Nothing About Us Without Us: The Disability Gap

Ather Sharif is a PhD student at the University of Washington, focusing on the intersection of Accessibility, Visualization, and Personalization. He is also a Software Engineer at Comcast and the Founder of EvoXLabs, an initiative dedicated to bridging the gap between technology and disabled people. Ather serves as an Executive Board Member for the Disability Empowerment Center and Accessibility User Advisory Group for the Office of the ADA Coordinator at the University of Washington. He has pioneered several initiatives, including the evoHaX Hackathons and Accessible World Conference, and is dedicated to making technology equitably accessible to disabled people.


RE: For those who aren’t familiar — could you tell us about the “disability divide”? How can we work toward eliminating this gap?

AS: The disability divide, in the simplest of the explanations, is the equity gap between disabled and able-bodied people. Accessibility, and disabled people, for that matter, are regularly an afterthought. Like “Oh, right, I didn’t think about how this digital content is completely inaccessible to a blind person.”

How do we eliminate this gap? That’s a great question. A lot of people try to find a checklist that they can go through. Something short and simple. And easy. And that’s exactly what the issue is. These quick solutions do not advance society. They’re band-aids, at best. If we are to eliminate this gap, we really need to go back to the fundamentals. Why does this gap exist? How did it start? What does having a disability mean? What challenges do disabled people face in this society? We need to educate ourselves. We need to give disabled people and their voices a platform. And we need to listen and understand. And then try to work with them in finding solutions. In my humble opinion, I think that’s how we eliminate the disability divide.

RE: What’s the first thing you’d recommend companies (or educators) do to be more inclusive of people with disabilities?

AS: As I mentioned in my previous answer, I think all of this starts with education. We need to educate ourselves. We need to improve the workforce to include diverse voices and perspectives. But not just for diversity’s sake, but to actually learn and make systemic adjustments to incorporate long- lasting changes. We need to build environments where mindsets can change, grow, and become more inclusive. As a starting point, I would recommend companies have regular opportunities for their employees to interact with and learn from disabled people. Brown-bag lunches, perhaps? Panels? Talks? And not just because it’s disability awareness month, but as a regular occurrence.

RE: What are some of the challenges in appealing to people who are resistant to change? What are some strategies you’ve found useful to overcome this inertia?

AS: It’s challenging to change the corporate culture. There’s always pushback on priorities and funding and all sorts of justifications that are really just ways to focus more on tangible corporate profits and less on corporate social responsibility. So, yeah, organizations and people often do not think of making society better but instead to “get something out of it.” What I’ve personally found helpful is to show them exactly that. How they can “get something out of it” — such as, hey, if you make your website accessible, it also improves your SEO (search engine optimization). If you put subtitles or closed-captions on your videos, you attract a broader audience, including people who aren’t native English speakers. But at the same time, providing them with user stories, where their systems and products really made the day of a person with a disability, and also how someone was just unable to access their products. For example, COVID-19 graphs and visualizations were largely inaccessible to blind and low-vision folks. So, you go to these people and tell them, hey, this is a matter of life and death and these demographics can’t access this information at all. Public accountability can play an important role in overcoming this inertia.

RE: How can companies work to remove unintentional bias from their recruiting, hiring, training, and promotion processes?

AS: Well, first, the whole “equal” thing doesn’t work anymore. That’s what we wanted two decades ago. It’s about “equity” now. If you want to hire a diverse group of people, you can’t just put a label and say we’re an equal opportunity employer and leave it at that. If you’re a recruiter, then you should reach out to marginalized groups and actively find people in these groups. Because there’s a reason if you’re not seeing disabled people applying to jobs. Maybe the advertisement platform isn’t accessible, maybe the whole education system is so inaccessible that they never had the opportunity to develop the skills that everyone else had. So, I really think that companies need to make an intentional effort to improve their processes and make them more inclusive

The more diverse the workforce, the more we’ll all understand the struggles of marginalized groups and use our privilege to improve the current state of the world.

RE: Why is it imperative to include people with disabilities in product design?

AS: It’s “nothing about us without us.” Disabled people aren’t just testers or subjects in studies. Their inclusion in the workforce makes this society better. It provides the next generation and the next platform and motivation to go out there, pursue their dreams, and have the job titles that traditionally have been immediate shut-downs for them. Like, can a disabled person with limited hand function be a software engineer? Well, yes. But we need living examples. And it’s also about changing mindsets. There are people who have never encountered people with disabilities in their daily lives. And they have no idea what to do or say if they ever did. The more diverse the workforce, the more we’ll all understand the struggles of marginalized groups and use our privilege to improve the current state of the world.

RE: What else can companies do to make workplaces more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities?

AS: Again, I would refrain from providing a checklist because systems have a tendency to get comfortable with their processes and resist change. But, of course, there’s a starting point. And that begins with education and exposure to societal disenfranchisements. We have to incorporate accessibility from the beginning. Think about what happens when a person joins a company. They’re given a bunch of resources, usually as printed materials, digital PDFs, or websites. Are those accessible? Are people who they’re about to spend 40 hours a week with educated on what they should and shouldn’t say? Terminologies and actions that are acceptable and those that are not? All this requires a lot of thinking and a preliminary set of intentional and conscious efforts. And companies need to do that. And if they’re not sure where to start, hiring a disability consultant to review and advise on their processes would be a wonderful place to start.

RE: What else do you want people to know about these issues?

AS: I wish people could understand the difference between equality and equity. Equality is an obsolete concept. Equity is what we’re striving for. Personally, I knew nothing about the disability world until a car accident resulting in a spinal cord injury forced me to learn about it. And I wish I had known more about this world beforehand. And that’s what I want people to know. Don’t wait to know about the disability world until they or their loved ones become a part of it — do it proactively. We have to make this society better, and the tiny steps that we take may not be visible to us, but they will shape society for the generations that come after us. Someone before us put in the effort that we today enjoy. It’s time for us to do the same.

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Magazine cover design for Volume 3: "The disability and accessibility issue" of re:think magazine, published by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) and bearing the logo for The cover art features seven photo sections in a variety of bright colors showcasing the eyes of a diverse group of people, with the person in the middle wearing sunglasses.
In the third edition of re:think magazine, we turn to issues of disability and accessibility and how they relate to inclusion and the creation of inclusive cultures. Discussions of inclusion often focus on navigating “visible” differences between people, yet we must always be mindful of all the invisible identities people inhabit, and the importance of creating inclusive cultures across these identities.

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