According to the World Bank, one billion people have some form of a disability. That’s equal to 15% of the world’s population. Despite laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and requires most public places to be accessible, many people with disabilities still encounter barriers that keep them from fully participating in everyday activities.
Sometimes it’s a physical barrier, like a broken elevator at a subway station, and other times it’s a less visible—but no less hurtful—barrier, like having to leave an event held in a dimly lit space because you can’t see well in low light.
You don’t have to be a recognized disability rights activist to help remove barriers around you. Here are four ways to embrace accessibility in your work, regardless of your role.
1. Always use a microphone
How many events have you been to where a speaker stands at the front of the room and asks, without a microphone, “Can you all hear me?” Most of the time, no one objects, so the speaker goes on to give their remarks without a mic.
But asking isn’t enough. You never know who in the room has a hearing impairment, and some people may feel uncomfortable volunteering that information in front of a crowd.
Always using a microphone when you’re speaking at or running an event—no matter the size of the room—is a small but important way to make your event more accessible. It also removes the burden of making a special request from anyone with a hearing issue.
Talking into a microphone may feel slightly awkward for the speaker, but that’s nothing compared to what it feels like to be unable to fully participate in an event because you can’t hear what’s going on.
2. Don’t ask people to stand if they don’t need to
Here’s another common one you hear at presentations: “Stand up if you’ve ever done X,” or “Stand up if you believe in Y.” It’s a well-intentioned way to get the audience to participate, but it excludes people with mobility issues, including people who use a wheelchair or those who have another, less visible disability like chronic pain.
To encourage audience participation in a more accessible way, you could ask people to raise their hand if something applies to them, or simply pose the question without asking for a corresponding movement. Asking the question is enough to get your audience thinking about and relating to the content, and that’s fully accessible.
3. Host events at accessible venues
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) sets forth various requirements for spaces such as restaurants, conference centers, and hotels. If you’re looking for a venue for your event or meeting, it’s not your responsibility to confirm that a building is following the ADA, but you can still establish your own standards for assessing a venue’s accessibility.
Cornell University has a great guide for their students, faculty, and staff that includes five things to look for in a venue:
- Visibility: For example, is the space well-lit, with clear signs featuring Braille and large print?
- Acoustics: Checking to see if a microphone is available falls under this category. You can also assess if there’s loud background noise that could inhibit the participation of someone with a hearing disability and reserve space near the front of the room for anyone who needs to read lips to follow along.
- Mobility: In addition to checking for ramps and elevators, check the accessibility of the bathrooms and the distance between the front door and accessible parking (or, if you’re in a city, the distance between the venue and accessible public transportation).
- Technology: Depending on your event, you can use technology to increase accessibility. For example, having the event at a place where you can use live-streaming technology can make your event more accessible to people who have trouble leaving their homes.
- Service animals: Ask what the venue typically does for patrons with service dogs or other animals.
4. Offer virtual volunteering
There are many virtues of virtual volunteering, which enables people to volunteer from the comfort of their own home, couch, or anywhere else. One benefit is that it makes your organization’s volunteer opportunities more accessible to people with a physical disability or emotional disability (such as one that affects a person’s behavior in social situations).
If you want to create a virtual volunteering program at your organization, start by brainstorming the tasks or projects that don’t require a volunteer to be in-person at your office or program site.
As you can tell by searching remote volunteer opportunities on Idealist.org, many tasks, such as data entry and graphic design, can be done remotely.
Then approach your boss with your ideas. You could start small with one or two volunteers so you can see how it works and tweak the program as needed. To find virtual volunteers, post a listing on Idealist.org and share it on social media and with your networks.
Pro Tip: Ask your boss or another colleague if your organization has tried a virtual volunteer program before and, if so, how it went.
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As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.