Every Day is an Audio Challenge

Every Day is an Audio Challenge

I’m ninety percent through the long and complicated process of filling out one of those lengthy internet sign-up forms. They’ve wanted everything from my phone number to my Social Insurance Number, and it’s getting a little excessive. There’s only one more field though, so I’m almost there… and then my screen reader cheerfully states  “Type the two words below! We need to check that you’re human!”. At this point, my very human impulses urge me to start keyboard mashing until something explodes. I calm down a little, though, since there’s an equally cheerful “Visually impaired? Get an audio challenge!” button below the text field.  Normally, when I hit this button, garbled but mostly comprehensible speech guides me so that I can successfully prove my humanity and move on with my life. Unfortunately, there are exceptions to everything, and this is one: I type the spoken numbers as carefully as I can, trying to ignore the weird, swirling background noise that sounds creepy enough to be a horror movie’s soundtrack. Then, with pounding heart, I hit “submit”. The page refreshes, and asks me to try again. So I do. And again. And again. And again. And because I am most definitely human, I give in to my exhaustion and give the whole thing up. So, no account for me, and there goes all the info I took so much time to input. Audio challenge, indeed!

When you’re a screen reader user, every day is an audio challenge. Websites change with the weather, and new updates often present more and more issues. Screen readers themselves are only updated now and then, so the only thing we’re left with is our ingenuity. Most often, larger websites will make a concerted effort to accommodate visually impaired  users, but even they slip up, and they slip up a lot.

The reason I choose to use the word “challenge”, though, is because I don’t mean to sit here and rant about how horrible it is that we can’t use the web as easily and efficiently as sighted people. As I’ve said before, disability automatically bars us from total and perfect equality, so to expect such out of the internet–a network that changes constantly–is only going to result in disappointment. However, there are some websites–large and small–that manage to provide a near-perfect experience, and they are what keep me from resorting to the keyboard mashing mentioned above.

I won’t waste space going into detail about which web features are useful and which are not; you’ll find many resources online that will give you far more information than I ever could. What I will do, though, is explain why accessibility is so important, and what inaccessibility can do to even the most casual of internet users.

I’ve seen the way sighted people react when they’re having difficulty with a website. They become very angry very quickly the moment something doesn’t operate exactly the way they expected it to. Sometimes such anger is justified, and sometimes it isn’t, but the point is that the frustration sighted people occasionally experience is something screen reader users deal with on a near-daily basis. We’re not talking about blind gamers who have difficulty performing complex maneuvers, or blind web developers struggling with code. We’re talking about the average, everyday user, who only wants to check her email and scroll idly through Facebook.

Take a very simple example: a friend of mine was recently struggling to get Facebook to sort her news feed by most recent post rather than by “top posts”. This should be a very easy task. All you have to do is check the little “sort” box so that the sort method is changed. It should be the work of five or so seconds. Unfortunately, she was having no such luck. On the  regular version of Facebook (the one that loads when you log in with your computer), the sort box isn’t even present. On the mobile version, it is present, but you can only access it with an iPhone, as far as I know. So, my friend would have had to switch to her iPhone specifically to log in via Safari, find the “sort” button, and tick the appropriate box. (Just to add insult to injury, Facebook automatically changes the sort style back after a few days, so this process must be repeated indefinitely. Facebook doesn’t like it when we think for ourselves.)

Sometimes, the consequences can be very serious. You might be thinking that being unable to sort your Facebook newsfeed to your liking isn’t much to get upset about, and for most people it isn’t. But what if inaccessibility begins to interfere with your performance at work or school? What if you can’t get a certain job purely because their databases don’t accommodate your screen reader? What if you can’t format a paper properly because of constraints beyond your control?

Here is the biggest accessibility stumbling block I’ve ever encountered: my university, like so many others, uses a platform called Blackboard to manage just about every aspect of university life. Assignments are posted there and must be submitted there. Notes are placed there for review and download. Readings are announced (yes, announced!) there and must be accessed before the next class. Some instructors even post links and other information there, so that if you can’t fully access Blackboard, you will find yourself very behind in a tearing hurry. Can you guess where this might be going? … Yes, exactly: Blackboard was not fully accessible with my screen reader when I started at university two and a half years ago. I could access some readings, but not others. I could click on some links, but not others. I could read some instructor announcements, but not others. As for downloading the files they uploaded? Forget it. I had other screen reader users try it, and none of them had any more success than I had. Until i managed to get instructors to understand that they’d have to eliminate Blackboard altogether when interacting with me individually, I was constantly struggling to find the material I needed, access it, and then post material of my own back to the site. I even know some professors who are so enamoured with Blackboard that they refuse to use any other medium (even email) regardless of the student’s issues with it.

So, sometimes we deal with a little more than a stubborn Facebook news feed. Sometimes we can’t even get hired because we won’t be able to use a company’s software properly. Sometimes we struggle with important tasks like online banking, student loan and scholarship applications, schoolwork, basic shopping, etc. Everything is online now, and alternatives to internet-based services are becoming more and more scarce. To say that it’s “just the internet” isn’t really a comfort anymore. Gone are the days when the biggest problem we had to face was an inability to access a message board about our favourite annagram games.

Experienced screen reader users (and anyone else who struggles with other accessibility issues) become very adept at working around most accessibility road blocks. Within seconds, I can post a question to my Twitter feed and receive answers (assuming my Twitter feed is accessible, of course!). We help each other out. We post detailed articles about how to circumvent some of the nastiest issues common to many of us. Getting by on the web, just as we do in real life, is something we’ve long realized will be the norm for the foreseeable future. However, whenever web developers help us out by making their websites easier to navigate, it offers us some much-needed breathing space. It’s lovely to visit a site and have it just…work. So, if you ever manage or develop a website of any sort, please consider being as inclusive as possible. Learn about all disabilities that hinder internet use–not just blindness–and do your bes to accommodate them wherever you are able. There are a significant number of us out there, and we could really use your help. Most often, the necessary changes are small and won’t interfere with the rest of your website.

Still need convincing? Have a look at a screen reader mailing list sometime, or cruise on over to a forum about accessibility issues. You’ll see staggering amounts of people in genuine need of assistance because they can’t make things work the conventional way. If you had to deal with that level of frustration every day, you might feel more inclined to help out.

Finally, I want to conclude by thanking all the web developers out there, sighted or blind, who continually work to make the web as accessible as possible. You guys are amazing and I am thankful for you every time things work as they should. You save me more time than you know (not to mention my limited sanity).

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I’m a Real Girl!

A few months ago I was enjoying lunch at a pub with some friends. We were chatting idly about Lush Cosmetics, a particular weakness of mine, when the server approached to bring us drinks. Interrupting, she said, “Oh! I’ve heard of Lush, but don’t really know anything about it; I’m not a real girl.”. And this got me thinking…

 

What does it mean to be a “real” girl? Or, more appropriately, what does it mean to be a real woman? Some claim it’s motherhood—that the ultimate purpose and design of woman is to bear children. Our society has moved a little beyond such a primitive and restrictive view, but what hasn’t It moved beyond? Some say it’s about being “girly”. But what does that mean, exactly, and at what point aren’t you girly enough to be “real”?

 

When I was growing up, my lack of “girliness” was keenly felt. Not only was I a practical person who didn’t like to spend my precious free time jabbering constantly about makeup and boys, but I was also unable to fully appreciate many of the pursuits my girlfriends enjoyed. Sure, I could let someone give me a makeover, but I couldn’t look into the mirror and appreciate the full effect. I was not comfortable doing anyone else’s makeup either (though there are many blind women out there who do makeup, hair, and nails with confidence—I applaud their courage!). So, the common sleepover parties didn’t really appeal to me; they were filled with trying on each other’s clothes, giggling a lot, an drooling over “cute” boys I’d never even spoken to before.

 

There are many small things I have not and will never do for myself that would make me a more “real” girl. I didn’t get to pick my own grad dress; my sister and mom, both being possessed of excellent taste, did most of the “choosing”. All I could tell them was what I liked, and having been exposed to very few dresses of that grandeur, I really had no opinion. I soon realized It wasn’t about comfort or the feel of the fabric or any other element I could actually understand. It was all about the look. Similarly, I will not be able to independently choose my own wedding dress. While I’ll definitely have a say in the matter, I won’t be able to comprehend on a gut level how it flatters my body, or skin, or eye colour, or any of the rest of it. Even when I do occasionally let people do my makeup for me (it’s not something I bother with on a regular basis), I can’t say it’s a huge source of excitement. I appreciate the glow of being told I look beautiful, but that’s about as far as it goes in a lot of cases.

 

For a long time, I felt horribly ostracized. I worried that I wasn’t “real girl” material. I fretted that not being enthusiastic about fashion and general cosmetics made me inferior, somehow, even a step lower than someone who can see but who chooses not to get excited about such things. But that server in that pub got me thinking, and she made me realize something: I am as real as it gets. I love perfume, and fragrant tea, and artisan soap, and candles, and pretty dresses. I love picking out skirts and fancy high heeled shoes it’ll take me ages to learn to walk in at any speed. I like Lush Cosmetics, and The Body Shop, and Rocky Mountain Soap Company, and even Scentsy. So, I must be a real girl, right?

 

Hang on, though: if these are the measuring sticks by which we measure a “normal”, “real”, or even “successful” girl/woman, is that not just as primitive as the idea that it is motherhood which defines us? Some girls like things that smell and look pretty, but others don’t. Some girls plan to have children, but some can’t or won’t. Is there some arbitrary threshold past which you are an acceptably real girl and before which you’re straddling the line, not quite belonging? We should be past all that. We should be relating to each other as human beings who like the same things, not as “girls” and “guys”. If my male friend likes candles, then we’ll go candle shopping. It doesn’t mean he’s not a “real” boy.

 

It’s okay to generalize, but when you start pushing people out—especially for reasons they can’t control, like personal preference or in my case, visual impairment—that’s your cue to draw the line. We put people in neat little boxes enough as it is. Let’s all just focus on being real human beings, shall we?

Can You See Me?

A few years ago, I performed an informal little social experiment while in the grocery store: I began by walking just behind the cart (I was pushing, my sighted companion steering) with my cane out and plainly visible. After a few minutes, I folded the cane and put it in the cart so that it was out of sight. I have “normal” eyes, so I don’t look conspicuously blind; if the cane isn’t easy to see, people don’t always realize right away that I have any sort of disability at all. Since I was just pushing the cart, the blindness really wasn’t obvious. You may well ask what the point of such an experiment could be. Here is what I discovered: while my blindness was on display, as it were, I got pitying, fascinated, or outright terrified looks. Mothers instinctively pulled their children from my path, even when they were in no danger whatsoever of colliding with me. The elderly and the very young gazed at me as though I were some foreign creature they’d never seen before. It was clear that while everyone was looking at me, they weren’t seeing me, the human woman. They were seeing a blind person, and no more. When the cane was out of sight though, people either didn’t notice me at all, or (in the case of the young male population, anyway) looked at me with interest. (This is not vanity; my sighted companion was the one who told me of this!)

 

What have I learned from experiments such as these? Well, quite a few things. One is that people are inherently afraid of (or at least fascinated by) what they don’t understand. Another is that people will never be completely comfortable with difference, no matter how hard we work to encourage tolerance. A third thing is that those with disabilities are hypervisible and totally invisible at the same time. We are either the centre of attention (in a zoo-creature kind of way) or we don’t exist at all. We are either being asked to speak on behalf of all disabled people, or we’re being completely overlooked. We’re either being asked if we need help (or other more intrusive questions) or we’re being severely marginalized. Our canes, dogs, wheelchairs, cochlear implants, talking phones and computers…these all ensure that we are very visible to everyone and anyone who is curious, frightened, or hostile. Yet these things also make us totally invisible as human beings. We are not individuals. Instead, we are archetypes, or representatives, or ambassadors. If we’re not any of those things, we’re not anything at all.

 

These are general observations; do remember that. Before you indignantly point out that not all people treat us this way, please keep in mind that I’m aware of that. I am surrounded by wonderful friends, family, instructors, employers, and total strangers who treat me with dignity, respect, and courtesy. Most of the people I know think of me as an individual and not as a spectacle to be gawked at.

 

The trouble is, there are also many people who do treat me like a spectacle.

People watch me perform every little minor task, exclaiming over it and pestering me with endless questions. I am hypervisible.

People discuss me well within earshot, sometimes complimenting but often just speculating about what might be wrong with me. I’m invisible.

People stare openly at me while I enjoy a day at the mall, being careful not to actually interact with me in any way. I am hypervisible.

People confuse me with other blind people because they recognize the cane but don’t recognize my face. I am invisible.

 

My life is not a spectator sport. My identity is not simply made up of disability and the quest to overcome it. As I’ve said time and time again, there is far more to me than what I can’t do. I don’t want to be anyone’s representative. I don’t want to be “special” just because I’m the first person to take a certain course, or work at a certain organization. Many people with disabilities find themselves pioneering and paving the way (more on that in upcoming posts) but we seldom enjoy it. It’s just another reminder that we’re less an individual person and more a symbol.

 

I understand that you’re curious. I understand that you mean well (mostly). I also find that the open, discourteous way people often stare at me bothers the people who love me far more than it bothers me. Just ask my sister; she’ll tell you what she thinks of people who do that. (She has been known to smile and wave at them until they are shamed into looking away, because she’s gloriously protective. I’m very lucky.) I understand that difference will always be intriguing, and scary, and daunting. I get it. But…

 

Please don’t watch me eat. Please don’t comment on every little thing I do as though it were the most interesting thing you’ve ever seen. Please don’t observe me with an eagle’s eye, leaping to react to my every movement. Please don’t talk about me like I’m not in the room. Please don’t make fun of other people with disabilities (derisively) when I’m present…

 

Please try to see past my cane and get to know my face. Please get past the fact of my blindness and get to know me as Meagan—the professional communications student who loves cats and hates mosquitoes.

 

Can you see me?