With our focus for the past month being on the Sustainable Development Goal 10 “Reduced Inequalities”, we have heard from our members, and had the incredible final pitch for the Digital Imagination Challenge, we asked our team member Yaser Hammadi to reflect on his experience.
If you could not see, how would you navigate the internet? What if you could not hear? Or if you could not use your hands? For the past six months, I have constantly asked everyone I know questions similar to these. For one week, I tracked every single piece of information that I consumed. Every software, website sign up sheet, fitness tracking app, public screen advertising, tv show, radio piece, announcements about public transport, up to no end. I could not keep up with the amount of information that I thought was inaccessible. Despite the limitless potential of technology, I discovered that the digital world has an endless amount of barriers which parallel the ableism found in the offline world. The plain truth is that a vast majority of the digital world is not born accessible, unless a legal requirement to be accessible, such as the ones placed on public sector websites, is present. In other words: accessibility is not a fundamental design feature.
The reasons why are various but they include: ignorance of the presence of ableism in every aspect, willful negligence, or a false idea that inclusivity is an extra cost and not a necessity. For a country like Germany, where 10% of the population could potentially be categorized as persons with disabilities it means losing out on priceless contributions. These issues are not exclusive to Germany or Europe though. In the United States, for example, a person with disabilities is ten times less likely to be employed, four times less likely to have completed an education and twice as likely to live in poverty. The ostracization of the community from the online world is an example of the lack of empathy, understanding and outright stigmatization that is still present. Hence, when cable network provider Unitymedia approached Impact Hub Berlin to start an innovation contest to catalyse startups and initiatives that break down digital barriers, we jumped at the opportunity. Early on in the process, we realized that a lot of our own organizational structure and methodology needed to change.
The first step in what became the Digital Imagination Challenge was to acknowledge: the success of the project was dependent on the project itself being fully inclusive. Design Thinking, which powers the philosophy of our consultancy and programs, asks us to firstly empathise. Here we ran into our first major challenge – we could not empathise. We had to be honest and forthright with our privileged perspectives. Impact Hub’s consultants are vastly experienced in running socially entrepreneurial themed programs. We have run incubators, accelerators, workshops and more on topics such as sustainability, female empowerment etc., but these themes have always also directly impacted our team members. Although we had family members and close friends who are persons with disabilities, this was not enough. We realized that simply acknowledging the issue and the statistics listed above is inadequate. This is why we asked Sozialhelden, Germany’s leading activist NGO on the topic of inclusivity, to consult us through every step of the program.
If Sozialhelden helped us to empathise with the community and direct our methodology, it was still our responsibility to deliver a fully accessible contest. None of the problems we discovered were not easily solvable, but in essence we were learning as we were going along. Often it was feedback from the community to our inaccessible website or content that made us aware of these issues. Before the program, I had no idea how a screen reader would work. I had no idea what colours should be avoided, which plug ins to use to resize text, how captions should be written, the standards for subtitles and so on. In hindsight, our naivety shocks me. Consider that we had not initially budgeted for sign language translators for our events. We meticulously went over everything in our organization. Online, we took time to go back and caption every image we had, to structure our text properly and to make sure that our future videos can have audio description. Offline, we looked at how to make our space more inclusive. Although we are limited in how we can physically change the structure of our space, it is no longer something we are ignorant of. As such, the second step was to make time to fix every issue and document everything. If we are designing a new program or modifying our space, it will be a fundamental feature to be born accessible.
It is not enough to work post facto, although that is what we have to do at the moment. We are not perfect at it, we have to still learn and understand. There is a lot that we will never understand due to our privilege. The project thus changed our understanding of what it means to fight for inclusion. It is not enough to simply be a fan of the idea or the concept. It is more than the work we do at Impact Hub. If I am on public transport, the immediate question on my mind is: can everyone access this bus, tram or train? Can everyone enter the building I am in? Is the website I am using fully inclusive? Does my cinema offer audio description? If the answer is no, why not? What can I do for a more inclusive offline and online world?
Photos by Andi Weiland | Gesellschaftsbilder.de