2.2. Need for a Person-Centred and Flexible Approach.
2.3. Information About and Assistance in Accessing Services.
2.4. Expert Advice in Accessible System-Building.
2.5. Outsourcing Services to Third Parties.
2.6. Disability Equality Awareness Training.
2.1A. What is Accessibility?
By “accessible” we mean that all services, including information content and functionality, which are generally readily available, must also be equally usable by visually impaired people, across our wide spectrum of needs.
2.1B. Reasonable Accommodation.
Whereas “accessibility” relates to systems and policy concerning specific disabled constituencies (i.e., the macro level); “reasonable accommodation” relates to a public or private body making adaptations or adjustments to facilitate an individual’s access to a service, for example, at a particular moment in time (cf. CRPD, GC2, para. 25).
In the Republic of Ireland, denial of reasonable accommodation to a visually impaired person is justiciable, and a complaint by an individual can be made to the Workplace Relations Commission, as the first ‘court of instance’, so to speak, under the Equal Status Act (2000, S4), but appeals can be made as far as the Supreme Court, and then to the European Court of Human Rights.
2.1C. Mainstreaming and Universal Design.
In so far as is possible, information must be accessible to all people at the same point and time, regardless of their additional needs. This concept is known as ‘mainstreaming’.
All systems, including communications systems, should be designed so that they are useable by all. This related concept is known as ‘universal design’. At the core of Universal Design is that individuals should not have to find workarounds for a bad design that has not taken on board their needs; but, instead, that good design reduces adaption by the individual user to as close as possible to zero, when compared to any or all other individuals.
2.1D. Disabled Persons Organisations (DPOs).
2.1D1. What Are DPOs?
Under the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), the only representative organisations regarding disabled people are “organizations of people with disabilities, as opposed to “organizations for people with disabilities” (CRPD, GC7, paras. 10, 13).
For more detail, see legal opinion commissioned by VVI on the subject (July, 2021)
In Ireland, these representative organisations, or organisations of disabled people, are more usually known as DPOs (Disabled Persons’ Organisations).
DPOs must have a clear majority of their members who are themselves disabled; must be run, directed and led by disabled people; and must be rooted in the CRPD, with Human Rights as their core reason for being (ibid., para. 11). Generally, they cannot be service-providers, because of the intrinsic possibility of conflicts of interests between service-provision and representation (ibid., para. 13).
As well as fulfilling all the conditions to be a DPO, because VVI is Ireland’s DPO with specific remit for matters affecting visually impaired people, our organisation has a clear majority of its members who are visually impaired; and we are run, led, and directed by visually impaired people.
As a sidenote on the term ‘Disabled Persons Organisation’ (DPO), an argument could be made that the name does not adequately convey the representative nature of such organisations. Moreover, it is unfortunate that DPO, in Ireland, already has the current legal meaning of both “Data Protection Officer”, and “Designated Public Officials”. Thus, in a perfect world, VVI tentatively suggests that Disabled Persons Representative Organisations (DPROs), would have been a better designation, and perhaps, someday, with the agreement of Irish DPOs, this designation will become our default name for our representative organisations.
2.1D2. Public Bodies’ Obligations towards DPOs.
Article 4 (3) of the CRPD, which is a general obligation, and cross-cutting of every other part of the Convention, requires the State to “closely consult with and actively involve” DPOs in all matters affecting disabled people. This obligation took immediate effect in 2018, in Ireland (CRPD, GC7, para. 28), and its scope (regarding relevant matters) is to be interpreted broadly, and the onus of proof is on the public body to show that a matter does not disproportionately affect disabled people (ibid., paras. 18-20),
“closely consult with and actively involve” DPOs means that public bodies need to prioritise DPOs over all other civil society organisations: both in terms of DPOs being the first port of call; and prioritisation of the “views and opinions” of DPOs (ibid., paras. 13-4, 23, 56, etc.).
It is expected that public bodies begin consultations early in a process – preferably at the concept stage – and that consultations be continual and genuine, rather than one-toff and tokenistic (ibid., para. 28).
It should also be useful to note that these CRPD requirements to closely consult with and actively involve DPOs” also dovetail into the Public Sector Duty obligations of public bodies under the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act (2014, S42).
2.1D3. Implications of Obligations towards DPOs.
The rights of DPOs, which are stated clearly in the CRPD and General Comment 7, and the Human Rights model of disability which those obligations underpin, signify a paradigm shift in terms of consultative practices by the Irish State regarding disability heretofore. The old habits of legacy, which prioritise, even subconsciously, the traditional brandname organisations of the disability industry, must now be ended, and be replaced with a far more concrete set of practices and commitments, rooted in international law, which put DPOs at the core of all matters that affect disabled people (which is almost everything).
Some of the practices no longer acceptable (or legal under international law) are:
- expecting that a disability service-provider can replicate a DPO (cf. ibid., para. 57).
- that visually impaired employees represent visually impaired people. Even if this person has a specific accessibility role, which is to be welcomed, they are not a DPO. Even worse, is the common practice of deferring to ‘John down in accounts, since he’s visually impaired, and he should know’, etc.
- that consultations regarding disability are something to be circumnavigated like some sort of obstacle. Instead, Universal Design is an obligation that is good for everyone, and may even be good for yourself, dear reader, as you grow older and find you are not able to do things that you used to do easily.
2.2. A Person-Centred and Flexible Approach.
‘Mainstreaming and ‘universal design’ do not mean that one size fits all, but rather, that a number of complementary means or modes of communication need to be built in to a system.
Consequently, service-providers need to be flexible and adaptable, as well as having a number of alternatives for service-users to choose from when accessing services or communications, or when the citizen is communicating themselves. Indeed, any individual user may require a combination of different communication formats, both in terms of receiving and transmitting communications.
Ultimately, the person-centred approach, which puts a person’s individual rights of access to services (including information and communication) above that of systemic norms, is necessary, and as such, listening to, respecting, and acting on an individual as to their preferences at any given time is essential.
For example, regarding the provision of accessible documents by a service-provider, visually impaired people know their own requirements more than anyone else, and so they should not be offered alternatives to their stated preferences just because other formats are easier for that service provider.
This person-centred approach is complementary to a system that is designed to be robust and adaptable so that all preferred access styles, such as formats, are planned for, organised according to necessary high standards, and most importantly, be practically useable by the end user, rather than merely being nominally or officially accessible.
So, a good rule of thumb is that if a visually impaired person says that something is not accessible to them, then they, as the experts, are correct. The disabled person is not the problem: but rather, in such cases, the problem is invariably the system that produced the inaccessible document etc., and the obstacles identified are likely to affect far more people who just have not come forward. Being informed that a particular type of communication is inaccessible should be seen as an opportunity, and be taken seriously by the public body so that it can make its services fully accessible to all.
2.3. Information About and Assistance in Accessing Services.
2.3A. Access Officer.
S26 (2) of the Disability Act (2005) obliges all public bodies to have at least one “Access Officer” to ensure that all of their services are accessible.
Note that this is different and separate to the position of “Accessibility Officer” under the Health and Safety in the Workplace Act (2005), although mutual assistance and co-operation is advisable.
2.3A2. Dedicated, Fulltime Role.
The role of Access Officer should be fulltime, and Officers dedicated to this role: i.e., not combining this role with other functions.
2.3A3. Directly Contactable At All Times.
As recommended in s.i. 163 / 2006, there should be a direct line by service-users to the Access Officer, and this should be promoted, both among staff as well as being easily found by service-users. Front-of-house staff should always know who the Access Officer is, and be able to patch a call through, or if a caller prefers, have direct email details etc.
The generic customer interface, e.g., “Customer Services” is not in a position to replicate the role of an Access Officer. For example, questions may be of a technical nature, including the scope of the actual role of the Access Officer. As such, having the generic customer interface filter, or otherwise relay messages to the Access Officer as a precondition for direct contact, is inappropriate and unacceptable.
If an Access Officer is on leave, a designated replacement must be functioning in their absence. This interim Access Officer should have Disability Equality Awareness Training, as well as being fully up-to-speed on the role and work/practice of the Access Officer.
2.3A4. All-Encompassing Scope.
No part of a public body’s work or office should fall outside the net of at least one Access Officer. For example, as of late 2022, while the Dept. of Housing and Local Government (DHLG) has Access Officers for several sections within it, it has no Access Officer dealing with the Housing Services Section, despite being notified by VVI of this shortcoming as far back as November, 2020.
2.3B. Other Accessibility-Related Information.
The availability of reasonable accommodations and Universal Design, e.g., the availability of personal assistance, and the fact that particular formats such as braille or large print are available on request, should be made known on websites and through front-of-house staff.
2.4. Expert Advice in Accessible System-Building.
2.4A. DPO Liason Officers.
To allow Access Officers to specialise in ‘reasonable accommodation’ (i.e., individual access enquiries, or micro engagements; in terms of macro policy, which involves Universal Design, DPOs need to be constantly prioritised in consultations by a public body. As such, VVI recommends that a fulltime DPO liason officer (DLO) be operating in every public body. Where public bodies are too small, these roles of Access Officer and DLO can overlap, once the relevant distinctions and designations are made clear.
Under current legislation (Disability Act (2005, S26), this consultation role is supposed to be co-ordinated by the Access Officer, a co-ordination which is extremely rare in practice, and which has yet to comply with Ireland’s obligations under the CRPD to prioritise DPOs. While we await legislation specific to DPOs, the DPO Liason Officer can still be created, since there is no legislation to prevent it, and it facilitates Ireland’s obligations. Alternatively, the DLO role could be created under the Disability Act (S26), effectively making for two Access Officers – one for the micro, and the other for the macro (DLO), and both working cooperatively together.
2.4B1. Role of VVI in Research.
The obligation to closely consult with and actively involve DPOs includes all aspects of relevant research and explanations of Universal Design (GC7, para. 17), and this process is also informed by the provision of Universal Design in ensuring that such consultation processes are accessible to DPOs in the first place (cf. ibid., para. 77).
As mentioned in 2.1D, above, and according to the CRPD, DPOs are the representative organisations of disabled people. This means that, in our own right, we have our collective positions on relevant policy areas, and these must be prioritised by prospective researchers in all framings of issues, especially where those issues are specific to visually impaired people. Our collective voice, in its own right, represents the pooled experience and collective expertise of our membership, from a wide variety of backgrounds and eye-conditions. In doing this, we have a rights-based focus, and prioritise the perspectives and needs of those of us with least supports and resources.
Given VVI’s explicitly representative role as a DPO, it is not our function to be a source of participants for others’ research. What limited resources we have are used in providing our own coherent voice and position, rather than in being a conveyer-belt of participants in others’ research, especially where our collective position has not been prioritised in the first instance.
Here we use the analogy of a trade union, which is the acknowledged representative organisation of workers. In order to establish what workers need and the best way of implementing their rights, a trade union is asked for its views in its own right, rather than it being asked to recruit individual members to participate in third party research (e.g., by employers), ostensibly to find out what those needs are.
This third party approach is tantamount to researchers (with little or no understanding of disability or visual impairment) attempting to read disembodied narratives instead of going to the pre-existing collective voice. Such an approach makes no sense.
Our basic immediate rights, including to accessible communication, do not require in-depth research. Rather, they are an application of the subsidiarity principle, with flexible respect of individual needs, through reasonable accommodation; and reverting to DPOs such as VVI for advice on the rights-based approach at the system level.
As a researcher, if your questions are not answered in our manuals or other policy documents, or if you do not understand any relevant part of them, we ask that you let us know, so that we can fill the gaps by reverting to our members. In doing this, we also fill the gap for the next researcher that comes along.
If we can be assured that VVI’s views and opinions (in VVI’s own right) are to be prioritised over those of any other civil society organisation, and that such prioritisation can be demonstrated, we will then be in a position to collaborate in, and advise on, research projects that we see as being of specific use and relevance to visually impaired people.
Beyond this, the incorporation of VVI’s perspectives into research that either focuses on visually impaired people or wishes to disaggregate visually impaired people as a category, is likely to very much strengthen the focus, findings, and interpretations of the research for the following reasons:
2.4B2. Limits of Research without DPO Input.
Without this close consultation and prioritisation of DPOs in research, any disability-related research is very likely to have the following fatal flaws:
- Not prioritising DPOs in research and research guidance, is in violation of Ireland’s cross-cutting obligation to closely consult with DPOs (CRPD, Article 4 (3)).
- identification of relevant issues: it is unlikely to be able to properly identify the most appropriate subjects of research, which is more often informed by lived experience, unmediated by non-disabled people or by disability service providers. In such cases, the very relevance of the research is undermined.
- prioritisation: DPOs are best placed to advise on the prioritisation of research subjects, in a way which makes for efficient use of resources in research, as well as making sure the subjects are most relevant and not duplicating what has already been researched elsewhere or unnecessary re-inventions of the wheel. For example, each Department does not need to have its own approach to communications with visually impaired people based on its own particular research. Indeed, in such a case, research on what is needed is of low priority, since, as can be seen in the remaining sections of this document, our immediate needs are known to us already, and they are immediate, rather than being dependent on research that each of us as individuals might not be part of. An example of basic needs which do not require research to meet, is the need for Standard English Braille (SEB) Readers to be given reasonable accommodation in having documents provided to them in SEB (see Section 8.3, below)).
- rights vs. majoritarianism: if research were to be done into the use of braille among visually impaired people, the results would find that there is a relatively low population of braille-readers, even among blind people. However, even if there were just one braille-reader left in Ireland, that person would still have a legal right to receive communications in braille. Similarly, VVI prioritises the needs and perspectives of those with least supports and resources, which are often liable to be overlooked by researchers (e.g., with focus groups favouring visually impaired people who are most mobile or most tech-savvy).
- representative voice: similarly, given that 1%+ of the population is blind, researchers find it difficult to target visually impaired people with research, and as such, to disaggregate us in that research. VVI is the pooled experience and collective expertise of various backgrounds and eye-conditions, giving us a major advantage over conventional research in finding out what is happening on the ground.
- DPOs cannot be replicated by disability service providers: DPOs represent pools of practical experience, but Service Providers have economic interests to protect.
- interpreting results: DPOs are the voice of disabled people in a similar way that trades union are the voice of workers. We are the unmediated expertise in our own conditions. Just as changes in workplace practices based on workplace surveys would need first to be put to the relevant trades union for perspective and advice on solutions, all research on disability needs to be interpreted through the lens of representative organisations of disabled people (DPOs).
2.4B3. Basic Tenets of Disability-Related Research.
While broad similarities exist in the experiences within impairment groups, only some of these may exist across the experience of the whole undifferentiated “Disabled” population. As such, disaggregation of disabled people by condition or impairment-type is generally a critical precondition for any research that intends to be useful. For example, how can the specific barriers to visually impaired people in a given context be addressed if a). we don’t know the relative prevalence of their disablement in such contexts; and b). if we don’t know the primary barriers they are encountering.
While VVI can accurately tell you that the primary disabling of visually impaired people comes through communication barriers and barriers to accessing our environment, breaking this down statistically, to see, for example, which health-care settings are the best or worst performers, and why, would be a very useful addition to our knowledge.
Much harder to get at in research, because of the relatively small numbers, are those with multiple disabilities of particular types. Disabiity Service Providers tend to specialise in provision of services to particular impairment types, so it can be difficult to ask a pool of, for example, those who are both blind and have an intellectual disability, to respond to surveys or be involved in focus groups. Good research in the specific impairments etc., play some part in addressing the needs of those with multiple impairments, but research specific to impairment combinations is also vital.
The earlier our practical or life experience can be involved in the formulation and carrying out of research, the more effective the research is likely to be.
Also, that early involvement of the life experienced can avoid Misunderstandings between the intention of researchers and the meaning of that research to disabled groups;
2.4C. Consultancy and Testing.
Of course, it is the prerogative of a public body to employ the services of a private consultant to advise on the accessibility of its communications, but this manual, in conjunction with other online resources and adequate training of staff in accessibility, should be enough for a public body’s personnel or contracted help to get it right.
As already mentioned in 2.1D3, above, getting an in-house visually impaired person to be a representative tester is not sufficient. There are many types of visual impairment, many levels of workaround skills, and many types of software and other formats. As such, ultimately, the unmediated collective and representative voice of visually impaired people, through their DPO, is the ultimate arbiter on whether or not a communications system is accessible.
2.5. Outsourcing Services to Third Parties.
2.5A. Contracts for Services.
Where any services, including information (such as personal communications, leaflets, guides, reports or submissions) are provided by a third party on behalf of the initial service-provider or public authority, such services (including communications services), must be accessible to all visually impaired people.
This also means that accessibility requirements should be included as a precondition in any specifications, for example, being explicit throughout a tendering process or reviews of such tenders or contracts. These requirements are, to a large extent, already set out in the Disability Act (2005, S27), and the National Disability Authority’s Code of Practice of Public Services and Information Provided by Public Bodies (s.i. 163 / 2006).
2.5B. Compulsion for Individual Use of Third Parties.
Similarly, a visually impaired person should not be compelled to rely on third-party service-providers (including as information sources) where such third-party services are inaccessible to the visually impaired person. Such a compulsion amounts to a discriminatory precondition on access to a service or right to entitlement.
Third parties will generally have to be compliant with the 2019 European Accessibility Act by July, 2025, and a visually impaired person should not be penalised for the discriminatory (and to-be illegal) actions of a third party.
2.6. Disability Equality Awareness Training.
All front-of-house staff, i.e., those who are likely to deal directly with the public, should receive adequate training in disability equality awareness. Such training should stress the social model of disability, rather than the traditional medical model: in other words, emphasising disability as a social construct, and disabled people as being rights-bearers and human beings with intrinsic equal dignity to all others.
Similarly, back-end staff, such as web designers, printers, etc., require training in Universal Design.
Up until now, the norm has been not to consult with disabled people as to what should be involved in disability-related training, but under Article 4 (3) of the CRPD, this can no longer be the case; and DPOs, in particular, must be closely consulted and actively involved in what such training should consist of. Such manuals as this document are a useful resource in this regard.