I had a taste of accessibility – and I want it for keeps!
I am a Deaf professional resource management planner with my own successful business.
I use lip-reading to communicate and do not use the telephone. Like many other Kiwis with access needs, I have developed strategies to overcome the many barriers I face on a daily basis. Most of us with access needs simply accept the daily grind of having to find a way to get around the numerous barriers that must be navigated in order to carry on with everyday life including working, parenting, and participating in our communities. What I hadn’t really appreciated is how exhausting this is, that was until I got a taste of what accessibility feels like!
What does accessibility feel like?
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC. I knew that the USA had introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act back in 1990, but actually being in a society that has made the commitment to accessibility was eye opening for all the right reasons.
Navigating an unfamiliar transport system was made easy because clear visual information was always obvious. Captioning on all television broadcasts meant I could have my fill of news and entertainment. Sign language interpreters and live captioning services were readily accessible. It is perhaps little wonder that I met many professional and highly educated Deaf people. I noted that other accessibility features were regularly available for those requiring audio description or Braille. Accessible Uber vehicles and hotels with hoists for their private pools were other “normal” examples of private and public spaces designed to accommodate everyone!
I felt important and valued
I felt welcome, important and valued. It was so liberating! It was an incredible sensation! It was wonderful, but at the same time cruel, because I knew that when I returned to New Zealand I would have to once again return to the arduous task of having to always think ahead and plan for how I will overcome this or that barrier. I became aware of how far behind we are and how tiring it is to always have to find coping strategies to participate on an equal level.
The widespread use of Zoom isn’t accessible for Deaf
A classic example is the widespread use of Zoom during COVID-19 lockdowns. Zoom currently has no auto-captioning feature in New Zealand. It does allow for captions to be added by a captioning service, however the cost of a captioning service in New Zealand, coupled with a severe lack providers makes this difficult at best. I have enquired about New Zealand funding for captioning for business meetings but was told I do not meet the criteria. It was even suggested that I pass the costs onto my clients. This would put my business at a competitive disadvantage. How is this equitable?
As usual, I have found my own solution. Google Meet does have automatic captions. They’re not perfect, but they provide me with enough accuracy to meet with my clients, my colleagues and business partners and conduct my business. Frustratingly, most professional development courses, webinars, panel discussions, political debates, community meetings are held online via Zoom. In addition, most central and local government IT systems have stringent firewall protections which prevent their staff from being able to use Google Meet.
Accessibility legislation will make a difference
Accessibility legislation would mean we support the digital solutions with accessibility built-in, and make this part of our design and procurement criteria rather than picking an inaccessible product. It will also encourage businesses to factor accessibility into their product design which will open them up to a whole new market. In addition, it will give rise to a new and sustainable jobs market.
The experience of being in a more inclusive and accessible society, albeit briefly, solidified my support for the Access Alliance call for accessibility legislation. We are already so far behind other countries that got onboard earlier. We have waited far too long. My experience in America really highlighted for me why New Zealand needs accessibility legislation, and needs it now!
This is my access story, it is one of many. I'm sharing it because I want a law that puts accessibility at the heart of an inclusive Aotearoa New Zealand.