Think of it as Galactic Accessibility Awareness Day
Chris Pratt, pre-eminent Guardian of the Galaxy, recently posted an Instagram video in which he told viewers to turn up the volume instead of just reading the subtitles, which prompted some of his fans in the deaf/hard-of-hearing (DHOH) community to call him out as insensitive. And, faster than anyone could say I am Groot, Pratt pulled the offending video and put out a heart-felt, entirely silent apology — using American Sign Language (ASL)! He saw how his post had been perceived — which was probably not as he intended it — and he owned the oversight and apologized.
Pratt’s response — and his responsiveness — was admirable, but the fact that the incident occurred at all highlights the very reason we have a Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Far too many people forget that not everyone can hear what they do. It simply doesn’t occur to them that more than 50 million Americans are deaf or hard-of-hearing. To the extent that they think about the appearance of captions on a screen, they may think of captions as nothing more than a convenient alternative to sound while they’re working out at a noisy gym and want to catch up on the latest news. They fail to realize that they’re the unintended beneficiaries of a system that was designed to enable access to those in the DHOH community that might otherwise have no access to that news.
These lapses in awareness usually remain unchallenged. But in Pratt’s case, they did not. Pratt’s fans in the DHOH community reminded him of their presence — and he took notice. He did a double-take on his assumptions about accessibility, which all of us should do. Cynics may argue that Pratt got a lot of free publicity out of his ASL response, which is always convenient when his latest movie has just opened at the box office, but I don’t think he did it for the publicity. I think Pratt understood that tens of millions don’t have the same ease of access to information, education, professional opportunities, entertainment and many other aspects of our daily life which all of us routinely take for granted — or overlook.
Unfortunately, his silent apology belies another assumption — that all members of the DHOH community understand ASL. This too is an assumption at which the Star-Lord needs to aim his blasters. Captioning his apology would have been an even more effective way to communicate with his DHOH followers.
When we think about accessibility, we owe a debt of gratitude to the members of the DHOH community, who have been working tirelessly to be included in the conversations that are taking place all around us. Americans have grown to rely more and more heavily on audio-visual modes of communication. Fewer people get their news from newspapers; they get their news from the radio while driving to work or from their TVs, computer monitors or mobile devices. Yet for the DHOH communities, these media are leaving them behind. Radio in the car is useless if you can’t hear. And the 24 by 7 streaming news feeds? They’re little more than a series of HD-quality silent movies if they are not accompanied by captions.
Thankfully, because of the efforts of the DHOH community, the majority of shows one finds on broadcast and cable are captioned. More and more captioned content is showing up on the internet, too. While some companies grumble about overreaching federal regulations and say they don’t like being obligated to include captions, more and more providers are realizing that captioning content is the right thing to do, a dedication to accessibility for all. It’s an indicator that these companies have not forgotten about the 50 million people who want to participate in the national conversation and who want to gain access to the ideas and insights that are lighting up the pixels.
As business leaders, we all need to get to that point. We need to stop assuming that everyone hears what we might hear, that everyone sees what we might see. We need to question why, when we are clearly trying to share ideas and information, we would choose not to communicate with as many people as possible. There’s really no good reason not to caption your content — and 50 million good reasons to caption it.
All of which brings me back to Chris Pratt. What Pratt showed us is what it looks like when someone realizes they’ve been inadvertently dismissing a lot of people who care about what they have to say. We don’t all need to issue apologies, but we all do need to gain the insight that Pratt gained. We need to move forward with a fuller awareness of how we’re treating the people who are turning to us for content, information, insight and clarity. If we want to be as inclusive as possible, to ensure access for all, we need to act in ways that reflect an understanding that the world really is larger and more varied than just what we see in the mirror or hear coming from the speakers in the TV.