How to create a more inclusive digital era
Mission Accessibility was co founded by Rahul Bajaj (India & Lincacre 2018) to work with organisations to open them up to people with disabilities. Here, Tanishk Goyal, who leads capacity building at Mission Accessibility, talks about his work with the Rhodes Trust and his own journey to open up institutions to all.
As an able-bodied person working on accessibility I feel that it is my responsibility to tell how I came to acknowledge and subsequently attempt to deconstruct the inherent able-normativity prevalent in our institutional structures.
As the world's most distinguished academic scholarship celebrates its 120th anniversary, I cannot help but marvel at how forthright the Rhodes Trust has been in acknowledging its history, and embracing every opportunity today to enhance its ability in developing leaders for tomorrow.
It’s important for all organisations to be accessible to people whether they have disabilities or not, which is why it is good to be working with the Trust to ensure all its online communications are as accessible as possible.
An able-normative physical or digital ecosystem not only deprives persons with disabilities from laying their claims to any institution, it also prevents institutions from extending their opportunities and helping them to become agents of change in the times to come.
For instance, the presence of access barriers in any institution’s ecosystem, casts a chilling effect on the ability of persons with disabilities to navigate through a system first place. These access barriers may be in the form unlabelled links, or non-screen-reader-friendly pages, or inaccessible PDF files. There may also be an absence of alternative text descriptions for images on websites, blogs and forums.
At a fundamental level, this failure to remove access barriers and provide for reasonable accommodations invalidates the everyday struggles of persons with disabilities and conveys a message to them that they are unwelcome in the society. This message of being unwelcome or unwanted, in turn, shapes their social reality within which they are constrained to lead their personal and professional lives. The by-product of this chilling effect on persons with disabilities is the creation of a community of individuals with ableist perspectives in their respective fields.
A mere introduction of reasonable accommodations, whether physically or digitally, has the potential to deconstruct these inherently ableist institutional structures and further repair the historical inequities meted out to persons with disabilities.
I thank the Rhodes Trust for its work in this area because it demonstrates a sustained culture which encourages and enables the unfettered exercise of people’s rights. It is an affirmation for all the stakeholders with disabilities that the ideas of inclusion we talk about shall transcend mere academic boundaries and spring into action.
The Oxford Accessibility Project, its work on disability leadership and the organisation of this workshop today bears a glowing testament to the Trust’s spirit of acknowledgement, reconciliation and reparation in shaping priorities and guiding actions. The Oxford Accessibility Project similarly places the information on accessibility at the heart of Oxford’s college access guide.
In doing so, it wholeheartedly welcomes persons with disabilities and relieves them from the burden of asking for reasonable accommodations at every step of the way. The Accessibility Guide plays a monumental role in extending the privilege of knowledge to persons with disabilities. This, in turn enables them to shape their academic, physical and social aspirations at Oxford without having to worry about the uncertainty of whether they will be able to participate in the activities of such institutions.
Coupled with the tireless efforts of the community at Rhodes House and Oxford to make more and more physical and digital spaces accessible everyday, we are not far from the day when reasonable accommodations are institutionalized to the extent that no physical or digital space remains inaccessible.
Lastly, the fact the community chooses to take these efforts despite being situated in an old city like Oxford (where creating reasonable accommodations for physical spaces is arguably tougher) gives a strong message to the world at large that making our spaces accessible for persons with disabilities is no longer a challenge, but a choice. When an institution actively chooses to make its offerings fully disability friendly, it also sets an example for the world out there that the invisibility and devaluation of the identity of persons with disabilities stops today.
I would just urge everyone not to look at reasonable accommodations as merely a means of preventing discrimination. Instead, let us all try and look at reasonable accommodations as a means to equip Persons with Disabilities with the tools and resources that they have been entitled to since time immemorial. If we can cultivate and further a culture where everyone constantly attempts to unlearn their prejudices, we shall consider our work here done.