Category Archives: Information Accessibility

Colour contrast counts! A cautionary tale

Information accessibility challenges can pop up in unexpected places.

Recently I was talking to someone involved with an amateur dramatic society. Billboards were designed for the latest production. The billboards, complete with fancy font for branding, were displayed in and around the small country town where my friend lives. On the computer screen they looked great. But he discovered to his annoyance that when driving past them at the open road speed they were unreadable. Some retrofitting was needed. A steady handed volunteer was recruited to outline the lettering in black to increase visibility.

Before: digital image

Before: digital image

After: modified billboard

After: modified billboard

My friend reflected ruefully on the problem. He decided that in future he would stick to plainer fonts, never mind the branding. He also decided to do what he perhaps ought to have done at the beginning of the process. He tested the contrast on the electronic version of the billboards with a colour contrast analyser. It failed.

Lessons learned.

The principles of universal design and accessibility are indeed universal. Everyone, not just disabled people, will benefit from their application.

Think about what your audience needs before worrying about the branding.

Things that look great on your computer screen might not look good anywhere else.

Colour contrast really does count!

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Filed under Inclusion, Information Accessibility, The Arts

Re-thinking disability advisory groups for community engagement

For some years now many disabled people have been involved in advisory groups. These are usually established to enable organisations such as local government, central government, health organisations or other national and local bodies to meet their obligations towards disabled people.

These advisory groups are not limited to the disability community  - but my reflections on their workings are.

As some advisory groups exist now there are problems resulting from a lack of commitment, or a tokenistic approach to “doing the right thing” rather than a real desire to include disabled people’s perspectives for effective results. Those working with them admit they don’t always work and that there is a need for change.

Disabled people are nearly a quarter of the population now at 24%, (Statistics New Zealand,) and the present approach needs some serious re-thinking.

Some problems

Selection of the group is often not by the community, or collaborative, and is controlled by the organisation, so there is inadequate community “buy-in” and support for the group. It is perceived as closed and exclusive and not representative of the whole community. There is a risk that results will be biased by a narrow range of views.

Groups may not be truly interactive with the organisation and endure “death by PowerPoint” with no real opportunity for critique, innovation and meaningful exchange. Members may not have access to all the information they need in ways they can process.

Groups can be low-status, perceived by everyone as powerless, and have little access to the real decision makers.

Members may serve for some time and become co-opted by the organisation, especially if they do not have strong community accountability. This can be the result of poor recruitment processes, and the substitution of an advisory group for strong, mutually respectful community relationships.

Members may have no real community constituency and therefore no real accountability. If they are invisible they will be talked about rather than engaged in constructive conversations within the disability community that will inform and further their work.

The group may not have the expertise or be adequately resourced to do the essential networking or for outreach to maintain a healthy two-way flow of information to inform the process of engagement.

Organisations can subtly control what they hear by setting the purpose and agenda of the group too rigidly. This might be entirely unintentional but results in a lack of creative space for new community concerns, voices and issues to emerge.

In some instances an exclusive relationship with an advisory group may create barriers to wider communication, or be used to discourage different or new voices. The group itself may become a two-way barrier. In the worst cases the existence of a group may be an excuse for a lack of wider engagement, and less rather than more knowledge within the organisation about the disability community.

Of course there are some groups that work well, with few of the above problems, but there is an air of cynical world-weariness among disabled people when this subject comes up in conversation. There is a strong belief that disabled people’s contribution is not valued, and they sometimes even feel “ripped off”

A new approach

It is time for a new, more sophisticated and pluralistic, open and accessible style of disability community consultation and engagement..

Here are a few suggestions.

  • Take a positive stance, forget narrowly focused “accommodating” and ghettoising in favour of valuing disabled people and acknowledging the contribution they make to your organisation and the wider community by making an inclusive approach “business as usual.”
  • Advisory groups should flow from strong and respectful community relationships rather than the other way around. They should not be the sole means of engagement with the disability community.
  • Accessibility is established as “business as usual” in wider community conversations and other activities. Disabled people are interested in other things besides disability.
  • Trust disabled communities and disabled people’s organisations to take the lead. But look beyond the usual suspects and recognised service groupings. Spread the net widely.
  • Organise well-facilitated face-to-face meetings in small groups or within communities
  • Where possible assist with capacity and community building to build strong relationships.
  • Offer training in engagement methods and strategy to the disabled community
  • Engage through focused and moderated social media.
  • Accessible online platforms can encourage straightforward well-structured conversations, but should not be used exclusively.
  • Recognise and celebrate the rich diversity of the disability world, taking account of intersections such as ethnicity and culture, gender, LGBTI, family status, and so on in the rich weave of community fabric.
  • Look for the grassroots leaders who know and are known and respected by everyone, not just a small single-impairment-focused group.
  • Honestly confront, acknowledge, explore and navigate the inevitable power imbalances inherent in relationships with communities, especially those who are marginalised.
  • Last, but certainly not least, employ qualified disabled people in meaningful, valued roles where they can help with disability community engagement.

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Filed under Accessible Engagement, Disability Issues, Disability Rights, Inclusion, Information Accessibility, Web Accessibility

Political party web sites fall short

Disabled people often rely on the Internet for information because many other information sources are inaccessible.  They experience accessibility barriers when finding and using information on the web if sites have not been designed and built with accessibility in mind.

Why we audited  political party web sites

“Can we all come to the party” is a report we produced at AccEase to see how easily people with disability can engage with party political websites before the New Zealand election on September 20th. The report says “Voting and participation in the electoral process is a fundamental human right.”

Civil and political rights enshrined in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Bill of Rights and the CRPD all require that rights such as access to the political process and public life need to be implemented immediately. While political parties are private bodies for the purposes of the New Zealand Human Rights Act, they have a moral obligation to provide accessible information for people who may not have access to other sources of information.

Disabled people are 24% of the New Zealand population, and people of voting age will be the majority of that group as children have lower rates of disability than older people, and rates of disability increase with age. Political parties should see that it is in their interest to make sure their information is accessible so people can have the information they need to choose freely.

Some findings

Some of the faults the report identified included:  the lack of an “Accessibility” page to describe features to help a disabled person use the site, a lack of clear alt text explaining images to help blind and screen-reader users access the site, and poor colour contrast on navigation.

Only one site included Sign Language video. Only a few sites included video of any kind. Of these some included captions but none had transcripts.

Keyboard-only users were poorly served. One site provided no access at all; others had various problems.

Over half the sites did not provide an alternative navigation mechanism such as a site map.


Since completing the report we have reflected on the experience of auditing the web sites of the political parties. Overall they are no worse than web sites generally. But the benchmark is not high. This is quite frustrating for people who really need accessible web sites as we have had standards now for some years, and the web is full of freely available quality information about accessibility. The current state of the art in New Zealand is not good enough.

The eighty-twenty rule still applies. Accessibility is eighty percent attitude and twenty percent expertise.

While we know that creating an accessible web site is less effort than national door knocking, even allowing for the possible advantages of face-to-face exchange; but it seems a hard message for people to absorb.

Without video, for example, it is just as easy to post an accessible version of a document first. Now with auto captions, which do need checking, video can be easily loaded. Contrast, heading structures and so on are not rocket science. Most accessibility features are relatively straightforward to implement, even for smaller parties with fewer resources.

We hope we have set a useful example of publishing accessibly online.

There is also a summary table of our findings

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Filed under Accessible Engagement, Disability Issues, Disability Rights, Inclusion, Information Accessibility, Web Accessibility

A voice for everyone

This is an edited version of a keynote speech delivered at the disability conference, How do we all raise the volume of the unheard voice?,  Auckland July 2 2014.

Robyn stands at the podium delivering her speech. Tena koutou tena koutou katoa  Minister Turia, Health and Disability Commissioners. Ladies and gentlemen. Greetings to you all.

Thank you to the HDC and others who have organised this day. Thank you for asking me to speak.

This is one of the few opportunities people in the diverse disability community have to meet and exchange ideas. It is valuable and important. Let’s make the most of it.

Raising the volume of the unheard voice is an important subject. We have one day to work to achieve progress on this together. Let’s make it count.

There is a Chinese proverb, some say a curse, that goes “May you live in interesting times.” There is certainly a lot happening in the world of disability right now. And then there is the election.

Wicked problems

The disability world is complex, and fraught with nuance. Many of the disability-related issues we grapple with could be called wicked problems.

“Wicked problem” describes a problem that is very complex, difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.

The term “wicked” means resistance to resolution, rather than evil.

Because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may be inter-connected with other problems. It might be a problem where stakeholders can barely agree on the definition of the problem, never mind the solution.

Past solutions won’t work. We’ll need to respond with innovation, creativity and by involving everyone we can think of and more besides. We won’t find a quick fix or silver-bullet solution for a wicked problem.

Raising the volume of the unheard voice may well be a wicked problem.

Before we look at the ways we can respond, let’s explore what we mean by talking about raising the volume of the unheard voice.

Defining “voice”

A comment on the meaning of “voice”: Not everyone communicates with a voice in the usual sense. People use NZ Sign Language, communicate with a synthetic voice, or by facilitated communication for example. By using the term “voice” I mean everyone’s way of communicating.

We’ll hear lots of different voices here today, reflecting our rich diversity. Who’s here? Who’s not here? Who should be here? Who do we bring with us? We all bring different perspectives to the day. I hope I can offer food for thought.

Who do we mean when we talk about the unheard voice? At one level it is obvious. We are literally talking about the people with no voice, people who are non-verbal, with the highest support needs, and who, like the recipients of the recently-publicised Ashley Treatment, have no voice of their own.

Of course we are.

But at another level raising the volume of unheard voices is less obvious and more complex. There are very few people, if any, who cannot indicate their feelings or preferences in some way if those around them are tuned in.

While exercising legal capacity can be more problematic it is not the whole issue either.


Writer Arundhati Roy said “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Silencing is an apt concept in our community.

For those who are deliberately silenced we only have to look at the Deaf community, deliberately silenced for generations by having their language and culture suppressed. That language and culture have flourished as Deaf assert their “voice” But many Deaf people now worry that the prevalence of cochlear implants may be a different means of silencing their “voice” And we know that there is a shortage of interpreters, and not enough captioning.

People with mental illness or learning disabilities are often silenced when seeking justice. They are, after all, “mad or incapable. We can’t believe them” is a common response.

Others are in no particular order:

  • Adults with dyslexia
  • People with speech impairments
  • people who are deaf/blind
  • Some Maori and Pacific disabled people
  • Disabled women generally
  • Disabled people who have English as a second language, who are from a different culture, or who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-sexual  or intersex
  • People with impairments such as those with a mental illness and another, non-related impairment, where one or other is ignored
  • The over 50% of disabled people with multi impairment
  • Older disabled people
  • Deaf and Disabled people and their families in rural and remote New Zealand

And there will be others who are still generally unheard in our siloed world.

A word of caution. Let’s not get into the very unhelpful “my disability is more important than yours…” discussion.

People are finding their voices. People First are finding their own voice. People with autism are finding theirs too, following much international aggravation about who speaks for them, which brings me to the question of, “Who speaks for whom?  Some disabled people feel their voices are still appropriated by others. Something we all need to be clear about in our own activities.

Pretty much all disabled people and their families can be “silenced” in different ways, and at different times in our life journeys, times perhaps when we are feeling at our most vulnerable.

How we are silenced

In The Hidden Abuse of Disabled People Dr Mike Roguski explores the ways disabled people are silenced, particularly in relation to abuse, but this kind of silencing happens in other situations too.

He points to a variety of silencing processes:

Disabled people, and/or those associated with them are pressured to not report incidents of abuse. Or their complaints are ignored by someone else.

The pressure to not report abuse is subtle, reinforced through conditioning where people have learned to be silent. It can include

  • negative experiences resulting from past complaints
  • fear of retribution
  • a concern that removal of a care worker or a family/whanau member would mean loneliness and a lack of care
  • instances when the disabled individual believed they were somehow deserving of abuse, or unworthy of good care
  • Normalisation of poor treatment
  • Difficulties some disabled people experience communicating, for non-verbal people and those with limited understanding and inability to complain.
  • Undermining. Complaint negated because a disabled person couldn’t be believed.

Negation generally involved:

    • Disparagement of the individual complainant – they are a trouble-maker
    • questioning the degree of truth underpinning a complaint because the person was diagnosed, at some point, with a mental illness
    • collusion – an agreement to deny an abusive incident. Collusion is about protecting others from statutory “interference” or protecting a person or an organisation’s reputation. It’s not limited to organisations. A family/whanau could collude with the disabled person to protect someone.

Some of the silencing and other ways people are deprived of a voice relate to power imbalances, gate-keeping, and sometimes ownership.

Nor is it always about non-disabled v disabled people. Sometimes it is about privilege and inequality. Privilege and inequality exist within the disabled community and within the same disability groups. It needs to be honestly and openly confronted and addressed.

Access to communication and decision-making

A Deaf leader said “Access to communication is access to life” Communication isn’t restricted to being able to speak, or write, or use Sign Language. Most importantly, communication is compatible with significant cognitive impairment or what people might call “severe learning disabilities”.

Considering our many and varied communication needs and how they are met is critical. Do non-verbal people have adequate access to the technology to support them? They may need a combination of technology and skilled human interaction to enable them to have an authentic and independent voice of their own. This voice will give them the freedom to venture out beyond a very small circle of people who, through constant contact have learned to understand them.

“Supported decision-making” is a concept whose time has come. It means that everyone who needs support to exercise their legal capacity has a right to be provided with the support that makes it possible for them to express themselves and communicate their wishes.

Internationally it is gaining ground as the CRPD is spreading, and the right to exercise legal capacity is being explored in a human rights context.

International disabled people’s organisations of people with experience of mental illness are strongly promoting it.

In New Zealand IHC has contributed some of their service users’ recorded experiences to the Inclusion International discussion on supported decision-making,

Strong community, government and disability support services buy-in for furthering this work in New Zealand is essential.

Independent living and advocacy

In some countries the independent living movement has been a powerful means for disabled people to raise their voices, and for advocacy. There is a need for more independent advocacy, for those prepared to “speak truth to power” and to challenge the sometimes oppressive structures and systems that can deprive people of a voice. Australia has some well-established independent advocacy services which can act with some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised disabled people.

Being an ally

Allies are important. Disabled people need allies, both as other disabled people and as non-disabled people, and among bureaucrats and policy people. There are a number of ways you can be a good ally.

  • As an ally consider your position, privilege and the benefits for example of you are, white, relatively well off, male and so on. These may intersect or not with disability. I am a middle class white woman with enough to live on and I identify as disabled. What does this mean in my relationships and for me as an ally to other disabled people?
  • Make a list – When have you been the recipient of discriminatory behavior. How did it affect you? How do you feel about people who are different from you?
  • Do your homework about others. Don’t expect them to “tell all”, to spill their guts. Listen, read, watch video. Take responsibility for being informed as much as you can.
  • Be clear about what you are doing as an ally and why. Think it through.
  • Think about the difference between charity and “standing with” people.
  • If you are a service provider or a DPO think about the culture of your organization. What can you do, where you are, to make a difference as an ally?
  • Don’t be afraid to make a mistake or be uncomfortable. That’s OK. It’s part of the learning process. People can tell if you are genuine.
  • It’s also OK to make amends and to apologise. But don’t always expect a pat on the back for it.
  • Do your own work within your own community with others on the same journey so you don’t feel like you are doing it on your own.

There is a danger that change will simply be incorporated into the existing structure and processes. There will be little impact, if cultural, in the widest sense, and values issues are not explicitly addressed.

What we can do

Today we have some time to reflect and find some practical actions and outcomes, rather than indulge in a talk fest. We have to ask ourselves. What will we do differently after today? We want outcomes that are practical and doable.

The Government action plan includes some real opportunities for enabling individual voices and the collective disability voice. Someone once gave me some good advice. She said “Go with the overt message.” She meant that if someone has written down somewhere their intent to do something, take it at face value and pursue it for all you are worth. Go for it while you can.

We can also

  • improve our disability analysis and discourse, raise the level and quality of discussion in various fora
  • remember and honour our history so we don’t repeat it,
  • question hierarchy,
  • demolish siloes,
  • harness the creativity of all disabled people,
  • Learn from the strategies of others – What do Maori and Pacific and other cultures have to offer us all?
  • build relationships of trust,
  • Make smart use of enabling technology.
  • Find new and different ways of enabling people to tell their stories
  • Support the move to get a crown apology for injustices and abuse experienced by disabled and other people in state and state-funded care, for their voices to be heard
  • Support the 20percent campaign encouraging disabled people to vote and assert that growing voice in the political arena
  • And very importantly, be open to all the “voices,” no matter how faint, hard to understand or confronting

As disabled people, if we stick within our own group we all share the same limitations. Together we can do everything and with being nearly a quarter of the population, 24%, we are a force to be reckoned with if we can only get ourselves together. In partnership with others there should be no stopping us.

Creating disruptive change

In order to bring about real change the entire system has to be disrupted so that the focus is on creating more opportunities for people to communicate their preferences and experiences with dignity in their own way.

I hope today can begin to identify some disruptive change, change that will disrupt entrenched patterns of behavior, for all of us.

I wish everyone a satisfying, challenging and productive day. And in the voice of disabled people everywhere, “Nothing about us without us!”

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Filed under Disability Issues, Disability Rights, Inclusion, Information Accessibility