The impact of disabling content explored
In this episode, we’re joined by Jamie Shields, Principal Disability Accessibility & ERG Lead at AMS. Jamie also works self employed as a speaker, trainer and accessibility consultant. Jamie is registered blind, and is also Autistic and ADHD. Jamie will be sharing what we mean by ‘disabling content’, and the impact on users and businesses when digital accessibility isn’t considered.
In the second episode of our accessibility series, we're focusing on the impact of disabling content. Here's why...
1 in 6 people live with some form of disability. Yet, only 4% of businesses are focused on making offerings inclusive of disability. This means that people with disabilities are often met with online experiences where they feel disregarded as customers, potential employees, and members of the community.
By taking action to make our digital content accessible, we can change that.
In fact, when our content is inclusive, everyone can benefit. This includes individuals with cognitive differences which are often not visible, such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD, and more.
We hope you enjoyed this episode of Texthelp Talks.
As we mentioned, if you'd like to gain more advice on accessibility, head to our resource area. To find out more about Jamie, check out his LinkedIn. There, you'll find details on his accessibility training, Disabled by Your Content.
Or, check out our guide that explores the competitive edge that neurodiverse employees can bring to your workplace.
In the guide, you'll learn about the different types of neurodiversity, the benefits that neurodiverse employees can bring to a team, and how to create an inclusive environment where neurodiverse talent can thrive.
Create a more inclusive workplace and read the free guide here.
Rachel Kruzel (00:15):
Welcome to the Texthelp Talks podcast, your space online to listen, learn, and explore disability inclusion. This season we're focusing on accessibility, and today marks the second episode of this series. Make sure you're subscribed through your preferred podcast player or streaming service to catch the rest of the season. Today you're hearing from me, Rachel Kruzel, higher education specialist at Texthelp, and Jamie Shields, principal disability, accessibility, and ERG lead at AMS. Jamie also works self-employed as a speaker, trainer, and accessibility consultant. Jamie is registered blind and is autistic and ADHD. As a professional working in the space of disability accessibility, Jamie will share his personal and professional insights into what disabling content really means and the impact on users and businesses. First, welcome Jamie. It's great to have you with us today.
Jamie Shields (01:15):
Thank you so much, and apologies to anyone listening to my Northern Irish accent. The ADHD means the more excited I talk, the faster I get, and I'm really excited to be here, so please keep me in line.
Rachel Kruzel (01:27):
I'll see if I can do that today. Jamie, we've been lucky to have worked with you before for our Festival of Workplace Inclusion last year, and it's great to have you back with us today.
Jamie Shields (01:38):
Rachel Kruzel (01:39):
As an advocate for disability and inclusion, you're doing a lot of work inside and outside of AMS to raise awareness and really make a change in the digital space and beyond. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your motivation for advocating for accessibility?
Jamie Shields (01:58):
Yeah, so I think you've bigged me up really well. I'm, obviously from Northern Ireland, I have been disabled since birth. I say disabled because I opt for the social model language, which is, society disables me. It's these barriers and the ableism across society that disables me and excludes me, so that was something I always struggled with, was my identity. Even getting to the state to say I was disabled, five years ago, I wouldn't have said that, because I grew up in Northern Ireland where difference is not always accepted or appreciated, and DEI, so anything around inclusion, tends to be not as formalized or in place as it is in the mainland UK. For me, I kind of grew up in Northern Ireland and didn't really have exposure to any of this realm. I just knew that I was struggling and I didn't know how to articulate that. I didn't know how to express that, and I also didn't know I was neurodivergent, so I thought I was just disabled, and my mind was ... My mental health impacted me, and anxiety. When I actually found out I was neurodivergent, it was like, "Oh wow, this makes sense now."
Because of those experiences, I was segregated in education, because that's what we did with disabled people back in the nineties. We segregated them, and I grew up feeling excluded. I then got bullied when I went to secondary school. Then I entered the world of work. When I say entered the world of work, I'm going to say I bounced around like a pinball machine, because I couldn't find an employer who would accept me because of my disability. I spent most of my life excluded, struggling with mental health, not knowing I was neurodivergent, and then I think I exploded when I started working for AMS, because it was the first time in my life somebody said, "What can we do to support you?" It was in recruitment, the one industry that I always kind of judged, was like, "I wish they would just give me a chance." I kind of, the past three and a half years, I tell AMS it's like The Little Mermaid. I'm The Little Mermaid and they've given me my voice, and they haven't been able to shut me up since.
That has just led to me becoming a content creator, me running my own side hustle. We say side hustle, because when you say business to your employer, it's a lot more scary, I think, and I like the word side hustle. It doesn't make it sound as much as I have a lot more work to do, despite that actually not being true. There's loads of work to do. Yeah, I think my work has been born out of a lifetime of being disabled by society, and frustration, and trying to find an outlet for that frustration.
Rachel Kruzel (04:31):
You just mentioned it, and a phrase you mention in your work constantly is that you've been disabled by society your whole life. Can you really share what this means?
Jamie Shields (04:40):
Yes. The social model of disability is a way to kind of identify with disability. There's many other forms, models of disability, and I'm not saying the social model is the best, but for me, I very much do believe that society is not equipped to support or to encourage or to create a sense of belonging for disabled or neurodivergent individuals. We see disability and neurodiversity as this thing to segregate, and I mentioned earlier, I got segregated in education, but that still continues to happen a lot. We can continue to segregate or create different activities and create different experiences for disabled young people, and so those disabled young people who've been segregated or excluded grow into adults who feel the same. For me, that is ableism. That is not an intentional ableism, so people aren't intentionally trying to treat us differently, but it's ingrained in our society because it's what we see. It's what non-young disabled people see in school. They learn exclusion is okay.
We don't teach about ableism, we don't teach this concept of, ableism is what really does disable us, with attitudes. People judge us. They think, "Oh, look at that poor disabled person, God love them," or, "Oh, he tied his shoelaces and he's so brave," or, "He's got a job," and it's these really fluctuating behaviors that are ableist and we don't address it, we just kind of skip over it. For me, that is being disabled by people's attitudes, but then, society has been built on the blocks of inaccessibility, which in itself is ableist, because we're not thinking about disabled people when we're creating spaces, when we're creating job posts, when we're creating cultures. We don't think about this and accessibility's left in the background. For me, it's these blocks, these inaccessible blocks society has been created on, is glued together by that ableism.
When I say I've been disabled by society, it is this structure that we have created across society that has impacted my being able to find employment, my feeling of self-worth, my confidence, and it's not just non-disabled people doing this. I want to be really clear, because disabled and neurodivergent people are both equally as guilty of being involved with this, because we have internalized ableism. People who say, "Oh, you shouldn't say you're disabled, you should say personal with a disability," or, "You shouldn't say either, you have an ability or you have a superpower." It's like, we don't create a space for people to be able to have that lived experience. That's why I tell everybody I'm a registered blind or ADHD rhino, because rhinos have poor eyesight and they're change-makers. They can change ecosystems, and I believe disabled people can change society. That's a long-winded answer to say it's a mix of everything, but for me, everybody's responsible. I always say it all starts with one thing, and that is taking accountability. Taking accountability for accessibility, taking accountability for your own learning, and taking accountability to ensure that we are creating equal and equitable experiences, opportunities, spaces, websites. You name it, we need it.
Rachel Kruzel (07:47):
I love that. Taking accountability. When people think about accessibility, what comes to mind is usually the accessibility of physical spaces, but the digital world can be hugely inaccessible for people with disabilities and cognitive differences. Inspired by your recent training series, Disabled by Your Content, we are here today to talk about disabling content and what that really means. Can you explain what you mean when you say that content is disabling?
Jamie Shields (08:18):
Yeah, so I grew up in the age of Bebo, so anyone listening, that gives away my age, but I grew up on Bebo where it was a social media platform where people gave each other love hearts each day. They left comments, they shared posts, and they could change themes and things like that, so everyone's profile looked very individual. The very few friends that I had were all on it, and everybody was ranting and raving about it. I can remember for the first time trying it, and I couldn't really use it. My screen reader didn't work on it. These themes that were being created, I couldn't read the text in it. I didn't even know what color contrast was back then, because again, I wasn't educated in what it meant to be disabled, despite going to a specialist school. I did go to that kind specialist school. I went to an accessible school. It was inclusive, accessible education, but they didn't teach me either. They didn't teach me about online accessibility, and so for most of my life I was getting really frustrated online, and particularly when I looked at friends and colleagues who were starting to utilize things like Facebook then.
As things kind of came out, there was so much more inaccessibility creeping up, and I already knew I struggled with online. People's websites were just ... You just couldn't. You go for a screen reader or trying to tab through a page, or try to work out with that text said, in that image, it was like a game of Where's Wally. It was frustration, but I would get so frustrated, to the point where ... I don't regulate my emotions because of my ADHD, and my autism kind of is always constantly in conflict, and so I was getting completely overwhelmed to the point where I was like, "Why am I bothering?" As society continued to move more and more online, and it's been doing it over the last decade, we've seen it, and you start to feel like you're losing your, not mobility, but almost in a sense your online mobility, your confidence online. My banking was moving online and I couldn't use it. Then all of a sudden, I couldn't read my letters or emails that I was getting because of the fonts. I was like, "Enough is enough. Why am I so impacted by this?" I began to speak to other people with lived experiences. I started doing courses around accessibility, and then I realized that there's actually quite a lot that we can do, which is free to find out about, an easy quick win. It doesn't take long to make content accessible.
For me, it was like Pandora's Box opened. I finally had an answer for why this color contrast didn't work or why I wasn't able to use my screen reader, and as the answers kind of came through, it then added more frustration because I was like, "Hold on a second, why is nobody else talking about this?" When I kind of came into recruitment, I came into the DEI space and there was a lot of people talking about inclusion, but they were all doing these same mistakes that everybody else was doing. They were all posting this inaccessible content, and it was excluding me and it hurt, because I was like, "You're meant to be the leaders in this space." What happened for me was I just exploded. As I said, like Ariel, AMS gave me my voice, and I just couldn't stop. I started ranting to AMS about it, I started ranting about it online, and it turns out my rants were actually listened to by other people who felt the same. Organizations started listening, and even colleagues were coming up to me, being like, "I agree with what you posted on LinkedIn."
Suddenly I realized that I'm being disabled online, because I'm being excluded. When you disable me, you exclude me, you make me feel like less than, and you don't treat me like a customer or a client or a potential friend or follower, you have put a barrier up and said, "I don't want to." If we thought about that in an in-person situation, if you were in a group of people, would you turn around to one person or two people and say, "Leave the group," and then tell the group something? You wouldn't do it. It'd be really rude, so that's what content is doing online, when I say it disables us. It excludes us and it is something we don't have knowledge about, so that's what opened Pandora's Box for me, was just, I started posting a lot of angry rants online.
Rachel Kruzel (12:21):
Typically web accessibility guidelines look at factors that were more structural in nature. For example, making sure that websites could be navigated by keyboards, including text descriptions on images, but today there's also a focus on cognitive accessibility factors, which includes readability. That is, how easy content is to be understood. Can you share what difference it makes when businesses take both aspects into consideration?
Jamie Shields (12:48):
Yeah, so the guidelines of accessibility, I'll be honest, if anybody does go read them, they can be confusing. I'm a disabled person and I get confused by them, so it can be really confusing. Firstly, if anyone who does go look at them, do not feel bad if you do not understand them. Go look for people who are breaking it down and making it simpler. That's what I did. For me, there's always this thing about accessibility where people see it as a trend or they see it as an expense, or they see it as a nice to have. Really, it's none of those things, because it's not an expense, it's an investment in your people. For me, I always go back to the idea of universal design, and universal design is about making things as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.
Now, that's not saying accessibility is a one size fits all and it'll fix everything, because it won't. We are all such diverse individuals with different needs, with different support, with different preferred ways of navigating online, and some of us using different sorts of technology. For me, it's that concept of universal design. Businesses need to really think about that, and that's bringing all these pieces together and trying to make sure that we're communicating things in as many ways as possible. Making sure that our images, that we are thinking of different ways to communicate our videos, we're thinking about different ways to communicate even our job postings. Typically they're just text on a website. Why aren't we using voice descriptions? Why aren't we creating videos? For me, it's about looking at as many ways as possible to communicate with people and for people to be able to engage and respond to you.
I listened to a TED talk, and this is something I also explain to businesses. I listened to a TED talk from Meryl Evans, who is a deaf accessibility advocate. She said, "We have three ways of communicating at any given time, sign, so if you're signing, speaking, and we all carry around a mobile phone, so that we always have three ways of communicating." She said, "Think about accessibility like that. You're trying to communicate as many ways as possible, and what you're going to do is you're going to get an increased audience. You're going to be building not just an inclusive culture, but a culture that actually fosters belonging." We talk about inclusion a lot in business. Corporate companies, or sorry, corporate world, go online around particular days of the year, Disability Pride Month, International Day of Persons with Disability or even Pride Month in June, they mark certain days, and they always forget about this accessibility element.
It's like, it becomes then tokenistic, because like most things in this space, you can't just focus on ... "We're going to focus on Pride Month, we're going to focus on LGBTQ+, we're going to focus on gender, we're going to focus on ethnicity." You can't focus on one of these particularly because we are all intersectional beings. We all have different oppressions and we all have different privileges, and it's about how things intersect, so you can't just focus on one, so it's an investment in making sure that you're creating an actual inclusive space, not just giving lip service, not just talking a talk. You're actually starting to walk the walk, and that's what fosters belonging, is being able to bring your full self to work. Companies need to really pay attention to accessibility, and it's not saying you need to get it right straight away, because there's no quick wins in accessibility. You don't tick a box and be done, you continue with it. Hopefully that answer didn't take it down a rabbit-hole.
Rachel Kruzel (16:17):
No, that was fantastic, and it actually leads into our next question really beautifully. When businesses don't address accessibility, it leaves a huge impact on their online visitors. Access to services and products become limited, as well as access to information and even employment opportunities. Are there any experiences you'd like to share?
Jamie Shields (16:39):
Yeah, I've been disabled by people's recruitment processes more times in my life than I've probably had hot dinners. That's what I actually say about jobs, is I've had more jobs than hot dinners. Typically, if a recruiter looked at my CV, they'd say, "Oh no, we won't hire him. He's never held employment for more than a year." For me, it wasn't because of my disability that I didn't get these jobs, because in fact, I actually think my lived experience means that I am a problem solver. I'm constantly having to navigate inaccessibility every single day. I have perseverance, I have drive, because I'm constantly having to overcome these barriers, but in the past, I have applied for jobs online or went to apply for jobs online, clicked on the link. The text is either so tiny and I can't make any amendments, or it's in a completely inaccessible font, or they've decided, "Oh, I know what we're going to do, we're going to add some pretty branding into the back and we're going to stick really terrible contrast to text on top," or they send you PDF applications which aren't accessible unless you remedy that document.
As well as that, it's even sometimes when I've been in person, trying to get in and get an in-person application, and I know we don't do that as much anymore, but back then, I'm coming 33. I remember having to do paper applications and getting them, and even getting them, they weren't in larger font. When I asked for larger font, it was like, "What do you mean?" I've had numerous experiences of being excluded whilst trying to apply for jobs, but the biggest one for me around accessibility would be, I applied for this job which was with ... I'm not going to say the name of the company, but it was a really well known recruitment brand, and this is before I actually started working in AMS. I was trying to get into recruitment. Even though I tell everybody I fell into it, I secretly wanted to come in and shout at everybody, how to be accessible. I applied for this business and they had decided, "Oh, we're going to give you some testing." Now, those kind of subject, I can't remember the proper term, SJT testing, it's like subject judgment ... Situational judgment testing, and you get multiple options, and it's all timed and things like that.
That was all online, which, I was like, "Right, I'll be fine. I have my screen reader, I can zoom in if I need to, or I can get somebody to sit down beside me and read me the questions. Not a problem." When I got the assessment, I had asked ... I obviously had asked and made it aware I was disabled, but they didn't give me any kind of time adjustment. They said usually they give extra time anyway, so not to worry about it, but it was completely contradicting information, because the assessment was so heavily timed. It was like 10 seconds to answer a question. When you don't read at the same pace as everybody else and you're relying on assistive technology to navigate that webpage, you're also not as fast as somebody who has that visual element and that visual privilege. I struggled. I failed the assessment. I think out of the 100%, I got 10%, and for somebody who didn't know they were neurodivergent, failing something like that can make you feel so insignificant. It didn't just impact my eyesight, it impacted my thinking, my self-worth, my confidence, because suddenly it was like, "This is your fault. You're stupid because you couldn't see this, or you're stupid because you couldn't do that."
That was internalized ableism. I believed it was my fault, and that's what a lot of people will be experiencing when they experience inaccessibility. They will think, "This is my fault because I'm disabled," when actually the fault lies with society, not in one particular individual. It lies in society for lack of education, for that lack of awareness, and for these completely inaccessible websites that continue to be created, these inaccessible recruitment processes that continue to be created. It's because the people don't have the knowledge. It's not, they're intending to. I don't believe it's intentful. If it is, it's terrible.
Rachel Kruzel (20:29):
I'm just thinking about what you've said, and this can place a huge impact on businesses as well. For example, inaccessible digital content can mean excluding a huge customer base, considering that one in six people have a disability, one in five are neurodivergent. This is a combined 37% of the global population. Many employers also advertise job opportunities online. We talked a little bit about this, so they're excluding potential employees who can bring a wealth of talent, diversity of thought to their company. This could also be skills associated with neurodivergent talent, which is out of the box thinking, creative solutions, just to name a couple, all the way to characteristics often associated with those with disabilities. Resiliency, empathy, tenacity. Part of the work you do outside of AMS is about helping businesses to take accountability for accessibility. If you could share one piece of advice to businesses around accessibility, what would that be?
Jamie Shields (21:29):
I'm going to repeat something I said, because it's honestly the best advice I think I would get, is, there's no end with accessibility. There's only ever a starting point, and it's okay to start at the very start or start halfway through. We're all at different places with it. I have heard the term, "Oh, I want a quick win." We hear this in corporate all the time, "Give me a quick win." I'm so against that quick win, because for me, accessibility is ... It's not an overnight fix, it's continuous improvement, because technology evolves, language evolves, people evolve. We have seen the biggest ... I'm trying to think of the right word here, the fastest accelerating, the fastest acceleration of technology at the moment around AI, and I look at that and I think, "Oh my goodness, where are we going to be with accessibility in a few years?" Because we have technology now that can write a fully accessible website.
Now it's not 100% yet, sorry, so it's not fully accessible. It's nearly fully accessible. There's a few things with it, but where are we going to be in a year's time from now, 10 years' time from now? For me, it's about, accessibility can't be a quick win. It is about creating a roadmap, looking at what you can do in the now, what you're going to do in three months from now, what you're going to do in six months. When are you going to review it, in a year's time? Then, what you're going to do. It's continuously looking at it, continuously reviewing, continuously listening to feedback, and it's also acknowledging that you're not going to know it all. I don't know it all. I'm registered blind. I am autistic and I'm ADHD. I've also got back scoliosis. Apparently I collect disabilities like Pokemon cards, but for me it is ... We are only experts in our own lived experiences, so listen to your colleagues, create employee resource groups. Have people with the lived experience tell you what works and what doesn't, because it's not a quick fix, it's not a quick win, and it's okay not to know where you are, but having that roadmap gives you an outline of where you need to go.
Rachel Kruzel (23:24):
This is brilliant, Jamie. Thank you so much for your insights today. It's been so great chatting with you, and to those listening, thanks for joining us. If you'd like to gain more advice on accessibility, head to our resource area at text.help/accessible-content. You'll find lots of guides and webinars to support you. You'll find our contact details on our website too, so feel free to reach out to us with any questions, and to find out more about Jamie, check out his LinkedIn, @ShieldsJamie. There you'll find details on his accessibility training, Disabled by Your Content. Before we go, be sure to subscribe to Texthelp Talks on your preferred podcast player or streaming service to catch the next episode. Thanks again. Bye.
Jamie Shields (24:09):