Improving our defaults

Last week, I was at #17NTC (the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference) and I’m still processing all of the things I learned or ideas that were sparked and how I might apply them in my work or in life generally. But one of the biggest takeaways for me was a question:

How can we improve our defaults?

This was sparked by a session on improving website accessibility for people with disabilities. Someone on the panel mentioned how, in the most recent version of Drupal, they had worked to improve the defaults so that some level of accessibility was built-in even if the organization using the platform didn’t specifically care about or pay attention to accessibility. Most of these things, like offline adjustments for accessibility, could benefit everyone. Otherwise, they were no detriment to the user experience for anyone else.

One of the other suggestions in the website session was that we should build accessibility into our budget and our project schedules so that crossing it out is a active choice. Similar to automatically opting people in and making it an active choice to opt out—which can be annoying for e-mail lists but beneficial for 401k participation.

The day before, I’d been in a discussion with community organizers where we were talking about venue. One mentioned that a challenge was that the space they currently had for events was not accessible for people in wheelchairs or who otherwise had trouble getting up and down stairs. They were raising money for a lift, but in the meantime, they stated upfront in each event description that the venue was not wheelchair accessible. Which sounds a bit counterintuitive, but the organizer mentioned some community members appreciated that the information was there, that they didn’t have to ask. Because they have always had to ask—many organizations hosting events, in leaving this type of information out, made an implicit assumption that people attending their event would not have disabilities.

One: Don’t make people ask.

From the start of the conference, there were efforts at inclusivity all around. When I checked in, I could pick up a pronoun ribbon to attach to my badge. In one look, people could know my name as well as that I use she/her. Other options included him/her, they/them, and there was also a write-in option. There were gender neutral bathrooms. At the opening, the CEO mentioned both of these along with the nursing mothers room, the prayer room, and other amenities that recognized we are not simply session-attending robots. In addition, recognizing that there were many first-time attendees, she explained some common lingo and abbreviations. There were “I’m shy” buttons, for those who were happy to talk to others but perhaps looking for the more outgoing attendees to make the first move. There were Birds of a Feather lunch tables and volunteer-staffed Dine Around Town reservations so, although you could certainly eat with whoever you chose, nobody had to eat alone or had to figure out how to ask a stranger to eat with them in a city they didn’t know.

None of these things are terribly difficult to do. None of these things precluded people from choosing otherwise (e.g. some chose not to use the pronoun ribbons, some chose to make their own plans for meals). But as someone who has come a long way to be able to ask a stranger if they wanted to eat lunch, about what an acronym stood for, and who still struggles with these things, and has watched others stress out about trying to find a place where they could pump or breastfeed, about whether or not they could even get into the building, let alone use a bathroom once inside—it means a lot to be seen.

Two: Inclusivity means nothing without access.

Inclusivity is not the fact that you have taken down the signs that say “No coloreds” or changed your policy from being a men-only club to one that allows female members. Sure, nobody is actively stopping women or people of color from applying to jobs in technology (or any other field). Nor is that an explicit reason people don’t get promotions or aren’t seen as leaders in spite of actions that would demonstrate leadership if only they looked like what we expect a leader to look like.

Inclusivity is meaningless without access; inclusivity is as much about removing barriers as it is about creating the space and opening the doors. As in, not only are we not restricting membership by gender, but we’re also ensuring that this space is actually accessible to all community members for the purpose we aim to serve. If people need to be able to spend a day learning at a conference, they will also need to go to the bathroom, possibly need to pump or breastfeed, may need a space to observe their religion, will need to be able to get in the building and into all of the rooms in which we are holding sessions and events. If we want people to lead at all levels within our organizations, then we need to look for those actions in all places rather than only in the places and people we’d expect.

Three: Improving accessibility + increasing inclusivity = benefits to us all

Revamping your website from looking like Times Square to being less cluttered and focused is not only easier for people using screenreaders but is a better user experience for all of your website visitors—yes. Not having to navigate stairs helps even those of us who can walk when we’re moving heavy carts of equipment or boxes of supplies—sure. Being able to use either single-person bathroom rather than having to (or feeling like you have to) wait for the one that says “Women” even while the one that says “Men” is empty—heck yeah.

But it also benefits us all because we’re getting whole people. People who aren’t spending mental energy (and actual energy, and actual hours of time) on planning out how they’re getting from point A to point B via points F and U because of stairs, or because of needing to pump every few hours or because they need to bring their own interpreter, or because there isn’t a bathroom they can use within a 15 minute walk (as exhibited in Hidden Figures), or because they need to assist their opposite-sex adult child who has special needs in using the bathroom, or because the way they observe their religion frightens some people who do not know them. When people can bring their best selves and their whole selves—why would we not choose that over people bringing only a part of their brain power, a part of their time, a part of their talent and passion and brilliance? If we’re willing to spend time and energy on recruiting/hiring/engaging the right people, why wouldn’t we make sure we could get the best of them?

Four: We will never be completely inclusive or accessible.

Another recurring theme, in the session on website accessibility, and in many others, was to let go of perfect. We may not currently have the budget to install an elevator. Or the capacity to overhaul our website.

But what can we do right now to make it better?

Maybe it’s saying, to our community members who use wheelchairs: We see you. We can’t fix it yet, but we wanted to give you a heads up that there are stairs. Maybe it’s not having a prayer before a meal but having a moment of silence for those who wish to pray, to create that space for them. Maybe it’s considering what will be readable to people who are color blind or who have issues with low-contrast when you’re choosing the colors on your website, or writing detailed descriptions for your images in your blog posts. I remember a friend of mine (who is a quadriplegic) once telling me a story about talking to bar owner about how changing the doorknobs on the bathroom door to lever door handles would make it so much easier for him to get in and out of the bathroom. To which the owner responded, “Oh, that’s it? I could do that.” At a previous organization that only had about 20 staff, they didn’t have space/need for a dedicated nursing mothers’ room, but they installed a lock on the conference room door so it could be used as such.

When we have the opportunities to do the big overhauls, that’s wonderful. But more important is that we try to improve our defaults. Like what if, instead of waiting for people to ask for a raise, we evaluated everybody’s compensation every 6 months, and within our capacity, gave everyone raises who deserved one regardless of whether they had asked? Or asked everyone about professional development they were interested in rather than just saying yes to people who asked about it? What if we simply got rid of urinals? What if the form you filled out to get your event added to the calendar or your business added to a review site asked whether or not the space was wheelchair accessible? If job websites required employers to post jobs with a salary range, rather than employers requiring it of applicants, and to post their policies around family leave rather than requiring candidates to ask? At my husband’s company, it is expected that, if the company pays for you to attend a training or a conference, you will share what you’ve learned with the rest of the team afterwards. I don’t know if that’s policy or just a cultural thing, but that make sense. Whereas I heard another attendee comment on going back to the office and their boss telling them to go back to work and stop bothering them with all of these ideas. Why waste everyone’s time leading someone on if they won’t be able to get into the restaurant, if the highest salary you can offer will not meet the minimum of what they are seeking, if you’re sending them to a training for the sake of checking a box rather than using professional development to enhance capacity, if the contribution people make to the organization have nothing to do with how you compensate them? In addition to being disrespectful and not inclusive, it is simply inefficient. It doesn’t make any sense.

We’re bleeding opportunity cost, and we’re usually not even aware of it.

I’m sure there are plenty of things I’ve not mentioned, and pitfalls with some of the things I have. I’m not perfect and plenty of my defaults could use improvement. I had the awesome opportunity to present at the conference, and I talked about flipping the switch with change-resistors: what do we risk by not doing X?

I’ve always struggled with that because quantifying output or input is easy. We spend a lot of money on education, for example, and money in and of itself is not an answer, but neither is not spending that money. What is the cost of an under-educated citizen? Of a person who ends up in prison instead of in a job? Not just the cost of running the prison or feeding inmates, but the cost of that person’s potential had they not ended up there in the first place? I’m willing to bet it is greater than the cost of providing certain services or programs. Not all of them. But probably a significant number. If someone figures out a good way to calculate that, let me know. I don’t know that the data would prove this theory, but I don’t know that it would disprove it either.

I could keep going, but I’ll end on this note:

What are our defaults? What are the inherent assumptions? How might we make our defaults better?

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