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Russian dolls – Preferences or access needs?

five brightly painted wooden dolls that fit inside each other
Photo: Matryoshka Russian Dolls by Marco Verch under Creative Commons 2.0

Russian dolls

Like a Russian doll we hold many personalities within us. The outermost doll faces the world. A second doll is our friendship face, a third doll connects us with our partners and children. Our fourth doll dances with the dog when no one is looking. Deep inside, is tiny baby doll; nervous of the world.

Our baby doll fears the world is unfriendly but smiles hopefully. Baby’s needs, influences all our other personalities including the big tough doll we show to the outside world. Baby’s needs may mean we have an access need or a preference.

What’s the difference between an access need or a preference?

When I worked at the audience agency, I discussed disabled people’s access needs for captions, British Sign Language interpretation or audio description. A colleague asked.

"What about preferences?"

My immediate thought was, It’s not a preference. It’s not “I prefer captions” but “I need captions.”

For a disabled person there is usually a clear difference between a preference or a need.

  • Preference for captions implies the person can mostly understand without them
  • Need for captions implies they mostly cannot access the service without

But for the organisation, what difference does it make? The successful organisation delivers services how their customers want them delivered. It is not creating a service and then fitting people into it. The ideal of Usability is designing systems for people. Not manipulating people to fit into systems. If people have a need, meet that need. If they have a preference, meet that preference.

Why don’t people come?

The Audience Agency focus on the key question for arts and cultural events. Why don’t people come? Why are they not attending my event? Why aren’t our audiences representative of the local community? If, over 20% of our community are Asian, why aren’t 20% of our audiences Asian? These are complex questions without easy answers. Are people ruling themselves out because we do not meet their preferences and needs?

Ruling yourself out

People rule themselves out - consciously or unconsciously - they decide, this is not for me. Do they do this because of a preference or a need?

  • A restaurant – "that’s too posh for me, I’ll feel uncomfortable"
  • A play at the theatre – "no captions, I won’t understand what is going on, English is my second language"
  • A café – "that’s so loud and dimly lit. I can’t see to talk with friends"
  • A public meeting – "I’m nervous about talking in front of hundreds of people"

Our baby doll influences our preferences and needs. Customers preferring not to attend may be a result of hidden disabilities and undisclosed needs. Statistics show that people spend a decade with declining hearing before they visit their audiologist. During that decade they rule themselves out of many events and situations. If someone prefers captions or a quiet environment, this may be an unrecognised and undisclosed need. That fits neatly with Judith Fellowes blog Being Accessible: Don’t wait to be asked.

Meeting needs

Customers and staff are happier if we meet their preferences and needs. We don’t wait to be asked but design our services to fit with people. We create a relaxed and popular environment by consulting and implementing services that meet people’s physical, psychological and emotional preferences and needs.

Russian dolls – dealing with baby doll

There is no clear division between a preference and a need. The fears and needs of baby doll inside us may be driving our preferences and expressed or unexpressed needs. Meeting preferences is meeting needs. It is calming the fears of baby doll and allowing your fourth doll to dance with the dog - not caring that people are looking.

2 thoughts on “Russian dolls – Preferences or access needs?

  1. Jane

    Fab article - i have just quoted it in our Accessibility planning meeting as we are discussing Needs vs Preferences. It seems the team are more engaged in providing solutions based on needs and have deprioritised preferences as an 'added expense'

    1. michael_fellowes

      Thanks Jane, glad you found it helpful. It's not always clear when needs end and preferences begin. Sometimes its a blurry line and sometimes we can’t see the line at all. If we don't accommodate preferences we are ruling people out or allowing them to rule themselves out. Part of the challenge of accessibility these days is some people see it as being very polarised, either you have an access need or you don't. In reality there are lots of in-between spaces.


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