Personal and organizational motivations for practising inclusive design

What follows is my part of a talk I gave with my colleagues Rob Harvie and Johnny Taylor at the Accessibility Conference at Guelph University, May 27, 2015.


You’re on the bus and some blind guy asks, “can you let me know when it’s my stop?”. You would think the answer would be “yeah, sure”, but as a society we said, “try and make me!”

In 1994 David Lepofsky wrote a letter to the Chief General Manager of the TTC saying “I’m blind and we need those stops on the subway announced”. He got a letter back saying it just wasn’t feasible.

Lepofsky, who is a lawyer, filed a complaint of discrimination against the TTC. He also got on CBC radio’s Toronto Metro Morning program. Two hours after the show he got a call from TTC saying, “could you come in for a meeting, we'd like to discuss this.”

“Media coverage is often a very important tool in triggering change in this area.” - David Lepovsky

In 1995 announcements started on the subway, but they were unreliable. Riders couldn’t be sure their stop would be called.

Lepofsky kept fighting to get it done right. When he moved off the subway line he started advocating to get bus stops announced too. The TTC kept stonewalling. In 2001 he filed a human rights complaint.

The TTC fought hard to get out of announcing stops. They spent $450,000 on lawyers to get out of doing this and they lost.

This accommodation is essential for blind transit riders and nice for those of us who like to read on the bus. It took a long time and a lot of work to get a legal decision, but now it’s in place and anyone venturing out on the TTC knows their stop will be called.

Marie Bountrogianni
Marie Bountrogianni

Things changed between 1994 and 2005. David Lepofsky and his team laid the groundwork for Marie Bountrogianni’s introduction of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

The AODA is legislation, passed in 2005, whose purpose is to achieve accessibility for Ontarians with disabilities by 2025.

Asked about what motivated her to develop the AODA, Bountrogianni said,

“I am a psychologist by training and worked with kids and youth with disabilities. I lived their struggles and advocated for them against bureaucracies and certain governments when I was Chief Psychologist of a school board.

  Also, I am a daughter of immigrants and grew up at a time when discrimination was rampant. I think I empathize and get motivated by my family‚Äôs experiences as well.”

The Moran Report, a review of the AODA, says, “Considerable progress has been achieved”.

The Moran report also says, “that the lack of visible enforcement is holding Ontario back from achieving the 2025 goal for an accessible province.”

As one stakeholder asked, “How effective would speed limits be without speeding tickets?”

The report says that the value of accessibility and inclusion is widely shared and supported.

Legislation works top down and bottom up. The AODA is moved forward by continued pressure from those who share and support the legislation’s aims.

lava lamp

There is a lava lamp quality to legal change. Once a norm has been changed the law enforces that change, and the legal enforcement makes the norm more normal. People push in all directions, from “this is too much to do” to “this is not doing enough” and the boundaries of the normal shift with the push and pull, so the pressure has to be maintained for a really long time.

Every Toronto a11y meetup I get to has a lot of people there from the banks. I was asking Monica Ackermann, who works at Scotiabank, about this.

Banks are federally regulated organizations and required to comply with the Employment Equity Act, enacted in 1986. That law requires “that no person shall be denied employment opportunities or benefits for reasons unrelated to ability” and that accommodation be provided for people with disabilities. Once barriers were removed people with a vested interest in accessibility started working at the banks, and a culture of inclusion was created. There are people at the banks who want to do the minimum required of them, but those voices are balanced by people moving accessibility forward.

Ackermann says that the AODA does not apply to the banks, but provides guidelines that are useful to follow in creating accessible media.

Some other motivations for inclusive design.

You need it done that way yourself

One motivation for providing inclusive design is you need it yourself. Every design project needs testing, and the first user you test on is yourself. If it doesn’t work for you, it's scrapped.

You are going to need it done that way

The older you get the more likely you are to have some kind of disability. You will definitely experience something that bad design can turn into a disability. Just about everyone over forty needs reading glasses. A website with tiny type that can’t be enlarged turns an ordinary physical limitation into a disability.

There are people you know who need it done that way

Bob Scott
Bob Scott

Bob Scott was the online editor at Maclean’s from 1992 to 2006. He posted a new issue of the magazine online once a week.

One week Scott got an email from a blind guy complaining that the magazine was completely inaccessible and telling him what to do to make it better. He made some changes and the next week he got an email saying it was a bit better but it still was hard to use, and explaining why. When Scott was able to redesign the site he took this user’s experience into account. He got one last email saying thank you, the site was now so much easier to navigate.

Training and craftsmanship

Testing is an important part of building technology. Doing meticulous work includes testing for various user agents, and assistive technology is on a responsible list.

Ryerson University is working on a an online set of modules that will help businesses to develop in-house accessibility auditing expertise.

Dr. Marie Bountrogianni, who championed the AODA, is now Dean of the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education. Her motivation for providing this course is she believes,

“there is a lack of knowledge in the business world as to what is expected of them.“

Creating inclusive work adds meaning

When I was in my early twenties I was working in an animation studio and my sister was a medical student. We were talking on the phone one day - we were both exhausted, we had both been up all night at work the night before. She had been working a double shift on an emergency ward, saving lives. I had been scratching freckles off the kids in the Sugar Crisp commercial.

When the talent you bring to the working world is the ability to make things look good you find yourself spending a lot of time putting lipstick on pigs. Creating accessible sites helps me feel that I can do work that makes the world a better place. You can’t beat that for personal motivation.