This blog post was written by Emily (they/them). Emily recently participated in the YDAS Young Leaders program, and in this post they reflect on that experience.
Accessibility is about how much a person can use or participate in an activity or environment. Most people know that “accessibility” means more than just wheelchair ramps or braille. The programs I’ve attended that say they are accessible often include sensory-friendly environments, unisex bathrooms, and the provision of physical resources. But how do you translate those things into an online context?
I have been volunteering in youth mental health programs for almost 10 years. After so long, I thought that I understood what it felt like for a space to be accessible to me. However, I can say with certainty (and gratitude) that the YDAS Young Leaders Program has changed the game for me. My experience in the Program was one of the few times that I did not feel like I had to ask for any changes/access to a space, because others had already made it accessible for me.
I believe the Program is a great example of genuine accessibility and I feel privileged to have experienced it.
This piece highlights three aspects of accessibility that I believe deserve celebration, replication, and extension.
Lived and Living Experience
To create accessible programs, people with lived and living experiences should be involved at every stage. The Young Leaders Program was co-designed, co-delivered, and co-evaluated by people with lived experience. The course was created and produced by people with lived experiences. The facilitators were open about their lived experiences from the start and would often share their stories in the sessions. The space felt safe because we knew we were amongst peers who understood our experiences.
As participants, we were also given the ability to shape the program for ourselves. Group agreements were co-designed with participants and our different identities were acknowledged and respected from the start. In the beginning, throughout, and at the end of each session, we were offered a check-in with a facilitator and asked about anything new that had come up for us. As people with lived experience, we know that nothing should be done about us or for us without us, and this program was an excellent example of lived experience leadership.
The activities, communication, and resources considered our varying abilities and neurodiversities. The first email that I received from the program began with “Hello. This is a link to a file of a person reading this email out loud.” All resources were provided in different formats and in advance. We were mailed workbooks and physical materials in accessible formats with considerations like fonts, fine motor skills, access to equipment, and plain language. Auslan interpreters and live captioning were offered on-screen during the online sessions. Content warnings were always considered, and we were allowed to make our own decisions about how we participated.
Accessibility was not only considered in the way that the facilitators communicated to us as participants, but also in the ways they were open to getting communication from us. We were able to apply for the Program in writing, audio, or video. During the sessions, we were not only supported but encouraged to communicate in the way that best suited us. It was the first time that I felt genuinely supported to engage almost entirely by info-dumping in the chat box and drawing diagrams when words failed me.
For me, the concept of “flexibility” is often missed when it comes to accessibility. Disabilities impact people in many different ways and to differing degrees. Individuals and organisations can proactively remove barriers to accessibility, but it is important to remain open-minded and flexible. I believe that accessibility is not a binary - there is always more to learn and room to improve.
The Program had been co-designed by people with lived experience and considered our access needs, but there was also a consistent and genuine commitment to flexibility. The facilitators role-modelled a willingness to be flexible and adapt to any concern, request, or need. Despite being experienced leaders, they acknowledged that they are not experts in accessibility. They were eager to learn how we could grow our skills, experiences, and improve the program together.
I have an invisible disability and a lot of imposter syndrome. This program was the first time that I felt genuinely supported and encouraged to engage in a way that was best for me.
I am thankful for not only having learned from the content of the Program but also to have had an experience where I felt I could just be myself. It was one of the few times that I was wholly present without feeling like I had to change to fit the environment. Additionally, the facilitators and other participants celebrated my vulnerability in presenting as authentically myself and asking for what I needed. It was one of the first times I felt empowered and able to be just me without having to change myself to fit in.
I believe the YDAS Young Leaders Program is a great example of genuine accessibility. I hope this reflection encourages others to learn from these examples and consider what else we can do to work towards genuine accessibility.