Disability Representation in Accessibility: Takeaways from Nic Steenhout

Updated: July 6, 2022


Accessibility consultant Nicolas Steenhout joined us on 3Play Media’s Allied Podcast to discuss disability representation in accessibility.

We were excited to welcome Nic to Allied, as getting disabled people involved in accessibility work is a crucial yet under-discussed topic.

Nic has a nuanced understanding of multiple facets of digital and physical accessibility. As a developer in the mid-’90s, Nic was approached by clients facing issues not yet part of the public consciousness. On the emerging web, accessibility hurdles kept people with disabilities from engaging in a technological revolution.

Confronted by this gap within the digital landscape, Nic began championing web accessibility. He transitioned into the non-profit sector, where he collaborated with people with various impairments and was introduced to new assistive technologies.

Twenty years on, Nic continues his accessibility work as an independent consultant for both the private and non-profit sectors. Having worked on three continents, he’s engaged with thousands of individuals with disabilities. Blogger, podcaster, and public speaker, Nic offers real-world insight into everyday accessibility issues.

In his Allied episode, Nic discussed how we can make the field of accessibility more inclusive, why disabled voices matter in accessibility work, and how we can find balance in cross-disability advocacy and allyship.

Nic Steenhout on disability representation in accessibility. Listen now on Spotify, Google Podcasts, or Apple Podcasts.

Making Accessibility Inclusive

You really need to include disabled people in your everyday work. Whether you’re a designer, a developer, a QA tester, a stakeholder, a company owner, a podcaster, just start thinking about how can you expand your reach and include disabled people… your work experience, your lived experience, your work product, is going to be so much better once you start increasing the diversity of the people working with you.Nic Steenhout

Central to Nic’s episode was the concept “nothing about us without us.” The term, which came to prominence in disability activism during the 1990s, communicates that no policy impacting disabled people should be decided without the full and direct participation of disabled people.

“Without a really strong understanding of the lived experience, without the perspective of disabled users, we’re going to do things for disabled people rather than with disabled people,” Nic said. “And this seems, to me, to be very othering rather than inclusive.”

To make products and services genuinely accessible, employers must include people with disabilities in accessibility work.

However, the field of accessibility is often inaccessible, making disabled participation challenging or impossible. Nic explained numerous barriers:

  • Accessible hardware and technologies needed to perform specific jobs can be hard to attain.
  • Technical education is often inaccessible and unavailable for a variety of reasons. If you want to pursue a career in a technical field, you need to know technical skills. However, the learning environments and platforms for software development are not always accessible or economically feasible.
  • Financial budgets that enable success can be hard to come by. Whether you’re a child in school with an IEP or a young adult looking for a job, people with disabilities often need access to budgets to gain resources to succeed.
  • Shifting mindsets is a challenge. If employers continue to view disabled people as incapable of engaging in accessibility work, disabled people won’t be given opportunities to enter the field.

Finding Balance in Cross-Disability Advocacy and Allyship

In his episode, Nic referenced his podcast, A11y Rules, and the many different experiences and barriers on the web he hears about from disabled people. His audience members are often surprised at the various ways the web can be inaccessible, pointing to a need for continued advocacy and education.

Additionally, Nic discussed the need for cross-disability awareness.

“I’m a wheelchair user, I have arthritis, and I don’t know what the lived experience of being blind is,” Nic said. “But at the same time, I don’t know what the lived experiences of any other wheelchair user is. I only know my own.”

As our world becomes increasingly digital, including disability in conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion becomes more and more imperative. Nic pointed out that while people with disabilities know their disabilities well, they don’t necessarily understand other people’s disabilities.

To achieve cross-disability advocacy, we need cross-disability awareness and the knowledge of other disabilities and their needs and barriers.

Additionally, while employing people with disabilities in accessibility-focused positions is essential, it’s also vital that we do our research and not expect disabled people to necessarily share their lived experiences.

“There is so much great information on the web about different disabilities and different lived experiences,” Nic said. “It’s up to us, as individuals that are interested in these things, to go out and learn.”

To learn more about disability representation in accessibility, listen to Nic’s Allied episode below or read the transcript.

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