The first talk: Inclusion matters - accessibility in the workplace
Franziska Hauck shared some good advice on how to create more inclusive and accessible workplaces. First of all, she reminded us that specific accommodations in the workplace might be needed in various contexts, such as employees with temporary or permanent disabilities that are visible or invisible, people with chronic illnesses and people with neurodiversity.
Franziska presented us with three “friends” of hers that have special needs. Through the examples, Franziska not only pictured work environments that are inhabited by people with various abilities but also provided us with insights into how her “friends” could be accurately supported by the attendees. For example, using software for video calls or remote events that have a subtitle functionality might not only help people who are deaf or hard of hearing, but also people who may have difficulties focusing or who are not fluent in the language or accent you use. In the physical environment, having a quiet room or medical room, where employees can go to rest or get some privacy at any time of the day is helpful.
Franziska asked us to reflect on our mindset. Accepting “weaknesses”, i.e. different needs and perceptions people have, is a crucial part of building an inclusive team. To do that, we need to move beyond our basic conception that some people are normal and others are not.
“Heart is the most important tool set you can have.”
Although she stated that “heart is the most important tool set you can have”, her presentation did offer some practical tips on how to create an inclusive workplace - starting tomorrow. Here’s our top 3:
Don’t assume that everyone can eat/do/practice everything you can do.
Don’t reduce people to their disability, because there is so much more you can learn about them! But at the same time, don’t negate their disability. It’s important to find a balance based on how people communicate about the disability they live with.
Don’t overrule people or generalize. People who live with disabilities are very likely to be experts in the disability they live with. When they talk about it, take the time to listen. Try to keep it in mind without making a fuss. Empathy is the key!
To conclude, Franziska shared a method she implemented at her current workplace called “People Manual”. The idea is for everyone to write down in a document how they describe themselves, what is important for them, what they need from colleagues, what are their interests, etc. This document can be shared with a trusted group of colleagues. This method can be used to ease communication and foster empathy within teams, as well as creating cultural change across the whole organisation.
The second talk: One's dream is another's nightmare - the varying accessibility of developer tools
Tuukka Ojala introduced his talk with a confession. As a software developer with ten years of programming experience, including five as a professional, he recently passed a new milestone: he used a debugger for the very first time. A debugger is a program and interface that allows you to methodically step through parts of another program to find the causes of problems.
Tuukka’s confession is extremely surprising. Debuggers are an incredibly useful tool most software developers rely upon to help them spot errors or problems in their programs. The reason why Tuukka hasn't used a debugger before is related to the way they are built: debuggers are not always compatible with screen readers.
Screen readers are tools that read out loud the structure of what appears on a computer’s screen, such as a software or a website. It is the main way by which people with e.g. visual impairments interact with a computer nowadays. Since Tuukka is blind, he relies on a screen reader to use a computer and do his job. The compatibility between the tools he uses for programming and screen readers is crucial. If the tools he uses have interactive parts that cannot be accessed with a keyboard, or if they aren't programmed to provide reliable information to screen readers, Tuukka’s user journey becomes a real nightmare.
What would you do if someone tells you a tool is awesome and will help you save a lot of time and when you try it out, you discover that doing the simplest task is now taking you three times as long? You probably won’t use the tool. Instead of debuggers, Tuukka relied heavily on logging, which, in the end, turned out to be much more than a fallback solution. It turned him into a better developer.
“Not relying on a debugger made me a better developer. But the important distinction here is that I had a choice.”
Unfortunately, the first example Tuukka gave us isn’t an option in every context. People working in teams, as he does, have to daily use project management tools such as Trello or Jira. Building these tools in an accessible way is a challenge, Tuukka acknowledged, because they rely on a visual and spatial interface. For sighted users, the Kanban layout, composed of several lists of tasks that are displayed side by side, is very helpful and provides an overview of all the ongoing tasks. The problem is that it can only be translated for screen-reader users in a linear manner, by having an alternative mode displaying only text. Unfortunately, none of these tools have implemented such functionality as of yet.
Project management tools often have keyboard shortcuts that allow people to perform common tasks, but the shortcuts are useless for blind people if they only manage visual focus but don't move the keyboard focus accordingly. In those cases the results of interacting with them are not apparent to screen readers. Tuukka uses GreaseMonkey and go-jira to hack the tools and find a way in. This is not an optimal - or scalable - solution for the users of project management tools.
To conclude, Tuukka reminded the audience that having people with various abilities, especially in your development teams, is a great way to expand the team’s skillset and deliver more accessible products:
“Accessibility is a mindset, a willingness to make things happen for everyone, regardless of disability. It’s not a feature that can be prioritised, neither a detail.”
The third talk: Developing an inclusive campus for Aalto university
As senior advisor in accessibility at Aalto university, Antti Raike emphasised that there is very little we can do to help people deal with their disabilities. We can, however, build services and environments that enable them to help themselves.
But how do we get to build an enabling environment for all the people who work on a university campus? Cataloging who has which disability is pointless - the quality of the service you are providing is the key topic to address.
“About 8 to 10 years ago, we [the Aalto university staff] took the decision that accessibility is a matter of quality.”
Building a process to create increasingly enabling environments is not easy, and Antti and his community network needed high-ranking allies and partners at the university. They also needed for staff attitudes towards the concept of accessibility to undergo a maturation process and move beyond common misconceptions, such as that accessibility is expensive. Basically, Antti had to demonstrate the limits of the medical model of disability when compared to the relational model of disability: the role of the university is to provide equal access to all students – and sometimes that requires adjusting the way the environment works.
Antti shared the four-step Design for All (DfA) principles he built his process upon:
Include most people through the application of inclusive design guidelines.
Enable group adaptations by gathering people with similar needs.
Support individuals with reasonable adjustments and assistive technology (AT).
Provide personal assistance with partners if all the above solutions are not sufficient.
By leveling possible solutions, Antti was able to find sustainable solutions and avoid wasting time, money and resources.
And now, you might wonder: how to get the resources to make this work happen? Who is in charge of which decision? Antti explained the three decision levels:
The Macro Level includes the university’s board and the president’s management team. This is where the overall framework, including the policies, the action plans, the quality system, etc., is discussed.
The Meso Level is directed by operational directors who get to decide when during the year each accessible service or system has to be installed (due to snow for instance).
The Micro Level, led by team leaders and members of Antti’s network, deals with the practical issues and the individual accommodations.
The decision levels clarify who is in charge of which topic, as well as who should be addressed for which decision. Afterward, Antti shared with us that with this structure in mind, the members of the network with other stakeholders from the staff and faculty were gathering one per year to check the plan, according to the PDCA (plan, do, check, act) method. This method is applied by the team to create iterative circles at various scales.
To summarize, Antti listed the pros and cons of the DfA method at Aalto University. Among the pros, he mentioned that it enhanced the focus on diversity and was easier to sell to the management, as it benefits all people. On the cons side, Antti blamed that the minimum standards that are established in guidelines are rarely questioned, resulting in a lack of ambition, but also that the disability question seems to disappear. As a conclusion, Antti opened up the topic by sharing one of his current collaborations with service providers. As some parts of the outdoor areas between the protected buildings are being renovated at the moment, how do we assimilate the great ideas of our architects with the concrete and variable needs of everybody who evolves in those spaces?
Further reading and resources
- Franziska’s pick: Designing for the extremes
- Tuukka’s pick: How to Get a Developer Job When You're Blind: Advice From a Blind Developer Who Works Alongside a Sighted Team
- Antti’s pick: Accessible Aalto
Our staff’s picks: