Can Stevie Wonder's Call for Higher Ground in Accessibility Be a Catalyst for Faith-Based Communities?

Most of us eventually develop disabling conditions related to age. I'm hoping with the influence of people like Stevie Wonder, disability will become our next equality discussion in all sorts of venues.
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Were you watching The Grammys? I have to admit, I missed the big moment. I hadn't been feeling well, and I was flipping channels, and surfing the internet. A good friend sent me a message, "Did you see it? Stevie Wonder just called for accessibility for everyone on national TV at the Grammy's."

I immediately went to Google and typed in "Stevie Wonder Accessibility and Grammys" and there it was. The clip featured Stevie Wonder flanked by Pentatonix dropping a laugh about his very own Braille announcement card, calling for us to "make every single thing accessible for every single person with disabilities" And he made the call standing before the brightest lighting and sound engineers, creatives, techies and influential entertainers and business entrepreneurs from all genres. So what next?

No doubt some people were confused. Here's the deal, while the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, and was followed up decades later by an amendment, (now we just say ADA)--accessibility in America is woefully inadequate.

2016-02-17-1455668893-692121-Fotolia_82171413_S.jpgAccess is not just about wheelchairs and parking. Sure some people with disabilities need accessible parking, but not everyone who has a disability is a wheelchair user. And while physical access is incredibly important-- I'm not trying to undercut that--one of the most inaccessible venues in the modern era is the digital world. Digital products like books, music, websites, coaching and sales platforms, concerts, and events are often full of "accessibility road blocks".

Large commercial organizations, small businesses, artists, and entrepreneurs are all missing out by not ensuring that their physical or online services, products, or presence are accessible to all people. Many are under the false impression that accessibility has to be expensive. Some fixes are quite simple. Because I work in disability advocacy, and I've helped pass disability legislation, and because I myself have a disability, I see things through lenses that others simply may not.

To say the least, when I experience things that are inaccessible or that I believe could be easily improved, I can be a little overzealous. I want to show people how they can make their programs or events, more accessible, so more people can enjoy them. I've learned an audience of more than one is always filled with diversity. You can't value one piece of diversity and ignore the rest.

Last fall I had the opportunity to attend my first Catalyst Leadership Conference in Atlanta. I was blessed to listen to some awesome presentations by some of the top presenters and faith-based leaders from around the world. I'm a huge fan of people like Andy Stanley, Brene Brown, Guy Kawasaki, Christine Caine, Jeremy Cowart, and so many more.

I spent my last day at Catalyst trying to make connections with anyone in leadership who might listen to my ideas. Bless their hearts, I tracked all sorts of busy people down and bothered them with tips and insight into accessibility. In hindsight it was probably not the best approach, but when you see something really good, and you have insight into how to make it better, you're driven to speak up. Or you should be. So I later opted for a detailed letter.

To their credit, the folks organizing and volunteering for Catalyst were very gracious. Catalyst is one of the nation's largest leadership conferences, always with new and interesting messages. Last year's Atlanta conference had strong elements of civil rights and social-justice themes weaved through the program. The messages were life-changing. The speakers were powerful. Don't we want to make them accessible and life-changing for everyone? The websites and apps are awesome, but don't we also want everyone to use them?

I noticed for example, that the Catalyst event wasn't captioned on the large screens. When I inquired about captions I was told that people who needed that service could go to a special room. Wouldn't it be cool if they could simply log onto their Catalyst app and find accessibility features there? Besides lots of people benefit from captions, not just those with hearing-related disabilities. In reality, captioning, like accessible parking, is just a small piece of accessibility.

Listen, I'm not being critical of Catalyst. This is just a personal example. I love Catalyst, and it's my desire for Catalyst events to be available to everyone in as many ways as they can be. The message is incredibly important. The sad reality though, is that in the faith-based world as much as we claim to be welcoming to all, and open to everyone, and as much as we desire to share the message, our venues are sometimes the least accessible of all. In the faith-based world, accessibility is often an afterthought, or a "luxury we can't afford", rather than a necessity to reaching more people. Ask yourself next time you plan something: Could everyone benefit from this? If not why? And if not, what do we need to do, to make it so?

Who will be like Stevie Wonder in the faith-based community calling us to reach the higher ground? Until then, hopefully his willingness to stand up at The Grammys and call for "every single thing to be made accessible for every single person with a disability" will cause more people to examine those events and venues around them whether faith-based or not. Maybe more people will seek to improve the quality of their messages, products, and services. Increased accessibility helps everyone, and while making money is not the reason we should do it, for those who are entrepreneurs, there's definitely monetary incentive. The smallest statistics show that 10-15% of the population has a disability.

Let's face it. Anyone can be disabled, regardless of gender, background, race, ethnicity, class or social status, political belief, faith, or any other designation, and many of our veterans become disabled. Most of us eventually develop disabling conditions related to age. I'm hoping with the influence of people like Stevie Wonder, disability will become our next equality discussion in all sorts of venues. Who knows? Maybe you can start the conversation where you are? Here are 6 ways to do that:

Pay attention.
Have a sense of personal awareness of your own environment. Look around you and think about how your home, your business, your work, might be more welcoming and accessible. Think about the activities you're a part of on a daily basis. Think about a variety of disabilities and ask yourself if other people could participate with you if they wanted, or how you could make that happen. Access begins with us, in our own environments, and if you see something problematic point it out.

Be educated and educate others. Perception is everything. Too often our perceptions are not valid. Do what you can to learn more about disability-related issues and help start some discourse about disability equality, and then share that with other people. Disability is not just physical. There are plenty of hidden disabilities related to learning or emotion as well. Help stop stigmas and stereotypes.

Be proactive. Not reactive. Too often disability access issues are approached in retrospect. We work out quick fixes, or retrofit things rather than building or creating them to be accessible in the first place. A simple example is when tag on a ramp to a new building rather than building it in a way that everyone can enjoy. Check out the concepts of universal design.

Avoid labels of "inspiration." Some people's lives may certainly inspire us. All people have amazing qualities. Don't fall into the trap of seeing people with disabilities as "inspiring" just because they're disabled. Almost no one with a disability sets out to be "inspiring" to others. Most just want to enjoy life with the same access to things as their non-disabled family and friends.

Understand that disability is diversity. Remember that disability is just another difference like anything else. Make an effort to include it in discussions of diversity and access planning. I'm not sure when diversity became a dirty word, but it's defined as "different" and we're certainly all different. We should remember that all the time. Especially when we imagine, develop, and create.

Vet your creations: Make sure your graphics are tagged, your PDF's are saved in an accessible format so screen-readers will read them, and that multiple fonts and color contrasts are available. Before you work with vendors ask about accessibility features. Don't rely on YouTube captions. While sometimes helpful, they are barely accurate! If you want to learn more find me on your favorite social media.

*Excerpts of this post first appeared here on The Good Men Project
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Photo Credit: Fotolia © Federico Rostagno

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