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In San Francisco, Accessibility Means Better Engagement for Everyone

An interview with Deborah Kaplan, Deputy Director of Programmatic Access in the San Francisco Mayor’s Office on Disability

One in 10 San Franciscans reports a disability — a significant number in a city with a population in excess of 850,000.

The city also has significant populations who speak languages other than English, some with Limited English Proficiency (LEP): 150,000 Chinese speakers (91,000 LEP); 88,000 Spanish speakers (32,000 LEP); and 22,000 who speak Filipino (8,000 LEP).

For San Francisco to engage its diverse population, it needs to focus on accessibility.

Walking the Walk

In 2021, a comprehensive city survey of
digital access and accessibility resulted in recommendations that could transform the participation of disabled, older and marginalized people in government programs. But for Deborah Kaplan, Deputy Director of Programmatic Access in the San Francisco Mayor’s Office on Disability (MOD), that’s just a starting point.

“We’re now figuring out all that’s involved in implementing those recommendations,” she said.

One issue the city faces in promoting accessibility is the independence of its agencies and departments. “San Francisco is the Wild West,” Kaplan said. “And decentralization is not accessibility’s friend.”

Although the city has a wealth of recommendations for making digital resources accessible, getting them adopted across all its programs is a challenge.

Taking Advantage of Change

The city and county of San Francisco adopted the Digital Accessibility and Inclusion Standard in November 2021. It requires all new city and county digital content to meet accessibility, language and reading-level requirements. Existing digital resources have until March 2024 to meet the standard.

“We have all of that together in one standard,” Kaplan noted. “If you’re looking at it from the perspective of the citizen, that makes sense. If you’re looking at it internally, it’s [many] different offices.”

One approach San Francisco has taken piggybacks on the migration of city websites to
a new domain, from sfgov.org to sf.gov. Sfgov.org was built on an older version of Drupal, which allowed a less standardized approach. “The new one is templated,” Kaplan said, “and is, by definition, designed to be accessible. Much of the city now has either migrated to, or is migrating to, the new site.”

Success is a Process

The steps that made city functions available to more residents during the pandemic opened new ways for San Franciscans with disabilities to participate in decision-making and tap into services. MOD’s “Accessibility Guide for Digital Events, Presentations and Meetings” helped make remote and hybrid public meetings

so successful that a coalition of disability organizations is campaigning for the city to continue remote access even as it goes back to convening in person.

“There was a major increase [in attendance], but it wasn’t just from people with disabilities. It was from everybody,” Kaplan said.

That observation — that accessibility benefits more than a small group of outliers — underlies Kaplan’s advice on engaging the whole community. Her tips:

1. Understand that accessibility helps everyone.

Don’t assume you know who’s disabled, or what accessibility resources they’re using. Recognize that there are people whose impairment may be less apparent but who still benefit from accessibility measures. “It’s not a separate thing for a separate group of people,” Kaplan said.

2. Integrate accessibility from the beginning.

Leaving it as a checkbox to be ticked late in the process leads to a vicious cycle, according to Kaplan. “[When] people believe accessibility slows things down, [they] don’t deal with it until towards the end.” At that point, any issues are harder to fix. “Then everybody gets mad and frustrated,” she said. “You need to include accessibility as one of the principles you’re going to develop around.”

3. Build accessibility into the whole organization.

Don’t confine the work of accessibility to an office like MOD. Agencies need to develop their own internal expertise to deal with the more predictable accessibility issues in their work. Save the experts for when something complex comes along, Kaplan advised.

The journey in San Francisco is ambitious but ongoing. “Even with great intentions, we’re not [yet] where we aim to go,” Kaplan said.

This article appears in our “Guide to Building Constituent Engagement.” For more ideas on how agencies are improving their outreach, download the guide.

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