Navigating Consultations with Disability Communities

Various legislation now stipulate that businesses must consult with disability communities. But, how? Where are they? An accessibility consultant with Untapped Accessibility sheds light on a common challenge: initiating meaningful consultations with disability communities. They share advice on overcoming challenges.

When it comes to accessibility planning, there’s no better expert on the subject than those who experience disability barriers on a daily basis. This is why the Accessible Canada Act stipulates that federally regulated entities consult people with disabilities in the development of their accessibility plans. Even without the legal incentive, it makes sense to consult with the very people who would be impacted by your accessibility plan.

As an accessibility consultant, I’ve worked with various federal organizations in their compliance with the Accessible Canada Act, including consulting with folks with disabilities. I’ve noticed that many organizations often don’t know where to start when it comes to initiating public consultations with disability communities.

This often stems from a lack of exposure to disability, an uncertainty of how to engage stakeholders who have disabilities, and a reluctance to engage with disabilities over the fear of saying the wrong thing.

Nevertheless, collaborating with disability communities is a significant part of the accessibility planning process. It allows you to weave their perspectives directly into your accessibility work.

Integrate multiple forms of consultations

It’s worth noting that the Accessible Canada Act doesn’t dictate a particular way to consult people with disabilities. This means that each organization can decide how best to consult based on their own needs and the needs of people with disabilities.

Consultations can come in a wide range of forms. Throughout my work in Accessible Canada Act consulting, I’ve facilitated consultations through interviews, surveys, and focus groups. But these various methods don’t operate independently. I recommend combining these methods into a multi-faceted approach to consultations.

Some clients I’ve worked with did a combination of pop-up style public engagements, surveys, and online events. Not only does this approach maximize outreach, but it also ensures that people of various disabilities, needs, and communication styles can participate equitably in the consultation process.

Consider the accessibility of your methods

You want to ensure that whatever consultation methods you choose don’t present additional accessibility barriers that would prevent stakeholders from participating.

In my work, for instance, many consultations take the form of focus groups conducted over Zoom. To minimize barriers, we incorporate accessibility best practices such as having participants announce their name before speaking and hiring ASL interpreters.

If you’re taking the in-person approach to consultations, you’ll certainly want to make sure that the venue is accessible.

Whatever approach you take, you must ensure that the consultation method itself is accessible.

Talk the talk

As I mentioned above, a common obstacle among clients is the reluctance to discuss issues of disability and accessibility. Clients feel as though they lack the language, which might prompt them to inadvertently say the wrong thing.

But this reluctance only means we’re avoiding meaningful conversations about disability.

While consultations with the disability community may be uncomfortable, they are opportunities to learn from the experts. We must also consider that language is fluid, contextual, and personal.

Sustain ongoing relationships

You might have just finished initial consultations, identified accessibility barriers, and drafted your Accessible Canada Act-compliant accessibility plan. What now? Well, the buck doesn’t stop there. For starters, the Accessible Canada Act further stipulates that organizations must continue consulting people with disabilities for their annual progress reports.

Legislation aside though, consultations shouldn’t be a one-off task that we check off our list. They should be embedded into all of our accessibility work through meaningful collaboration with the disability community. After all, “nothing about us without us.”

Samuel Dunsiger (he/him) is an accessibility consultant, educator and writer. Samuel has worked with federally regulated entities in their compliance with the Accessible Canada Act, supported post-secondary students with disabilities who require academic accommodations, and wrote about his own lived experience with disability. He lives in Toronto with his fiancée. This post originally appeared on Untapped Accessibility’s blog.