How I Look at Accessibility Work

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Once at a consulting job another senior web developer asked me during my introduction lunch with the company about my background in the job. I told him that I’m a consultant for accessibility. He looked at me for a second and hesitated. I think he was trying to assess if I’m non-disabled or not. Realizing no visible disability he concluded: “Oh, you have someone in the family with disabilities?“.

No, I don’t have family members with a disability. My thoughts on accessibility were shaped from both a privileged position of living without any physical disability personally and an underprivileged position of belonging to an ethnic minority in Germany. Both my parents were born in Turkey but immigrated to Germany at different ages. I was born and raised in Germany with Turkish being the first language I’ve learned.

When you grow up you learn the things you are being taught, you perceive the world around you as normal, and you accept most of it. Maybe at some points in your life you start questioning things, find new perspectives, change your own. For most of my life I had internalized a few things pretty strongly. I accepted them and saw them as normal.

People not being able to pronounce or spell my name is one of them. Most people are not even trying to. So for 30 years of my life I’ve adapted the wrong pronunciation of my name that most people in Germany can work with. For example if you read my name you might not realize that there a dotless “i” character in my last name at the top of this article. That’s actually the right way to write it. These days when I introduce myself I pronounce my name correctly (Google Translate does a pretty good job with pronunciation).

Another thing that I used to accept was that people in Germany regularly told me that my German is pretty good. What they are expressing with that basically is their surprise about my German language skills for someone who they perceive is ‘not from here’. Yes, this still happens until this day. Again, I was born and raised in Germany.

These are minor examples and there are a lot more. But a couple of years ago I learned that there is term for this: othering. It describes the concept of viewing someone else as different or foreign to you based on criteria (for example ethnicity) and by that actively distancing yourself from the other person. In short: it’s the us & them distinction. The basis of all forms of discrimination. For example the forms of structural racism that I encountered growing up and living in Germany.

Once I understood othering I saw it in a lot of places. Breaking inclusion by making people invisible and not enabling them to participate. Knowing how it feels like to be othered, underrepresented and at times excluded helped me develop the empathy and an understanding for accessibility and why we need more inclusion.

My coworker’s question at the beginning showed me that non-disabled people often don’t see a strong reason for accessibility unless they are personally affected. Accessibility is for “those” with disabilities, not so much for “me”. This notion seems to be based on othering if you ask me.

Next time someone asks if I work in accessibility because I’m affected personally I will answer: “Everyone will be affected by inaccessibility some day. We are getting older, we can get sick, we can become injured, or we already have a disability”.

If we don’t care about accessibility we are excluding ourselves sooner or later.