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Access and Inclusion for People with Disabilities with Emily Yates

April 16, 2021

Welcome to 3Play Media’s Allied Podcast, a show on all things accessibility. This month’s episode features Emily Yates and is about the importance of access and inclusion for people with disabilities from an ethical and business perspective.

Emily Yates is an Accessibility Consultant and Journalist living in the U.K. She currently works as an Inclusive Design Associate at CCD Design & Ergonomics.

Emily frequently presents and writes on disability, having fronted several documentaries for BBC Three and written for the Guardian, the Independent and Telegraph Travel. She authored the Lonely Planet Guide to Accessible Rio de Janeiro, endorsed by the International Paralympic Committee and available to download by athletes, tourists, and locals alike ahead of the 2016 Games.

A wheelchair user herself, Emily is also a disability awareness trainer for Enhance the UK and manages their Undressing Disability campaign, championing the right for disabled people to have access to sexual expression. She recently delivered a TEDx talk on this issue and is currently studying for a PhD in Women’s Studies at the University of York.

‚ÄčIf you’d like to collaborate on a project, hire her as a speaker or just have a chat, here’s how to get in touch with Emily:

Visit Emily’s website

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Want to get in touch? Email us at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you.

Episode transcript

ELISA LEWIS: Welcome back to Allied, the podcast for everything you need to know about web and video accessibility. I’m your host, Elisa Lewis, and on today’s episode, we’re joined by Emily Yates to discuss the importance of access and inclusion for people with disabilities from both an ethical perspective and also a business perspective.

Emily is an accessibility consultant and journalist living in the UK. Currently, she’s an Inclusive Design Associate at CCD Design & Ergonomics. Emily also frequently presents and writes on disability issues, having fronted several documentaries for BBC3 and written for The Guardian, The Independent, and Telegraph Travel. She authored The Lonely Planet Guide to Accessible Rio de Janeiro, endorsed by the International Paralympic Committee. Emily has so much to share with us today, so let’s dive in.

Thank you so much, Emily, for joining us on the Allied podcast. We recently had you at our Virtual Access at Home event and we’re so glad to have you on the podcast and get to learn a little bit more about your story. I’d love to start our conversation learning more about your background.

So I know that you’re an accessibility consultant and journalist and you also travel quite a bit. It’s a big part of your life. So I’d love to know how you got into these areas and how they all sort of tie together in terms of access and inclusion.

EMILY YATES: Yeah. OK, great first question and thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure to be here. So yeah, I’m an access consultant, I’m a wheelchair user, and you’re absolutely right. Traveling is a big passion of mine and something that I’m really keen to get back to as soon as we can.

Really, they all just came together quite organically, if I’m honest. I had my first experience of kind of solo travel as a disabled person when I was 16 years old. I went to southern Africa with a charity called JOLT, which stands for the Journey of a Lifetime Trust, and they take young people who are disabled or disadvantaged in some way on a literal journey of a lifetime.

So that was my first experience of traveling alone as a disabled person. But most importantly, it really taught me what my capabilities are as a disabled person, rather than just what my limitations are. And I think so often in society, whatever society you’re in, when it comes to disability, limitations are quite often the focus rather than capabilities.

So that was an amazing thing for me to be able to experience at 16 years old and I was keen to continue traveling as often as possible, really, which eventually led me to going to university in London and applying to be a games maker at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

And I had an amazing experience there. And because of volunteering there and having that experience, I was then asked by the British consulate in Rio de Janeiro to go over there and speak to some NGOs and charities around disability and access and inclusion, and from there, I got offered a job to be an access consultant for the underground transport system for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

So really, it did just come together whilst I was traveling. I did get a job offer to be an access consultant, but I think it’s really interesting, actually, that now a lot of the projects that I work on are to do with transport and travel. I work with the rail industry quite a lot, airports. So I’m really keen, even in kind of the professional work that I do, to keep thinking of this disabled traveler experience.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. That’s pretty cool that it kind of all sort of fell into place during your travels. So I would love to know, thinking along the lines of travel, and also certainly some of the things that we do at 3Play, I’d love to hear like a little bit more about the difference between physical access, digital access, and sort of social access. Can you kind of describe the different types of access and which ones you think are easier to achieve?

EMILY YATES: Yeah, OK. Another great question. So I think physical access is the one that, when we think of disability, and access, and inclusion, that’s the one that we’re all most familiar with. It’s to do with making society more accessible and inclusive for disabled people, whether that’s making sure that a building has step-free access for a wheelchair user, making sure that reception desks are lowered, accessible bedrooms are available if you’re at a hotel. All of these kind of things, they would class as physical access.

Now, digital access is to do with how we really navigate the online world, the digital world. And, of course, it’s become much more paramount and important as time has gone on and particularly throughout the pandemic. We’re not all learning and working online. We’re also purchasing online and consuming online a lot more.

So making sure that your website’s accessible in terms of its font, its color contrast, whether or not it’s set up to be used by somebody who has a speech device that reads to them, all these kind of things, making sure that your videos are subtitled, or even have InVision in the corner for people who use sign language, who are deaf or hard of hearing.

There are so many different things that you can do digitally to actually say to people, deaf and disabled people, hey, we’re inclusive and we want your business. And so often I talk about something called the purple pound, which is the spending power of disabled households. And here in the UK, it’s worth nearly $300 billion pounds a year is the purple pound.

And quite often we think that access and inclusion is just a nice and an ethical thing to do. But actually, it’s a great business model as well. If you’re accessible and you’re inclusive, then people are going to buy from your business, and they’re going to be loyal, they’re going to come back, they’re going to tell their deaf and disabled friends that they should be purchasing from you as well or using your services. So it’s a really savvy thing to do financially as well.

And then social access is I would say a bit of a newer term and a newer concept. And to me, that’s all to do with the mindset and the perception that surrounds disability. So going back to physical access, I quite often say I could go into the most physically accessible venue in the whole entire world, but if, once I got there, once I got to a reception desk, for example, that was all lowered for me as a wheelchair user and everything that I wanted, and a member of staff treat me horribly because I’m disabled and didn’t treat me like a paying customer or with any kind of respect, then, actually, because that social access wasn’t there, that physical access would mean very little to me.

So it’s really important, again, for businesses, to not just think about their physical and their digital access, but also think about the training and their education that they’re giving their staff, to think about how they’re respecting disabled people as customers, and as consumers, and as clients, or even as colleagues. How are you going to inclusively recruit disabled people as members of staff and respect them socially as well?

So there’s a lot of different things to think about when it comes to access. But really, really interesting things and if all can be used together in a matrix, then you’re really winning.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. I’m curious, you mentioned some of the training and that it’s really important to make sure that staff and employees are sort of trained, and communicating, and acting appropriately. Have you sort of encountered any training or any examples or experiences where you’ve seen this done really well that maybe some of our listeners can benefit from?

EMILY YATES: Yeah, of course. And I actually work with a charity, a disability awareness charity called Enhance the UK, and we run communication training specifically. Disability awareness training in general, but a lot of it is focused on communication because a lot of the time, going back to these members of staff, a lot of the time they worry about how to communicate effectively, and this worry about being patronizing or offensive quite often leads to people not saying anything at all.

So really, the bottom line is you’ve got to train well through education and through awareness. But ultimately, you’ve got to put people at ease and build their confidence and their comfort in communication by giving them hints, tips, and resources to be able to do so.

So yeah, I would really recommend, for anybody who’s listening to this, to look up Enhance the UK, and the training that we do, and how it focuses on the importance of social access because, really, that is the key to somebody having, ultimately, the most positive experience possible once they’re inside your building or your establishment.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, that’s great. Thank you for sharing that. And then I know we touched on this topic a little bit, that sort of during a pandemic, things are certainly different, to say the least. But I’m curious. Connection is really more important than ever and how can we ensure that digital communication is accessible to everyone?

EMILY YATES: Yeah, OK. So when we’re thinking about communicating, whether at work or in our personal lives, so often we’re using Zoom. Exactly what we’re using today. And there are so many different ways in which just such a simple program can become more accessible to deaf and disabled people. In fact, to deaf people in particular.

So first of all, make sure that you’ve got your camera on. Sometimes we like to sit in our dressing gowns and pretend that we’re ready for it when, actually, we’re not. But what’s really important is you do show a visual of yourself because lip reading is so much easier– it’s even possible when people can see you and are able to read your lips. So that’s the first and probably most primary thing that you could do to really, really help people and to aid the access.

Also something like putting a meeting on speaker view can be really, really helpful because that image can be blown up so that, again, lip reading is a lot easier than if you’ve got 12 people on the screen and you’re trying to focus on who’s speaking and at what time.

Zoom also now offers live captioning via a program, I think it’s called, and that allows live captioning to come up and be available and for transcripts to be available as well. So there are so many things that one program could do brilliantly.

And actually, in this way, technology and digital communications have really gone a step forward and become more accessible than an old fashioned phone call would have been that many deaf and hard of hearing people wouldn’t have been able to access.

ELISA LEWIS: That’s a great point. We’ve definitely seen a lot more technology become available. I think there’s always that kind of delay or learning curve. Sometimes it’s a little– the accessibility tends to fall a little bit behind, but we certainly have a lot more capability than we did several years ago.

I’d love to shift a little bit and talk a little bit more about disability inclusion in the workplace. What have you seen in the physical workplaces that need to be changed to make access more available and to make the overall workplace more accessible and inclusive?

EMILY YATES: Another interesting question. You challenge your video. It’s good. Quite often, to be totally honest with you, it’s the simplest things that have the greatest impact. So I’m just thinking of a few visits that I’ve done to different businesses to do audits and things like that.

Even when you get to the building itself, if you’ve only got an intercom that can ring and use audio, if you’re a deaf or a hard of hearing visitor already, you’re on the back foot because you’re unable to access that. So something as simple as having, like, a text number underneath your intercom that people can get in touch with you by texting is a huge accessible leap forward.

Of course, video and audio intercoms used together would be even better or having a member of staff to meet and greet when they knew that somebody was visiting that did have those access requirements. They would be great. But even something as simple as having a number to text so that somebody who’s deaf or hard of hearing can say, hi, I’m here. Can you let me in, please. Such– something that takes literally five minutes to write down and print off and put on, but makes a huge difference.

Again, this is going to sound so simple, but please don’t feel your lifts and your accessible toilets with baggage and storage. It’s not a storage solution. Again, it’s something that sounds so obvious and is, but understandably, when businesses don’t have somebody that’s regularly using those lifts or their accessible toilets, it’s seen as just an extra storage space. But it can come back very negatively on you if a disabled customer or colleague is wanting to use those things as well.

So those are some of the physical things that I’d change. But I think most importantly, the one thing that I’d say that I think needs the most adaptation is the way that we communicate at work and how we feel in disclosing our impairments, how we feel in terms of whether or not we believe that whoever we work for will be able to adjust to suit our impairments or will want to adjust reasonably to suit them. I think there’s a lot of work to be done there.

And again, as I said earlier, physical access is only one part of this. Yes, it’s great if you have the accessible intercom. It’s great if you’re not filling your lift and your accessible toilet with storage. But ultimately, think about how you communicate and how you can make those conversations a lot easier, how you can encourage disclosure of impairments, and how you can build a more inclusive and a happier workforce in general is what I’d say.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I think you made a really interesting point talking about the intercom, and it’s a really simple practice, but something that we strive to do in our work, and particularly from the marketing standpoint, of just not relying on one sense to relay information.

So for my context, thinking about things like alt text, where you have an image, but if someone has a visual impairment, the screen reader can read it aloud, or it’s the same idea with captioning for someone who can’t hear it, being able to read it. And it’s just, like you said, it’s kind of these simple things, but making sure that the intercom also– that there’s a way to text instead of just talk. So it’s a really good point and I think a really sort of universal way for us to think about being more accessible and more inclusive.

EMILY YATES: Absolutely. And you said it there. You said screen reader before– I was speaking on both of the other questions and screen reader just totally off my mind and I think I said speech equipment or something like that. Screen reader is what I meant.

ELISA LEWIS: No worries. Do you have any advice for maybe someone at an organization who really understands the power and the benefits of accessibility, but maybe their colleagues don’t quite understand the significance or the importance? And how can people sort of get this buy in and what can they do or say to really get the importance of accessibility across?

EMILY YATES: Yeah. I think, ultimately, it’s sad that this is still the case, but ultimately, to get buy in a lot of the time, what you’ve got to do is make a strong business case for that and show how, financially, it’s a really savvy thing to do. And using things like the purple pound by showing how loyal disabled customers are in many cases.

These kind of things really help people to realize that, actually, it’s not just kind and ethical to be accessible, but it’s a financially savvy move to make as well. I mean, when we’re talking about 20% of the world’s population, one in five people on estimate being disabled, then a business would have to be I think quite close minded to not realize how that could overturn a lot of the practices of the business by including those 20%, be it as colleagues, or customers, or advisors. In whatever capacity, opening those doors to that 20% is a huge thing to be able to do.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. I’m also curious if you can speak to kind of being an ally, and maybe as able bodied or hearing individual, whatever the case may be, how we can best support peers with disabilities and be an advocate, but in a productive and empowering way.

EMILY YATES: Again, brilliant question. I think if you have a friend, or a colleague, or a family member who’s disabled, one of the best things that you can do is trust their lived experience of having that impairment and trust how they want to live their lives with that impairment and how they want to navigate society with that impairment.

I think one of the mistakes that nondisabled people make in trying to be an ally leads to some controlling of how disabled people navigate their environment. And it’s all very well-intentioned, which is lovely, but actually believing that that disabled person is the expert in their own lived experience, and that is correct, and that’s how it should be, is a beautiful way to be an ally full stop.

And then I think, ultimately, it fits with the social model of disability. This idea that, actually, it’s the barriers in society that we need to remove rather than change the impaired body in any way to create accessible and inclusive opportunities.

I think when people realize that, they realize that they’ve got a responsibility to be able to do something, and they get quite excited about that. I think in the past, nondisabled people have maybe thought, well, disability rights are disabled people’s worries and disabled people’s issues and that’s for them to sort out.

Well, actually, the social model of disability says, hey, we’ve all got something to do here. We’ve all got a responsibility to change the way that society sees people with impairments, and that, actually, society is the thing that’s disabling those people, not their own bodies.

And when we realize that there’s a lot to be done there and that everybody can have a go at trying to remove some of those barriers, that really is quite an empowering thing for nondisabled people. So believing their expert lived experience, but also swat up on the social model of disability and see what you can do in your local areas.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, absolutely. Those are great suggestions. One of the other questions that I had in mind is, a lot of the times, underrepresented groups are expected to sort of take on the labor of the education and the advocacy.

So I know that’s kind of a little bit of a similar topic, but I’d love to hear kind of if you have anything else to say on this idea and how it sort of feels or how it can be productive for these other groups who maybe are not disabled to kind of be in a position of education advocacy as well and how they can do so in a way that is appropriate so that they’re also allowing the voices to be heard of those who have lived the experience.

EMILY YATES: Yeah. So there’s two points that are I’d probably make here. The first one being that nondisabled people and disabled people can absolutely work in harmony to correct certain issues and to fight the good fight. Again, I think for a lot of nondisabled people, they think, oh, well, I can’t advise on certain issues. I’m not justified to do that. That’s a disabled persons job.

And again, I think that comes from really well-intentioned not wanting to step on other people’s toes, for lack of a better term. But actually, we as disabled people need nondisabled people to be on our side. We need people to fuel this campaign and fuel this fire for access and inclusion.

So we’re not ever saying don’t join in that fight. We’re just saying, don’t join in that fight so much that it clouds who we are. Let us lead that fight in a way because that’s really important. There’s a wonderful phrase that is so often used in the disabled community, nothing about us without us, and that’s all we’re really saying.

And I think the second thing, a really important point that I’d like to make is please, if you use a disabled person in an advisory capacity, if you ask disabled people to do speaking events, whatever it might be, please pay them for their work. Please don’t expect them to volunteer for you.

There’s a bit of a problem at the moment with, I think, still this expectation that disabled people don’t work. They don’t contribute. They don’t want to have money to spend to be able to consume all of these kind of things. And quite often, when disabled people are asked to do work around access and inclusion, they’re not offered payment for that and that really does need to change.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. I hadn’t really heard about that, but I can certainly see that and I’m kind of curious along similar lines of– there’s obviously a lot of initiative right now for diversity, equity, inclusion in the workplaces and beyond, and how can workplaces involve people with disabilities and make them feel more sort of at the front of things without making it seem like it’s some sort of agenda or sort of going through the motions of some sort of trendy type thing to do?

How can they do it in a really authentic and genuine way? Obviously, it’s a slow process to become more inclusive and diverse in the workplace, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on kind of how places of work and otherwise can get there in an authentic way.

EMILY YATES: And I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there by saying slow process. I think, really, that’s what is the most authentic and the most real way of doing things. Admitting and being honest that to do this right and to do this correctly, it is a slow process. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take thought. It’s going to take advice. It’s probably going to take getting a few things wrong now again and having to backtrack and do them again.

That’s all OK. Nobody is expecting a business to turn around in two seconds and say, hey, we’re accessible. In fact, that’s one of the worst things that you could do, advertise that you are accessible and inclusive and then not be. The amount of times I’ve turned up to hotels, for example, that have said that they’re accessible for me as a wheelchair user, and then there’s five steps to walk to the front door or the bathroom’s far too small for me to be able to use it.

These things are much more damaging than actually admitting that it’s a slow process. You want to do it well. You want to do it properly. You want to get the correct advice from your disabled colleagues, from external disabled experts, for example. You want to bring trainers in. Whatever it might be, just being real about that and taking your time and doing it properly I think is all that people are asking for.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, that’s a great point. Have you kind of come across a way where maybe somebody has made a mistake? Like, you said you’re going to make mistakes in this process. What’s the best way to sort of handle this, again, in an authentic way? Have you ever experienced anything where you were just really impressed with how a mistake was kind of handled or remedied?

EMILY YATES: Oh, good question. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head, I don’t think. But one thing that I will say is what I’m really impressed with is when nondisabled people don’t get defensive about the mistakes that they make, whether that’s in terms of the language and terminology that they use or the fact that they’ve assumed assistance is required rather than asked first, whatever it might be.

If somebody is actually kind of aware enough to be able to put their hands up and say, hey, I’m sorry, that was my bad, that was on me, I’ll do better next time, that’s really beautiful to me and that’s a way that we can really start working in harmony as a community.

Again, nobody’s trying to trip each other up. I think sometimes there’s this misconception that, oh, access and inclusion, it’s scary because we’re going to get tripped up we’re going to have to spend all this money or whatever it might be. That’s quite often not the case. People are just wanting you to do what you can with the best of intention.

I am fully aware that somebody might trip up when they’re using language to describe me, especially if they’ve not had experience with disabled people before, either personally or professionally. I’m well aware of that. And actually, I’m OK with that too as long as people are aware, willing to be educated, and do better next time. So I think for me, that’s when a mistake is righted in the correct way.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, absolutely. I think taking things as a learning experience rather than a criticism can really benefit everybody in this case and in many other aspects of life as well. I want to ask– one of the questions I love asking guests on the podcast is, if you had one takeaway piece of advice for our listeners, what would it be?

EMILY YATES: Oh. One bit of advice. I think the thing that’s really important at the moment is building empathy, not sympathy, around disability. And that comes into social access. Doesn’t it, really?

It’s what we train on at Enhance the UK, this really important point of learning the reason behind behaviors, the reason behind why somebody might want to navigate society in a certain way, and understanding it as much as you possibly can rather than feeling pity that somebody’s got a certain impairment, or needs to do things in a certain way, or perhaps needs to take a bit more time to do something in a certain way.

So learning empathy and patience rather than sympathy and pity I think is such an important thing to be able to do. To then go a little bit further within your access and inclusion goals and aspirations and reach them a little bit quicker, I think as soon as empathy is built, that becomes much easier.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. Can you– and I don’t want to put you on the spot, but can you give an example, maybe, of a little bit more tangible of what empathy versus sympathy looks like?

EMILY YATES: So for me, just to give you an example, instead of somebody saying to me as soon as they met me, oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry you’re disabled, I’m sorry you’re wheelchair user, and just kind of putting their assumptions onto my experience, I think, to me– they’re negative assumptions, especially in my experience, to me, a lot of the time, that’s what sympathy looks like for disabled people.

And what people forget to do is try and create some kind of understanding around disability. It’s about thinking a bit more intellectually about the questions that you ask as well. Not just diving in with something like, oh, so what happened to you, then, but actually trying to gain the information that you need rather than the nosy information that you want to know. Again, I think that’s a much more empathetic way of looking at things.

And I think for businesses in particular, it’s about understanding that disabled people are hugely capable and have great capacity to do brilliant work and to make your business fly. I think a lot of the time, sympathy surrounding disability assumes that disabled people aren’t capable, they don’t have capacity, and they won’t enrich your business or your livelihood in any way, which is just totally untrue.

So I think sometimes when we think about sympathy, we just think about somebody going, aw, and rubbing your shoulder and saying, poor you, which absolutely is the case, but it goes a little bit further than that as well to just our negative assumptions that surround disability, which is so often shrouded in sympathy. And very distanced people just think, oh, well, that’s not worth me engaging with. Whereas the empathetic side of things to do with disability, for me, has engagement at its core.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, that’s a really great way to put it. Thank you so much for sharing that insight.

EMILY YATES: No problem.

ELISA LEWIS: So I would love to hear a little bit more about the work that you’re doing currently. I know we heard a little bit more about your travels and what you’ve done in the past. What are you up to these days?

EMILY YATES: Yeah, so I still work as an access consultant. So the gig in Rio, for Metro Rio, the underground transport system, led me to brilliant things back here in the UK. So I now work as an access consultant for CCD Design & Ergonomics, and they’re a consultancy firm in London.

And we’ve been working on some brilliant projects recently. I’ve just finished updating the access and inclusion standards for Heathrow Airport, which bring up some really great requirements not just for disabled passengers, but also disabled staff and their experience working for Heathrow as a business. So we’re really, really proud of that and to have worked with Heathrow on that.

And I’ve just started some work with a museum as well. I’m not sure if I’m able to mention the museum, but looking at some really cool interactive ways in which exhibits and content at museums can be made accessible and inclusive for anyone who visits. So yeah, some really exciting stuff going on.

ELISA LEWIS: Awesome. And as we wrap up our conversation, I am wondering where can our listeners find you online.

EMILY YATES: OK. So my website is I am EmilyRYates on Twitter, emryates on Instagram, and then I’ve got LinkedIn as well. I’m Emily Rose Yates on LinkedIn. So it will be lovely to connect with people, whether or not they’re looking for collaborations, someone to speak, or even just for a chat around access and inclusion, it would be lovely to hear from people.

ELISA LEWIS: Awesome. Thank you so much, Emily. It was great chatting with you as always and great to have you on the Allied podcast.

EMILY YATES: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. It was a great chat. You’ve challenged me a little bit there. It was really, really good.



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