Category Archives: Web Accessibility

New Zealand Sign Language: A cultural treasure

A rather late very happy New Year to all readers of Low Visionary.  May 2014 bring real progress on disability rights and accessibility all over the world.

Prompted by recent spirited discussion about the decline of New Zealand Sign Language,  and the equally spirited continuing debate about cochlear implants, here is my perspective on the value of New Zealand Sign Language in the New Zealand context.

I should say at the outset that I am not Deaf. Nor can I communicate in New Zealand Sign Language. The visual, spatial qualities inherent to it are beyond my visual capacity. I do know how to work with a Sign Language interpreter though. Since meeting the New Zealand Deaf community many years ago I have been fascinated by their language and history, as well as getting to know some great people.

Over those years I have learned a great deal, joined in with the celebrations of Deaf community victories, and supported their campaigns for access. The Deaf community are articulate, confident, outward looking, and one of the most creative communities around.

It is sad that, although New Zealand Sign Language is one of our official languages, it does not seem to be recognised widely as a national treasure. This was brought into sharp focus for me recently when thinking about Sign Language while working on an arts accessibility project.

Sign Languages should be treasured as precious cultural artefacts in their own right. In some settings they are. In 1993 I watched a riveting and inclusive one woman theatre performance in American Sign Language at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC. Closer to home in 1996, along with other international conference attendees in Auckland, I watched, spellbound, a skilled interpreter yodel, (in NZ Sign Language) along with the Topp Twins. She was as much a star as they were. I have attended other Signed performances, watched Sign singers, lots of Sign Language interpreted meetings and gatherings and enjoyed Deaf humour.

Yet more than twenty years after my first Deaf cultural encounter, and long after New Zealand Sign Language has become an official language, when I visit the web site of Te Papa Tongarewa,  our national cultural storehouse I find no trace of New Zealand Sign Language. There is lots of Maori content, probably not enough, and information in seven other languages besides English and Maori. Is it because being Deaf is associated with deficit rather than with language and culture? Is providing Sign Language seen as a cost which will add little value, rather than as a celebration of the linguistic and cultural heritage of a unique New Zealand community? How about providing information accessibly to New Zealand citizens who are entitled to it?

Kudos to the National Library which has recognised the importance of New Zealand Sign Language and decided that all exhibitions will be introduced in all our national languages. Kudos also to the theatres and arts organisations that have recognised and included Deaf language and culture in their work.  Others need to follow these examples. They could start by joining the activities during Sign Language Week celebrated in May each year.

The New Zealand National Anthem in New Zealand Sign Language, English and Maori. The video is an example of our three national languages, all of which are part of our history and culture.

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Making New Zealand Accessible. Disabled women claim their place

This post is edited notes from a panel presentation in conjunction with the Tirohia mai exhibition at the National Library September 28th 2013. The exhibition marks 120 years of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.

What does accessibility, in the broadest sense mean to me as a disabled woman? What does it mean to the wider community of disabled women? How can it be improved for all disabled women? What would make the greatest difference?

This exhibition is very important as it begins to give us access to some of our disability herstory 120 years after women in NZ were able to vote. Without the vision of curator Rosslyn Noonan we wouldn’t be there at all so a big thank you to her. The experience of contributing to the exhibition has been exciting, frustrating and moving in equal measure.

Thinking about our history, from nineteenth and early twentieth century institutions where if you were blind you had to ask for permission to marry. Women were locked away for life for behaviour seen as aberrant, or because they were diagnosed as being “congenital idiots”.

Technology and other changes both help and hinder – blind telephonists, mostly women, lost their jobs with technological change and changes to the public service in the late 1980’s. Some never worked again. We have been deinstitutionalised. The “bins” have been emptied. New Zealand Sign Language is a national language. We have all kinds of cool equipment, and our first openly disabled woman MP.  But how much has really changed?

We are still struggling to get good personal care and support, and we are still being abused.

Some disabled women are not “allowed” to mother their children. Disabled girls still struggle to get a good education. Many disabled women live their whole lives in poverty as part of the growing inequality in New Zealand, part of the growing “precariat,” particularly as we age.

There are huge unresolved issues relating to body image, sexuality and the conventions around how a woman looks or should look. We are poorer, less employed, and more prone to intimate partner violence than non-disabled men. We have less access to sexual and reproductive health than non-disabled women, and some particular groups of disabled women have poorer general health than just about anyone else.

We are way behind other developed, and even some developing countries with the lack of attention and systemic indifference given to our concerns as disabled women.

So, for me access is about pretty much everything.

The Oxford Dictionary definition, (paraphrased) describes access as “the right or opportunity to benefit from something,” approach or see someone, to obtain or retrieve, to approach or enter a place.

Accessibility for me means I want access to the same as other women no less, as well as the supports I might need as a disabled women.

Among other things, accessibility means access to information, and physical access. It means being able to read the horrible signage on the Wellington buses. Reading the prices in the Supermarket is another. Health-related info is pretty important. It is an act of revenge when I go for a mammogram to ask about the availability of information in alternative formats? After all why shouldn’t they feel as uncomfortable as I do?

For all disabled women it means access to the support we need as women to enable us to live good, full lives whatever that might mean to us. We need access to the systems and structures that govern our lives, whether it is access to Sign Language in the workplace, or easily accessible information about candidates in the upcoming Local Government elections, a truly accessible voting process and access to standing for public office. I know of one disabled woman standing for a District Health Board. I hope there are others.

It means access to our children and the support we need to mother them and to deal with intimate relationships when they go wrong or where there is violence.

Importantly we also need access to initiatives for and progress made by all women. At present many of us are shut out.

We need access to the policy agenda that sees our interests and rights as women ignored and neglected.

We need access to information and to debates that affect us as disabled women as well as to the environment where these debates take place.

We need access to the women’s research agenda and to the research process itself. Even when research is conducted on our issues, it is frequently conducted from a non-disabled standpoint. It will therefore lack real validity.

We need more access to our own history.

We need access to the tools and resources that can challenge the systemic disadvantage and discrimination we as disabled women encounter on an everyday basis.

We need access to each other, and the skills and gifts and strengths we bring in all our rich diversity and intersectionality.

We need access to structures, tools and resources that will enable us to work on our own issues and choices. Together we can do it all.

We have the Disability Rights Convention, CRPD. with its twin track approach, including all of us and we have the Women’s Convention, CEDAW.

That is all very well. But what will make the greatest difference right now.  Returning to the Tirohia mai exhibition. It has been very difficult to find information about our herstory. I was shocked that we could not even find a good quality photo of Dame Anne Ballin. We have discovered how woefully lacking we are in good quality, recent information about disabled women. It is outrageous that Statistics New Zealand has not produced any comparative disability gender analysis since 1996. This is shameful.

Having good, accessible comparative readily available data is critical for us to make real change. We need a comparative gender report from the current and all future surveys.

Working together on a disabled women’s agenda would also help. Disabled People’s Organisations are full of women. Many of us are leaders there, so how come we are not working on women’s issues. Do we not see them as important?

I was sad that the women’s caucus in the NEC of DPA has been abolished, and that VIEW has lost its founding fervour for change.

Nothing will be handed to us. While we will find allies in different places we have to drive the change ourselves, that is, if we really want it. As disabled women we have to keep saying “Nothing about us without us! and work for change together.

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Making complaints processes accessible

This post is taken from a presentation given at the third Disability Conference; Another complaint, another Improvement. Why is it so Difficult to complain? Making your complaints processes more accessible.

It has not been in the Kiwi DNA to complain, and especially not disabled people, at least not to complain formally, but we are learning fast in the post Human Rights Act, Health and Disability Commissioner Act and the United Nations Convention on the rights of people with Disabilities (CRPD), even the post-Fair Go environment. Disabled people are finding and using their voices to complain, or as one speaker put it, to speak out.

Why complaints are critical in a human rights environment

It is critical that service providers complaints processes are accessible. Complaints lead to service improvements and contribute to achieving human rights for disabled people. An important element of human rights is that people must be able to complain and seek redress when things go wrong.

People will share their stories of bad experiences widely, in their communities and on social and general media, and these stories can be harmful to your organisation and reputations. The media are becoming more interested and are increasingly taking such stories seriously, especially in light of recent high profile abuse cases.

The social media go on regardless. If you are not participating in social media you don’t know what people are saying about you. While this raises questions about time and resourcing for smaller organisations, monitoring, careful management and innovative ways of keeping tabs through social media are important.

Beyond Charity

We are well beyond the charitable days when people who received services from disability support organisations had to be constantly grateful and say thank you for everything, and be grateful for anything, no matter what quality. Of course that does not mean that we should not appreciate good service.

Attitude is all

It is all about attitude, to taking complaints, and to service users. The glass can be half empty or half full on both counts. Respect for service users and their right to take complaints is fundamental. Well-meaning words on paper are not enough. You have to walk the talk.

Complaints should be seen positively, as a means of improving relationships, learning and making positive change and providing better services. Complaints are helpful.

Accessibility is a broad issue and a strategic one.

Some of the issues underpinning accessibility are about how comfortable and confident people feel about complaining, and the same is true about those who receive complaints.

Complaints processes are all about openness and good communication at every level. The organisational culture that values community connectedness and processes with integrity will be more accessible than one that does not. An open, accessible, accountable culture building strong trustful relationships with those who use the services will contribute to an organisation where people feel they can speak out when things go wrong.

Speaking out may happen differently for different people. Listening also takes different forms. Recognition of these differences is important.

Best practice

It is ironic that when researching this presentation I found some information on ‘so called’ accessible complaints procedures available in inaccessible pdfs! Happily they were not New Zealand disability support organisations.

But I did find it quite hard to locate complaints processes on several disability service provider web sites I looked at, and very easy and clear on one other. Some were not overly welcoming, for example one large provider did not have an online form, giving an email address only. This can be confusing because it may open a new version of the email program which is annoying and a usability problem. To avoid opening a new version I had to cut and paste the address.  A well designed and accessible online form can also ask some helpful questions. The more options for complaints the better.

Knowing about and being comfortable with the process

People don’t always know how to complain, the way the process works, and how to complain appropriately. They may be afraid of the consequences of making a complaint.

There are also some underlying general factors which affect the accessibility of complaints systems. They apply across the board, but have particular resonance for the situation of disabled people. If you need a service, and your provider is the only game in town you may feel particularly vulnerable if you complain. It is necessary for providers to understand and compensate for this particular power in-balance.

Develop and implement an accessibility policy

There are some important strategic considerations needed before thinking about a complaints process. One very important one is an accessibility policy. This should cover everything in the organisation from physical to electronic access. It should have associated guidance and standards.

For a process to be accessible and actually work complainants need to;

  • Be taken seriously and treated respectfully
  • Be heard
  • Be safe and not be victimised for complaining

Make it easy to complain.

If like the hitch hikers guide to the galaxy your complaints process is on the equivalent of Alpha Centauri it will all be pointless. Make your complaints process easy to find and inclusive. Accept complaints in a variety of ways. If you don’t they will get around anyway through social media and word of mouth and possibly become distorted.

If complaints can be made by letter or in writing only, many people, even those who are perfectly literate and able to write a letter will find it difficult to complain because they may be upset or stressed at the time they want to complain.

Complaints and related correspondence should be accepted in a number of different ways including

  • in person – face to face
  • over the phone or Internet, including by the Relay Service
  • online forms
  • in writing via email, fax and letter
  • Access should be provided to translating and interpreting services for non-English speaking people.
  • Complaints in Maori and New Zealand Sign Language should be accepted.
  • Complaints from Pacific Peoples should also be welcomed.

Accessibility should include access for children and older people as well as for the range of disabled people.

The reason I take such a broad approach to accessible complaints is that, even if your organisation provides services to a defined group of disabled people, you can’t assume they won’t have other impairments or identities, or that their whanau or support people won’t have other impairments or be from a variety of ethnic groups. People and families are complex, and have complex and rich identities which we ignore at our peril

Getting started.

  • Complaints are Strategic Complaints, and the way they are processed are strategic, part of your PR and communication strategy. You need policy, guidance and robust procedures
  • Have an accessibility policy with implementation guidance for staff
  • How to complain Service users must know they can complain and be supported independently if necessary
  • Make your complaints process easy to find, or people might think they can’t complain, or that complaints are unwelcome. They won’t complain if it is too hard.
  • If complaints are easy to make, you are more likely to get some good ideas and avoid people taking to the law or to the media.
  • Have a variety of ways to complain and clearly communicate their availablity
  • Structure the process so it asks questions to help the complainant, and you, clearly identify the problem complained about, and what they would like to happen as a remedy
  • If people need support to complain, make it clear they can bring a support person of their choice
  • Empower all staff to take complaints, invaluable in very small organisations.
  • Any written material should be in plain everyday language and not include confusing legal terms or jargon. Many disabled people have poor literacy. Easy Read may be an option too.
  • Make sure your web site is accessible and has an easy to find, accessible online complaints form, along with other alternatives. Some people find it easier to complain online.
  • Your buildings should be properly accessible, regardless of the service.
  • Make sure you provide relevant material in formats other than pdf.
  • Your staff should know how to use the Relay Service and frontline staff could take a Sign Language taster class during Sign Language Week or classes offered in their communities.
  • Check people’s requirements for communication when they complain.
  • Have toll free numbers if your services are offered beyond the free call area.
  • Use social media to take complaints and always respond when people do, a good reason why you should be active and involved in social media.
  • Remember not everyone has access to email or the web.
  • Timely attention to complaints and their resolution is critical. Having some internal standards might be useful.
  • Analysis of complaints and a feedback loop should take into account how well you are doing all of the above as well as the type of complaints you are receiving.

Accessibility is a journey. Make it an enjoyable and rewarding one for everyone.

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Digital workplace accessibility

A blog for Global Accessibility Awareness Day

The purpose of this day, May 9, is to get people talking, thinking and learning about digital (web, software, mobile, etc.) accessibility and users with different disabilities.

In New Zealand consideration of web and digital accessibility most attention is paid to public-facing websites that offer public information and services. We need to broaden the discussion, as digital applications have penetrated most areas of our daily life, accompanied by accessibility questions.

The workplace is increasingly digital. Some years ago I wrote an article for the Human Resources Journal, subsequently published on the Neon web site, An Accessible Work Wide Web.  Since then a great deal has changed, although some of the same accessibility tips I outlined then are still useful. It is time for Human Resources (HR) people to explore digital accessibility again. A few questions, by no means comprehensive, might help the discussion get started.

It is important to note that accessibility issues affect a range of disabled people, not just those using screen readers.

The recruitment process

  • Most recruiting is done online. How accessible are these processes, the web sites carrying the advertisement, the job descriptions, the forms for completion, responses and so on?
  • What happens if someone asks for information in an accessible format?
  • How easy is it for an applicant to discover what digital tools they need to be familiar with, to meet work requirements?

At the interview

  • Are people asked appropriately about their digital accessibility requirements as well as their physical access needs?
  • Is a test task accessible to all candidates?
  • How are interview questions about assistive technology handled?

In the workplace

  • When a disabled person starts work can they “hit the ground running” with their assistive technology?
  • Is your workplace truly inclusive or is there a scramble to cobble together an individual accommodation?
  • When tendering for intranet development and social media platforms what weight is given to accessibility?
  • How closely do you work with communications, web and IT people to achieve the best accessible outcomes for everyone in your organisation?
  • Do you know how and where to get help on digital accessibility?

Of course the whole thing would just go away if you rejected all applications from disabled people, (that you know about,) as too much trouble, but the risk is that you might just miss the best person for the job. That won’t solve the question of an ageing work force, or staff who acquire disabilities either. They might need digital accessibility so you can retain their skills and experience.

Like anything else, good planning and strategy will bring positive, productive results and prevent costly mistakes in terms of lost productivity, clumsy workarounds, or at worst human rights complaints or personal grievances.

Introducing accessibility using the concepts of universal design is a win-win in the workplace.

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