and other stakeholders with daily experience of accessibility problems, to tap into their experiences and ideas. Ultimately, there needs to be more people with actual lived experience of accessibility issues influencing content creation and methods or distribution.
Of course, it is entirely possible that there are more of us working in public relations and communication who have experienced permanent, temporary and situational barriers to communication. It’s just that we are not willing, for whatever reason, to put our hands up and declare that we have.
Perhaps we just haven’t thought to share our experiences or to point others towards the advice and guidance which we have found helpful, maybe we are embarrassed or ashamed about our experiences or a hidden disability? Even if we don’t have direct experience ourselves, we should be advocating for accessibility by demonstrating allyship for those who need it, both in our PR and communications work and more broadly.
Quite simply, everyone in the industry taking an ‘inclusion first’ approach could mitigate the representation issue more quickly than ‘recruitment’.
Accessible by default
Accessible by default, as a principle, is where we should be starting in everything we do. Accessibility should be seen as a creative challenge rather than a challenge to people’s creativity, or in other words, a barrier to them getting things done or a cost issue.
This isn’t just an issue for the PR and communication professionals in organisations. Everyone needs to be involved, website developers, marketing, human resources. It’s about every other colleague in the organisation doing the right thing such as stripping out jargon, and being sensitive to the right formatting and design.
Ultimately, the solution to accessibility as an issue in PR and communications is a shift in mindset. But this is not just a shift in mindset for communicators, it’s a business mindset that needs to be embedded into how organisations operate and do business.
Listening to colleagues and other stakeholders with lived experience is the start of a conversation that many organisations need to have to understand what they going to start, stop and continue to really and truly focus on accessibility and unlock its potential.
This post was edited from the CIPR Engage Podcast Episode 6: Accessible Communications featuring contributions from:
Zach Cutler – CEO Propel PR
Rachel Miller – Founder and Director AllthingsIC
Sarah Brown-Fraser – Marketing and Communications Manager Activity Alliance
Jarrod Williams – Communications Manager Bromford Housing Association
Post edited by Martin Flegg
Accessibility resources highlighted in the podcast
A free resource hub for digital marketers, communication professionals, content creators, and everyday social media users, to help them make social media content accessible.
Online accessibility training modules from Microsoft.
Guides and resources to enable everyone to access and enjoy the web.
Resources for inclusive communication and engagement.
TextHelp is a literacy, accessibility and dyslexia software developer for employees & students with reading and writing difficulties.
Communication Access UK is an initiative developed in partnership by charities and organisations that share a vision to improve the lives of people with communication difficulties.
Communication Matters is a UK wide organisation that aims to support people who find it hard to communicate.
Other helpful resources are available on the CIPR Accessible Communications webpage.