Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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A culture of inclusion

There has been a lot of talk about diversity in software development and at IT conferences. Typically, these conversations focus primarily on gender diversity, sometimes on racial diversity. Very little seems to be said about disability diversity apart from the occasional push for awareness of mental health. Yet, people with disabilities represent approximately 1 in 5 people in most western cultures, although it can be difficult to define disability.

Web accessibility apologists talk a lot about making websites accessible. Few discuss fostering a culture of inclusion in organisations. We won’t see fully accessible websites, software projects and even fully accessible IT conferences until such a culture of inclusion exists.


A part of the problem comes from the perception people and organisations have of disabilities. Too often people think of people with disability as broken, as having something that has to be fixed, remedied. Too often people with disabilities are perceived as passive receptors of accessibility improvements. In disability rights circles, this is often referred to as the “medical model of disability”. I favour more of a “social model of disability“, where people with disabilities are part of the solution. In that model, we think more of impairments rather than disabilities, because disabilities come from a non-accessible society. The fact that someone is blind is an impairment. It only becomes a disability when websites and software are not build in such a way as to be accessible to everyone. The fact that someone is colour blind is an impairment. It only becomes a disability when designers use colours to impart meaning. The fact that someone can’t walk is an impairment. It only becomes a disability when there are no level entrances.

When looking at “web accessibility” through the lens of the social model of disability, we realise that accessibility is not just about “disability” – It is about universal design, where changes to websites and software benefit everyone. Using plain English (if your site is written in English!) makes your content more accessible to people with learning impairments. It also makes your content accessible to non-native English speakers.

It truly is a matter of changing mindsets. A matter of shifting paradigms. And that begins with individuals within organisations and software projects. Actions speak louder than words. A good example of this is O’Reilly’s OSCON. Their call for proposals for their conference in Amsterdam in 2015 did not include any mention of accessibility. It was an oversight. I know several of their staff are dedicated to improving accessibility. I pointed out the omission to Josh Simmons and within minutes, it was fixed. They not only say they are keen to improve accessibility uptake, but they are taking steps to make it happen.

Agile Accessibility

As El Gibbs points out in her excellent post, “Taking the social model of disability online“, it takes time to make this happen. The actions and intent of a few people who truly “get it” may not spread quickly through an entire organisation that needs to adopt a culture of inclusion. I’m sure OSCON will have other accessibility hiccups. But ongoing improvement is important. Let’s think “Agile accessibility“. Don’t wait to have your site or project fully accessible. Improve accessibility as you go, and release improvements often.

Another example of shifting mindsets is what’s happening with Slack. They just released a version for Windows, but it appears not to be accessible. Questions were raised on Twitter about this. According to an earlier post from Sarah Jevnikar, Slack acknowledged the lack of accessibility in their software and made improvements quickly (for another version than their Windows one).

Talking the talk vs Walking the walk

On the other hand, there’s Joomla! I was on the Core Development Team with that project from before it forked from Mambo in 2005. They were talking a good talk about wanting to improve accessibility to the CMS. I was tasked with doing so and put in a lot of work. I went as far as refactoring the entire codebase as a proof-of-concept. In the end, the other Core members opted to have accessibility improvements as a 3rd party add-on project. There was no culture of inclusion. There are now efforts to increase Joomla’s accessibility again. Volunteers are enthusiastic about it. The future will show us if Joomla! has adopted a culture of inclusion or not.

Nothing about us without us

Disability rights advocate often say “Nothing about us without us“. In order for people with disabilities to be part of the solution, we need to be included in the discussion and decision making process. In order to achieve that, organisations must develop a culture of inclusion.