Accessibility Committees: Creating spaces of meaningful engagement
As we approach the compliance deadline for the Accessible BC Act, and municipalities and other prescribed organizations move toward developing their accessibility committees, accessibility plan, and feedback mechanism, one thing to keep in mind is to focus on ensuring the meaningful engagement process and non-tokenistic approach to complying with the Act. For many organizations, a lot of this work is new and poses a lot of unknowns. As a result, discussions about how to make the required changes could revolve around the ideas of compliance and liabilities with no deeper discussion of the intention of the legislation.
Why is it important to strive for meaningful participation of people with disabilities from the very beginning? Historically, people with disabilities have either not been part of important decision-making processes or have been involved in a tokenistic manner when their presence at the table is mostly symbolic. If the goal is to move beyond compliance and towards the removal of barriers for people with disabilities and their meaningful engagement in decisions that impact their lives, the community will be more likely to recognize and support such a genuine approach, there will be a stronger sense of ownership of the process and more trust in working together moving forward. In other words, the foundations on which the future work happens will be strong and built on trust.
Most importantly, you will avoid perpetuating the mistakes of the so-called epistemic injustice, when the lived experiences of disabled people are discounted and when the knowledge that they bring is minimized.
Despite the tight timeline to implement the changes, it is important for organizations to demonstrate the intention to go beyond formal compliance and commit to equitable and inclusive processes along the way. Below are a few recommendations for thinking about engagement in general and accessibility committees more specifically. These recommendations were developed based on conversations with individuals who currently serve on the municipal advisory committees and on other research in this area.
- Be transparent during community engagement (e.g., for discussing the plans for the development of the accessibility committee) what level of engagement you are implementing. The International Association for Public Participation developed a spectrum that describes different levels of engagement.
- Strive for Collaborate and Empower levels of engagement because other levels have degrees of tokenism. If you do opt for Consult, be clear with the community about what that means and what goals you are pursuing. The goals should match the level of engagement.
- When designing an accessibility committee, think about whether there is an existing group or organization that fulfills the role of the advisory committee. Such an independent group might be better positioned to work with your organization based on the connections in the community and a good understanding of the community needs. Avoid developing a new committee if it will result in duplication of work for community advocates.
- If you are recruiting participants for the accessibility committee, think critically about your recruitment strategy. How are you sharing information about recruitment? Is it accessible (e.g., different formats are provided, images are described, is the application process is clear and accessible)? Are you considering the intersectional experiences of disabilities? Keeping in mind that disability might be just one aspect of an individual’s experience, diversify your recruitment strategies. Reach out to local community groups (including online groups/individuals) that have deep connections with community members.
- Design an equitable feedback loop. One of the conditions for successful community engagement is accountability in designing a feedback loop. It is often unclear how the feedback provided during community engagement is used and if it is used at all. A more robust communication loop that would inform the committee members about how their feedback was used is needed. A preferred structure of the feedback loop needs to be discussed with a committee. Some might prefer a formal report, others might be satisfied with an email.
- Provide an honorarium. If we acknowledge the value of disability experience in informing decisions, it is important to demonstrate it in a tangible way. An honorarium or other token of appreciation will signal to the committee members that their contributions and time are valued. The option for receiving an honorarium needs to be provided.
Alfiya Battalova is an Assistant Professor in the School of Humanitarian Studies at Royal Roads University. She is a disabled scholar with research and monitoring and evaluation experience. Her current research focuses on community engagement, disability advocacy, and policy development.