Making Business More Accessible

Wed. Oct. 21st – Making Business More Accessible

Deaf Spectrum – Sage Lovell (Toronto, ON) This one-stop source for the Deaf Community’s needs started with a YouTube Channel in 2015 when Sage realized the lack of accessibility for the community. A graduate of Gallaudet University and former Rotman School of Business student, Sage is non-binary and has done impactful work within the deaf, disability, and gender diverse communities. Deaf Spectrum offers sign language translation, event promotion, consultation, grant writing, workshops, training and interpreter booking. They currently serve Ontario with plans to expand across Canada.

Accessibrand – Jolene MacDonald (Wellesley, ON) This virtual agency is a full-service design and marketing company focused on accessibility – it stands out because everyone has been impacted by disability. Jolene comes from a graphic design background but was forced to quit her job due to illness. She realized there was a gap in the marketplace for individuals like herself who needed flexible work. She now has a team of 10 freelancers working with her and also hires persons with disabilities to review work for accessibility testing.

6 ways to make your business more accessible

By Ishani Nath 


When Jolene MacDonald’s daughter was born, it changed how she viewed the world — not only because she was a new mom, but also because she started to see how inaccessible spaces were for those with disabilities. MacDonald’s daughter was born with a form of dwarfism, and a few years later MacDonald was diagnosed with Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (HEDS), a connective tissue disorder that causes chronic pain, fatigue and cognitive issues.


An estimated 22 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15, meaning 6.2 million people, have a disability, according to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability — yet, as MacDonald experienced, not all businesses are accessible.


Sage Lovell was a patron of the arts, but Lovell, who identifies as a Deaf non-binary femme often encountered barriers. “As I went to all these spaces, I was constantly requesting access needs and I’d advocate for accessible needs for Deaf individuals like me,” they say.


That experience is what prompted Lovell to start Deaf Spectrum, a one-stop resource for the Deaf community’s needs ranging from sign language translation to event promotion, consulting and more. Likewise, MacDonald applied her decades of experience of graphic design and started Accessibrand, a full-service design and marketing agency run entirely by a team with lived disability experience.


As the pandemic continues to dramatically alter the way Canadians live and work, businesses have had to adapt. Accessibility advocacy network the Presidents Group recently noted, “people with disabilities are primed for the world of remote work that COVID-19 has required.” In addition to making workplaces more inclusive and creating employment opportunities for those with disabilities, the Presidents Group also highlighted that accommodations are often low cost and can greatly improve business outcomes.   


So why don’t more businesses prioritize accessibility?


Lovell sees a cyclical problem where businesses mistakenly believe that Deaf and Disabled consumers do not use their products, so they don’t provide accessibility. Meanwhile, Deaf and Disabled customers don’t use certain products or services because they are not accessible. “As a business owner, it’s important to provide accessibility and once that happens, you will see a new demographic of clientele,” says Lovell.


Here are some ways to help make your business more accessible, courtesy of Accessibrand’s MacDonald and Deaf Spectrum’s Lovell:

How to make websites more accessible


One of the biggest misconceptions MacDonald hears is the assumption that online content is inherently accessible. Or that businesses don’t need to worry about accessibility until someone complains. In reality, for example, websites for public sector organizations, and public or non-profit organizations with 50+ employees in Ontario are legally required to be accessible and non-compliance can result in heavy fines. 


Accessibility should be a priority from the beginning, not an afterthought, explains MacDonald. “Always imagine that any one of your customers could have a disability,” she says, so websites should be coded for accessibility. That means, for instance, avoiding complex layouts and designs, choosing colours carefully and making sure there is good contrast. 

Lovell adds that businesses should aim to keep online content clear, concise and simple. “You want to attract a wider demographic which means that your website and documents needs to be easy to navigate,” they say.


How to find out if your website needs work 

Online tools like AChecker and WAVE can help assess whether a business’ website is compliant with accessibility requirements. MacDonald also recommends designer Karwai Pun’s series of posters outlining how to design for accessibility, with different dos and don’ts for catering to a variety of users from those with low vision to those on the autism spectrum. 

While there are also built-in tools, like WordPress plugins, that can help assess a website’s accessibility, MacDonald notes that it’s important to test the user experience with an actual person. “That’s why we have auditors with disabilities,” she says. “Software still can’t replicate a user’s true experience.” 


How to make social media more accessible


Whether it’s posts on Instagram or videos on Facebook, there are simple adjustments that can help social media be accessible to a range of users. Lovell recommends starting small. “Start with captioning, plain language, transcripts, and if you have some extra money to spend, hire a sign language interpreter,” they say. 


MacDonald agrees and also advises limiting emoji usage. For any posted images posts, she recommends including a caption and an image description, often labelled as “ALT text” fields.


Recognize that ASL is its own language 

Lovell also says a common misconception is that American Sign Language (ASL) is simply English communicated through hand gestures — but that is not the case. ASL is a distinct language of its own, and businesses need to consider that when providing accessibility options. 

“ASL does not use the same grammatical structure as English does. So, when captioning replaces the use of a sign language interpreter, it does not provide the Deaf user with full accessibility,” Lovell explains. “Some Deaf users require the use of a sign language interpreter to obtain important information.”


How to make events more accessible


Whether it’s a celebration, conference or networking night, it is essential for in-person events to be accessible for all attendees. MacDonald says businesses need to ensure the location is barrier free and has accessible washrooms and access points.  


Due to COVID-19, most in-person events are being moved online. Providing online options for virtual attendance and ensuring that any content and video is accessible on these platforms is one way to make any event more accessible to attendees, says MacDonald. “Make sure all materials or handouts can be sent out ahead of time, are digitally accessible and compliant,” she says, adding that businesses should also provide ASL services if there may be attendees who require it.


When booking sign language interpreters for the Deaf community, Lovell says it’s best to book from a Deaf-run agency, such as Deaf Spectrum, to find experienced interpreters that are a suitable match for the specific environment. “Another important thing to consider when booking interpreters for public events is how to communicate this information with the Deaf community?” says Lovell. Deaf Spectrum helps bridge that gap by sharing event information directly to the Deaf community via their website, social media, email lists and YouTube channel.


“If you have booked interpreters, please make sure you are able to name them publicly. It is for the well-being of the Deaf Community,” adds Lovell.


How to make your companies more accessible for employees


MacDonald set up her company Accessibrand to be a business that works for its employees. “At Accessibrand our team doesn’t work traditional days or in offices — we work how we need to, when we need to and embrace who we are,” she says. As the founder and CEO, MacDonald tossed out the 9-to-5 schedule and instead focussed on flexibility.

She provides deadlines and direction and says employees, who are all contractors at this time, are responsible for their own time management. 


“Traditional employers, while valiant in hiring persons with disabilities, can’t always accommodate,” she explains. “I can only speak for myself, but chronic pain or unpredictable illnesses can’t be scheduled so if you miss a lot of work you run the risk of being terminated. We work around each person’s needs, always.” She also asks each team member what type of communication works best for them.


Deaf Spectrum is a Deaf-centric and ASL-centric business, explains Lovell. That means sign language is the primary mode of communication and English literacy production skills are not mandatory for employees. “We communicate in various ways through using sign language and simple English,” says Lovell, explaining that Deaf Spectrum uses email, videoconferencing with interpretation service, text-based chat and Video Relay Services. “We are open to adjusting ways of working to accommodate the needs of our employees.”


Learn from the community


Making a business accessible requires more than a simple web plugin or one-time conversation. Through Accessibrand, MacDonald has experienced that firsthand. “We have learned that we are always learning and can continue to learn from each other,” she says.


In addition to drawing from her personal experience, Lovell reached out to others in the community when setting up Deaf Spectrum. Speaking with a variety of individuals with different access needs is how Lovell realized the demand for information specifically delivered in sign language.


“To learn more about accessibility, I would recommend business owners to research on user accessibility and consider hiring a consultant that specializes in this field,” says Lovell.


Additional Resources:


BriConnect Workshops and training for frontline workers to better serve the Deaf community