But when your business is public transport, government programs or banking – essential services for the whole community – how do we define who represents the majority?
"Sometimes the pace of change is so slow and the solutions that we’re seeking are simple and things that could be implemented tomorrow with no kind of cost barriers.”
This is the challenging question Blind Citizens Australia CEO Sally Aurisch has faced over her 20 year career as a not-for-profit, community and disability sector leader.
“There is a definite tendency to create something that meets the majority of people’s needs. And there are some reasons for doing that. But it does mean that that program, product or service design automatically excludes a really significant portion of the population, creating a real sense of othering,” she says.
This ‘one size fits all’ approach is quickly becoming antiquated as Australia and many other countries around the world see a continuing shift in demographics with ageing populations, increases in life expectancy and a rise in immigration from non-English speaking countries.
“With age there’s a strong correlation with an increase in disability or medical conditions that reduce what would be considered normal functional ability,” Aurisch says.
“And it’s not just around physical disability or functional capacity but we have a significant portion of our country who are born in or have moved to Australia from countries that don’t generally speak English as their first language.”
In the past, corporations have seen accessibility as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a requirement, often prioritising the visual aesthetics of brochures and posters over readability, especially for those who are blind or visually impaired. And this significantly impacts the ability for many portions of the population to access key information, making it “either extremely difficult or impossible”.
A straightforward resolution to this barrier in the provision of information comes through the digitisation of documents. Allowing for a variety of formats to be made available, including a simple text version that would allow a screen reader to convert the text-to-speak for people who have difficulties seeing and interacting with digital content. A simple solution to “exponentially increase the amount of people who can access that same piece of information”.
For Aurish, a key indicator of how seriously a country takes inclusivity and accessibility is its public transport systems and infrastructure created to allow for all individuals to travel without relying on a car.
“In that space alone, I think we (Australia) do really well, we have quite good infrastructure and I think that leads to some more inclusive community spaces,” she says.
“In saying that, I think we’ve also got a long way to go. Sometimes the pace of change is so slow and the solutions that we’re seeking are simple and things that could be implemented tomorrow with no kind of cost barriers.”
The statistics from the Australian Network on Disability are clear: people living with a disability overwhelmingly do not feel heard as customers. One in three people with a disability report their needs as customers are often unmet, with a third of Australians with a disability also avoiding situations like going to shops or banks all together.
In recent years, many accessibility developments and solutions are centred around technological advancements, greatly expanding the possibilities for many people to access services and products like never before.
However, like with any solution, there are pros and cons. Just purely investing in technology comes with the risk the gap for people who do not have access to technology, either due to cost, availability or confidence, widens.
“I think it’s really important to make sure that we don’t leave people behind in the solutions that we’re creating,” Aurisch says.
Be that as it may, she still presses the importance of creating digital platforms, products and services that are accessible and where accessibility is purposeful and built in from the beginning, rather than being reverse engineered to add in some accessibility features as an afterthought.
“Accessible tech is crucial to accessing services and business. It’s important to employment opportunities, to accessing sport, recreation, and communication – just on every level of life,” Aurisch says.
“The more organisations start taking accessibility seriously and involving all members of the community to participate, the richer we all become.”
So what are the next steps? Aurisch highlights the importance of consultation.
“Even in a large organisation, it would be near impossible to have a strong representation of people who can make up every element of the diverse parts of our community and, even so, relying on employees for that level of consultation places a large and unfair load on them. Finding an organisation you can reach out to and hire for their expertise is key,” she says.
From simple wins, like easier access to transport and public facilities to better technology for the future, Aurisch says every small victory fleshes out a greater picture.
It creates a richer life for those living with a disability – but also creates society in which, a richer variety of voices are heard overall.