10 Tips for Building an Accessible Movement

Posted September 8, 2015 by Shawn Reilly

Accessibility has become a buzzword for many in the progressive movement. Many organizations, groups, and clubs boast about their own high levels of accessibility for folks with disabilities. I have worked within, through, and for many social justice spaces. But in my own experience, I have not found very many that have lived up to the accessibility that they so heavily preach. Many times as activists, we talk about self care, often setting it as a community guideline at the beginning of a retreat, conference, or training. But more often than not, these spaces don’t offer activists the mechanisms they need to practice that self care.

During my time at the United Students Against Sweatshops Summer Convention, I was inspired to brainstorm ways in which we can build an inclusive movement for people with disabilities. Here are some ways in which we can work to build a more accessible movement:

  1. Offer hospitality rooms

Hosting a training, conference, convention, or retreat? A super beneficial mechanism to put in place is the use of hospitality rooms. Hospitality rooms are typically quiet, dark rooms that are removed from the conference space. Creating a space for people to decompress, especially in spaces where you’re talking about difficult and triggering things is super helpful to foster positive mental health. These accommodations can be super helpful for people who experience anxiety, emotional triggers, and so on.

  1. Offer alternatives to protests and actions, particularly those that are loud or include a lot of people

Direct actions are not everybody’s thing! Loud noises, and crowded spaces can be tricky for many people. For those with social anxiety, and other challenges with mental health, being in these disruptive spaces can do more harm than good. In order to make actions accessible, make sure to create tasks that may be easier for folks that don’t feel comfortable being on the ground. Having someone manage social media, or be on standby for calls are some ways to include folks that don’t feel comfortable participating in actions.

  1. Snaps over claps

Claps, like other loud noises, can be triggering and debilitating for people with audio sensitivity. In many progressive spaces, participants will snap when messages resonate with them. Why not make this the all around indication of affirmation? Make sure to be cognizant of participants that are unable to snap in normative ways, and perhaps communally create a way to affirm speakers in the room.

  1. Offer print versions of talking points

Some folks cannot learn best through listening. Making sure you have printed version of major highlights will help different learning styles understand your presentation and content.

  1. Don’t over-rely on reading materials

On the flip side, some folks cannot learn best through reading! Providing graphs, visuals, and experiential aids can help people with learning disabilities and various learning styles digest your ideas!

  1. Utilize trigger warnings

People with PTSD, anxiety, history with suicide, or other challenges with mental illness can be triggered by various conversations or experiences. Make sure to warn folks when difficult conversations are going to come up, and allow them the space to leave areas whenever they need to make them feel comfortable and safe.

  1. Ensure accessible buildings

Even though there has been policies and laws passed that are supposed to ensure that buildings are accessible to people with physical disabilities, this isn’t always the case. Make sure any buildings you’re using are accessible to wheelchairs, folks with visual disabilities, and ultimately people with all ability levels.

  1. Monitor your language

Many words, including stupid, lame, and dumb, have been used to disenfranchise people with disabilities since the beginning of time. Encouraging people to monitor their language and making sure they are not isolating anyone through linguistics is one of the easiest ways to make a space accessible. Consider handing out a reference sheet of commonly used words and possible replacement for them with the materials you make available to the group.

  1. Allow time for internal processing

Many folks that are internal processors, have slower processing styles, or learning disabilities, need time to digest content. Scheduling workshops back to back (to back) is not helpful for some of these people as they are unable to process what is given to them effectively. Make sure to schedule in break times or individual reflection time, to help cater to all learning and processing styles.

  1. Practice grace

What I believe is the most important tenet of accessibility. Not everyone learns the same way, not everyone experiences situations the same way. People may have reactions to things that you may not understand but may be the result of prior experience, various disabilities, and/or challenges with mental health. Allow people space to make mistakes, and to take time to take care of themselves. Offer support in whatever way they ask you for it, and grant grace whenever possible.

Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, I hope it helps move us all in the right direction. While there are more to come, please feel free to add to or criticize the list.