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How to deal with competing access needs

All access needs are valid, but not all access needs can be provided at the same time. For example, in a room full of people, there might be an individual who requires low lighting because bright lights can trigger sensory overload or migraines. And in the same room, someone might need brighter lighting in order to see an interpreter or read documents.

Competing access needs, also sometimes called conflicting access needs, are two access needs that cannot be made possible at the same time. It’s difficult to know what to do when the situation arises. But some of the most useful things to keep in mind are being open-minded, approachable, and flexible to making changes that will allow people to be included.

In a perfect world, there would be no barriers to access for anyone

Unfortunately, there’s no way to make any workplace, event, or building fully accessible because 100 per cent accessibility doesn’t exist. Universal design and using accessibility best practices cover many common access needs, but access needs can be individual to each person. A checklist simply can’t do it all.

When advertising an event, it’s good to provide an access key outlining what accessibility features are already in place. This allows individuals to make choices about whether they feel comfortable attending. It can also serve as a handy guide if someone needs to get in touch about their own access needs and what provisions can be made.

Handling access and competing access needs in virtual settings

Video calls, working, and learning online are the new frontier. Lockdown has presented all new challenges for accessibility. For some, this online landscape has opened up a world of possibility or simply made access a bit easier. For others, our new online world makes things more challenging—it can be harder to read facial expressions and non-verbal communication and more difficult to feel socially connected. Low bandwidth can make it difficult to see an interpreter or hear someone describe what’s on a shared screen. Sitting at a computer screen all day can cause pain and fatigue. These are only some of the challenges individuals might face using online tools to learn, work, and connect. And beyond these frustrations, there can be challenges when there are competing access needs in online settings, too.

Not all platforms are equal. For example, Microsoft Teams has an automatic live captioning feature similar to speech to text. When you speak during a call, the words appear on the screen. For some people, captioning is essential or can simply make it a lot easier to follow along.

In contrast, Zoom has a feature that allows users to create multiple video call rooms called breakout rooms which might be very helpful, for example, if a student needs one-on-one assistance in an online classroom. So, on both platforms, there are very important features. What do you do when both features are needed?

Sometimes, you can adapt. In this scenario, you might be able to hire a captioner for a Zoom call. It can be helpful to try to brainstorm solutions that might not immediately be obvious.

Some guiding questions

Here are some guiding questions that might help you figure out what to do if you’re faced with conflicting access needs online:

  • Can you ask participants and attendees ahead of time what their needs are and plan accordingly?
  • Are you able to provide an access key for your online event?
  • Can you let participants know about barriers you’re aware of on the platform you’re using and ask them what’s worked in the past? 
  • What would you do in a real life scenario? Can you replicate this?
  • How can you get creative with the use of technology?

In the end, there aren’t always perfect solutions or even decent solutions when it comes to access needs in online environments. But it’s important to try to think outside the box and try your best to remove barriers whenever possible, even with the challenges of competing access needs. Because everyone deserves equal access to participate.

Haley Zilberberg is a Townsville-based freelance writer and social worker from Florida. She’s passionate about disability advocacy and currently works as the Emerging Young Leaders Project Officer at Youth Disability Advocacy Service. She recently graduated with her Master of Marketing Communications from the University of Melbourne. 

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