“Accessibility affects everyone,” said Anne-Marie Womack, assistant teaching professor for ACTIVATE Engineering Communications Program at Rice University.
“Right now, people reading this article are probably sitting in a posture-supporting chair under an insulated roof in a temperature-controlled room. Some of their basic human needs are being accommodated by changing their environment. Accessibility helps everyone. It improves our chances of succeeding in work and learning.”
Enabling students to succeed in their work and learning is part of Womack’s role in the George R. Brown School of Engineering. Her courses and workshops help students identify and remove barriers in their written and verbal communication, to improve the reception of their message.
“Recently, I was grading student resumes and job application letters when I flagged a small concern that suggested a bigger concept,” said Womack. “Several students included a long list of programming languages in their cover letters. Of course, a list of skills is a necessary part of their application.
“But is a letter the best place for a list? We already have a document that is set up to better capture lists: a resume is formatted with headings and parallel structure. Rather than include skills in a long cover letter paragraph separated by commas, move the skills list to the resume and use the letter to tell the story about why some of these skills are important.”
The suggestion is typical of Womack’s knack for turning situations inside out and finding new perspectives. She is also quick to credit disability scholars, such as University of Illinois Disability and Human Development professor and author Lennard Davis, for introducing her to that kind of thinking.
“One of the first things I read about accessibility was Davis’ take on reserved parking spaces,” said Womack. “These spots are usually closer to the building and reserved for people with disabilities affecting mobility. But Davis turns it around and says that all parking lots are set up to put people closer to their destination so accommodation is the norm, not the special case.
“As it turns out, disability is a natural common point in the human experience. We will all be disabled at some point, either temporarily due to injury or in the long run due to aging. So it is really in our best interest to design a world in the most accessible way possible for people of varying degrees of ability. We have to ask critical questions like, ‘Who is being included, who is being excluded, and why?’
“Another important aspect of disability studies was the revelation that projects built for disabled persons ended up creating benefits for many more users. Because disabled people have had to discover other ways of navigating and living in the world, we do things differently. We have to get creative because we are already dealing with a world that wasn’t designed with us in mind.”
Womack uses the framework called universal design, a process that plans for the broadest range of users —including those with disabilities. A common example of universal design is the inclusion of captions on videos and other media with audio tracks. Not only can deaf and hard-of-hearing people now understand the video, but people in settings where sound is not permitted – say in a library or a waiting room – can follow along. Captions have also been shown to reinforce some students’ comprehension by simultaneously pairing hearing with reading. Other studies revealed users are more likely to engage with a video on social media if it has captions, and they engage with the video longer.
“There are so many examples of inventions —like captions— that were initially intended for disabled users. The typewriter was developed for a blind woman to write correspondence; email helped hard-of-hearing spouses communicate while at work. When disabled people are creators and collaborators, we promote innovations with the potential to reach a broader audience, ” said Womack.
“So how does my focus on accessibility influence what I teach at Rice? My students usually hear me begin like this, ‘Start with the assumption that people in the room will have different abilities. Be intentionally inclusive from the start, and be responsive in your delivery.’
“If you’re not inclusive, your communication can fail. I’ve been to conferences where most of the audience can’t read the slide text because the font is too small. And often presenters expect us to read off a slide as well as hear their words to deliver two messages at once.”
For hearing impaired audience members, one of the worst situations is when someone stands up and says they don’t need a microphone because they are really loud. This is an immediately exclusionary statement that not only dismisses any audience members sitting beyond the range of that person’s unamplified voice, but also suggests “If you can’t hear me without a mic, you do not matter.”
Womack said that individuals typically assume everyone has their same abilities and if some people don’t, well, it isn’t their problem to fix. Or is it? Womack challenges anyone seeking to improve their communications to first think differently about their audience.
She said, “Improve your presentation by ensuring that anything heard can be seen and anything seen can be heard. What I mean is if you give a presentation, make sure you describe what your slides show. This includes blind people, and it allows you to draw attention to the important part of the image. You may have been working on this concept for months or years, but it is the first time your audience is accessing the data.
“To make what is heard more accessible, always use the microphone and create text versions of your spoken words. I am a big fan of Otter.ai, an app that can record and transcribe your voice in real time. It gets better the more you use it and I always have it turned on in my classrooms, Zoom meetings, and one-on-one sessions.”
Womack realizes, though, that no matter how much flexibility she incorporates in a lecture or presentation, she can’t anticipate everyone’s individual needs 100% of the time. People also experience their disabilities differently based on their class, race, gender, and other influencing factors. That’s why we need to be in community with the people we communicate with and continually adapt, she explained.
“Building accessibility, like communication, is as simple —and as difficult— as creating community,” said Womack. “The way we communicate reflects and shapes the communities we are part of; if we make the community more inclusive, then we are communicating better.”