By Manju Banerjee | Originally published in the Back-to-School 2019 issue of AC&E.
Perspectives on accessibility are varied depending on one’s viewpoint. Accessibility or lack thereof may be viewed through a legal, educational, and/or a social justice lens. A formal definition of the word as cited in Merriam-Webster’s defines accessibility as the quality of being able to be reached or entered; easy to obtain or use; and easily understood or appreciated. Inaccessibility, not surprisingly, is literally the opposite of accessibility.
Who does Accessibility Affect?
Very simply put, lack of access affects us all. It affects those who do not speak the language of the country that they are in; individuals perceived as not belonging to a group membership or tribe; the elderly; neurodivergent individuals and neurotypicals. In other words, inaccessibility affects everyone. It affects the student who has dyslexia who needs text-to-speech software to access the printed page, or the individual who is unable to get into his online bank account because he can’t recall the correct ID and password; or the elderly woman who holds up the line at a grocery store because she can’t find the store coupons in her purse.
Yet, even today accessibility is often an afterthought. We see it in designs of products and materials which are inaccessible and have to be retrofitted with access features or accommodations for diverse users. It is important to underscore the distinction between accessibility and compliance. Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, almost all institutions of higher education receiving federal funds must follow compliance guidelines that ensure equal access for students identified as having a disability. Compliance is a legal mandate and serves to ensure non-discrimination, but does not necessarily promote a culture of accessibility.
An accessibility mindset is important for three reasons:
- Lack of accessibility robs individuals of autonomy and independence. Consider the anxiety and fear of someone using a wheelchair having to wait at the top of the stairs to be rescued while the room fills with smoke from a fire.
- Inaccessibility takes an emotional toll, and it is frustrating and humiliating to the individual. A student with dyslexia who is told that she is stupid because she can’t read fluently carries that scar with her into adulthood. Yet, we know from research by Shaywitz and Shaywitz (2010) that reading ability and intelligence are not linked for individuals with dyslexia; and that slow readers can indeed be fast thinkers.
- Inaccessibility robs us of opportunities for innovation. Many individuals who are excluded from the mainstream because of their “differences” can and do add to the creative richness of societal capital, when given the opportunity. While the research is primarily correlational, there is evidence to suggest that some individuals who learn differently are particularly cued into pattern recognition and innovative entrepreneurship. It is a lost opportunity when these strengths are not recognized and leveraged.
The How of Accessibility
At its core, creating a culture of accessibility starts with empathy. Empathy is understanding another’s emotions through perspective taking. It is being able to sense and feel how another person is feeling. When one can truly empathize with what it feels like to be excluded, marginalized or discriminated against, then there is a shift in mindset towards accessibility.
Maya Angelou writes, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Empathy is a component of emotional intelligence and is typically understood as consisting of two types of responses – emotional and cognitive. Emotional empathy, also known as affective empathy, is the ability to share the feelings of another and react with similar feeling. Emotional empathy allows us to act in ways that create an emotional connection. Cognitive empathy take perspective and is able to understand how another person is feeling or thinking. When we are empathetic with individuals who are neurodivergent, we act and behave in ways that creates a culture of accessibility.
Empathy is a natural state. Neuroscience research affirms that humans are wired for empathy. Mirror neurons in our brains trigger emotions and feelings experienced by another person. This feeling of sameness or empathy helps to create a truly accessible culture which transcends compliance, non-discrimination mandates, and/or ethical considerations of “the right thing to do.” At Landmark College, faculty and staff are oriented to empathy through observation, faculty mentorship, and a close relationship with students, grounded in the tenets of non-directive coaching. The latter proposes active trust building between students and faculty by creating a “safe space to fail” while maintaining high expectations; being non-judgmental and neutral while listening; and jointly articulating accountability and consequences.
When empathy occurs, we find ourselves experiencing it, rather than directly causing it to happen. This is the characteristic that makes the act of empathy unteachable. However, by promoting attitudes and behaviors such as self-awareness, nonjudgmental positive regard for others, good listening skills, and self-confidence we can start building a culture of accessibility built on the foundational cornerstone of empathy. In today’s world it is easy to lose sight of the feelings of others, particularly when inaccessibility does not personally affect us. But reconnecting with our innate empathy as human beings can go a long way towards a fully accessible world.