Accessibility and the Gap Within Our Community

Accessibility and the Gap Within our Community | A Man cups his ear with illustrated soundwaves emitting.

What role does accessibility play in your day-to-day life? I recently attended a national online forum discussing quality and safety surrounding the implementation of the NDIS for people living with a psychosocial disability. And despite being presented with a variety of informed presenters whose knowledge and expertise offered valuable contributions to the forum, for me, there was a huge elephant in the room that was so obviously distracting that I felt the need to write about it.

When I first signed up to attend this forum, the classic question “do you have any accessibility requirements?” was asked. I selected no and in all honesty, didn’t give it any other thought. That was, however, until I found myself at work on the day of the forum. As I sat in front of my computer without any headphones, surrounded by my fellow colleagues who were busy working with clients via Zoom, telephone or generally trying to concentrate on their own work, I found myself in a pickle. Should I tell everybody to keep it down (not quite possible in an office environment), skip the forum altogether, or do I adapt and try to follow along with the help of closed captions?

Not wanting to have to shuffle my schedule around to watch the forum at a later date, I opted to enable closed captions. After turning them on, I found myself half tuning in while also trying to take notes. To say I failed to achieve either task would be a huge understatement.

I pride myself on my touch typing abilities, however, my skill set was no match for taking notes from the captions and slide content at the same time. I suddenly found myself in a moment of enlightenment and realised just how heavily I rely on sound within my everyday life. The simple task of attending an online forum suddenly was not so straightforward, and, as this dawned on me, there was a sudden period where the closed captions just simply did not appear on the screen despite the speaker clearly still talking.

Looking back at my notes I tried to fill in the gaps and decipher what the speaker could be talking about, which is then when I also noted how drastically different my notes were from normal! In this moment of confusion and frustration, a burst of closed captions suddenly re-appeared across my screen in rapid succession. So rapid in fact, that I missed them altogether. I completely lost the concept of what was being discussed and suddenly, we were onto the next topic.

Unfortunately, this continued to happen throughout the forum at the times in which I could attend. The limitations of computer-generated captions had become obvious, and I soon found myself logging off to go and complete my other work. My notes were half complete, with important information completely missing or incomprehensible. By the end, I was left feeling anxious that I couldn’t complete my notes to the usual high standard that I aim for (the perks of being a perfectionist). Ultimately, this resulted in my decision to avoid the remainder of the forum and to make time to revisit the recordings at a later date.

And yet, I still felt plagued by feelings of failure and frustration over the whole process. On top of this, there was neither an Auslan interpreter present nor the option for the closed captions in a language other than English. And it got me thinking – was it because I had selected no accessibility requirements when registering? Surely not.

I got to thinking. What if my circumstances had changed? What if a colleague who required accessibility considerations needed to attend in my place? Should a certain standard of accessibility considerations not be met?

They say that in order to fully understand the experiences and challenges of another person, you need to walk a mile in their shoes. Although the shoes I walked in that day were certainly not the same as the shoes of someone who requires accessibility considerations in their day-to-day lives, I still found myself perplexed that I was not able to partake due to certain limitations.

My mind flashed to a vision of my father-in-law’s face when he is unable to participate in a conversation because his hearing aids cannot filter out the surrounding sound. He adopts a physical presence that tries to convey that it’s no big deal – but his eyes give it away. The eyes are the window to the soul, and it honestly hurts my heart to see his sadness at missing out on simple things like a joke or story shared amongst family and friends.

Naturally, I am now both frustrated and sad at the fact that accessibility considerations within the disability sector are not up to the standard they should be. If we can’t even get it right within our own sector, how can we lead others to take action within other sectors and further, in their own lives?

Food for thought.