Wander into a group of diversity nerds, and you will hear passionate discussions about the intricacies of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Wander into a group of disability nerds, and you will hear impassioned discussions about the complexities of accessibility, universal design, and, more recently, inclusive design.
For too long, DEI and disability nerds have been dancing conflicting steps to competing beats. It is long past time that these nerds learn to dance together to make things better for everyone. A good place to start is to explore the connections among definitions of terms thrown about.
Diversity: “The range of human differences.”
Equity: “Enhancing fairness and justice” ... “by overcoming barriers arising from bias or systemic structures.”
Inclusion: “A welcoming process” that enhances “involvement, empowerment, worth, and dignity.”
Accessibility: The features “that make an experience open to all.”
Both accessibility and DEI compliance nerds build their work on a confusing web of legislation, policies, and procedures. Both rely on this web so the organizations they represent won’t get sued. And when lawsuits are filed, bridges burn.
Universal design: “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”
Universal design practitioners often focus on the needs of people who are older and/or have disabilities since these groups often find it more difficult to use products and navigate environments than their younger, non-disabled peers. Yet closed captioning of spoken content provided for videos and television shows, wheelchair ramps, and technology translating text to speech are just a few examples of products designed for people with disabilities becoming popular among non-disabled people.
DEI practitioners use universal design principles when designing programs aimed at sharpening leadership and management skills. Those who design these programs promise that their strategies will work well for almost everyone in almost every situation. These programs can be quite effective.
Yet as a recent Forbes article points out, people of goodwill often disagree about how best to define effective skills in areas of communication, influencing, and flexibility. The inclusive design concept might help address this disconnect.
Inclusive design: “A methodology that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity.”
Inclusive design differs from universal design in three ways.
It strongly encourages learning from a diverse range of people throughout the design process instead of just at its end.
It suggests the possibility of creating different design solutions to include as many people as possible.
It stresses that the process is a dance without a clear end.
Astute DEI nerds understand that while universal policies, procedures, and best practices can be a sound basis for supporting people. Really good leaders, through a mixture of empathy, stubbornness, a knack for tweaking things around the edges, and a willingness to work across boundaries, can find ways to square the peg and round the hole so that most people can be inclusively productive most of the time. These nerds also understand that leadership is a never-ending journey requiring frequent, subtle course changes.
Finally, let’s consider this Verna Myers quote embedded in every DEI nerd’s DNA:
“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
In 2020, Nadia Craddock suggested that equity offers the necessary accommodations so that everyone can get to the party, regardless of where they live.
Using disability nerd lingo, accessibility makes it possible for people to benefit from the party’s environment through providing a list of recommendations that the host can check off before moving onto more pressing problems. Universal design provides a set of best practices that can guide successful interactions among partygoers—inclusive design tweaks these practices to encourage individuals to dance together.
DEI and disability nerds should dance to the music. It doesn’t matter if it’s disco, the Macarena, or whether or not they start levitating. It doesn’t matter if they dance in a ballroom, a mosh pit, or a place of worship. But they need to get used to dancing with a stranger.
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