Yesterday, I went through a fascinating but painful experience on Twitter. A very popular activist posted an important piece of information about the women’s march, saying she wanted it to reach as many people as possible and encouraging people to share far and wide. As it turns out, these were pretty words: while she did host a plain-text version of the information on her website, the tweet contained an inaccessible image with the text inside. This makes it impossible for screen readers to interpret the contents of the image, leaving out anyone with too little vision to read the message without sighted help. What is more, this woman placed a URL to the accessible version inside the inaccessible image, completely defeating the purpose of including it at all!
Wanting to make the information easier to access, another disability activist asked that the original poster tweet the URl on its own, and stressed the importance of accommodating screen readers, particularly since the tweet was meant to be available to everyone. If you want something shared widely, then including as many people as possible makes sense.
I joined the conversation (I’m a glutton for punishment), pointing out that Twitter has a handy alt text feature that makes it possible and easy to describe images. This feature would have been perfect for making sure the URL was readable for everyone, including blind screen reader users. I did not expect immediate action; I didn’t even expect a response at all. I just wanted to raise awareness about an option that is often overlooked and that would save people so much time and effort.
What did I get for my trouble? Well, nothing encouraging. Two of this activist’s followers jumped into my Twitter mentions to tell me the following.
• I had no right to “harass” someone who is doing her best.
• I was devaluing the tireless, exhausting work she was doing.
• I should go find something “real” to complain about.
• The only reason I was speaking up was that I was “bored with my life” and had nothing better to do. (Yes, because a full-time job, a social life, a relationship, and a budding freelance career mean I’m ever so bored and useless. I adore being judged based on nothing at all.)
• I should stop attacking people on Twitter.
Let’s break this down. A person (whose followers presumably agree with her) professes commitment to inclusiveness. Intersectionality, a buzzword many on the far left are fond of using, only applies to some groups. Disability is not included in that group, which is typical of a lot of feminist, left-wing activism; we’re often invisible to the loudest, proudest voices. Since I am disabled, I must be a bored, unproductive person. Asking for access is considered harassment by default, even when it’s a fairly polite, solitary tweet devoid of name-calling and anger. My concerns aren’t “real” or meaningful. Inclusion doesn’t include me, or other disabled people, and sharing far and wide means restricting your audience, even after you’re told how to remedy the issue. Finally, harassment doesn’t go both ways: tearing a stranger to pieces and continuing to tweet them after I’ve said I’m done with the conversation is acceptable, but sending one informational tweet is not.
I hate hypocrisy, and it’s inexpressibly devastating to come across it in the very communities that are supposed to support and include minorities. Why is disability so often absent from these people’s minds, and why, when it’s brought to their attention, is it so callously and vehemently dismissed? Why don’t we count?
I try to be patient with people. I try not to live a life of constant rage and victimhood. I realize that baby steps are par for the course and our rights and humanity won’t be fully recognized overnight. Education is vital and not every activist should be expected to have intimate knowledge of what we need right off the bat.
You would think, however, that once they’re enlightened, they’d act on what they have learned. Many of them do; later in the day, another Twitter user I approached apologized and was more than happy to make changes to her inaccessible tweets. Her warmth, sincerity, and complete lack of defensiveness were exactly what I needed after such a disappointing encounter.
I can put this down as one unfortunate incident and move on, and I intend to do just that. Before putting it behind me, though, I feel bound to tell people about my experience, and explain why that never should have been allowed to happen. Even among supposedly inclusive circles, I was treated like an annoyance who should just go away and stop complaining already. These people have “real” work to do. Can’t I leave them to do it?
This is not okay. You cannot and should not be allowed to get away with cherry-picking which minorities to support. You should not get to decide who is worthy and who is not. We’re not perfect, and sometimes we are guilty of cutting people down for honest mistakes. Despite this, I will continue to hold inclusive communities accountable for their refusal to acknowledge and stand with us. (Predictably enough, the activist I tweeted did not back me up or tell her followers to stop.)
In the meantime, I’m going to appreciate and uplift those who are willing to listen and act. The world isn’t all bad, and I can’t let myself drown in a sea of rage-fuel that really isn’t personal. I know I’m not useless. I know that my access requests are legitimate. I know I’m worthy of respect. I’ll just have to wait patiently for everyone to clue in, I suppose.
Now, excuse me while I get back to my productive, useful life.
Hi Meagan, I truly resonate with your outrage. As a totally blind activist who has spent a great deal of time in left-leaning spaces, I completely agree with you that we are too often ignored when it comes to intersectional social justice concerns. And that is absolutely not ok, and neither is the response you received. However, I found myself feeling a bit troubled by your example of folks who are included in social justice activism despite their relatively small number. What I heard between the lines–and please correct me if I am mistaken–was a frustration that some groups of folks are perceived as cooler and thus people are more apt to accommodate them, and since disability will never be cool, all we are are burdens, we can’t possibly be friends and colleagues. This activist’s response was wildly inappropriate and infuriating, and I feel we don’t do ourselves any favors when we claim that our large numbers mean we should be included on that count. Rather, the critique we ought to be leveling is that inclusion, to be real, is multifaceted. Don’t go only for the low-hanging fruit. Something I have heard time and time again from friends of mine who are trans* is a frustration that people tend to go for the low-hanging fruit only and don’t truly include them, either. The overarching issue is an indibtment on whether or not some activists are truly doing the work. Again, I echo and resonate with your outrage. It is positively exhausting. And I absolutely love the blog. Keep up the good work!
Hi, Lauren. Thank you so much for reading. I hope I get to keep you as a reader.
You make an excellent point. You’re right that I never intended to come across the way you describe, but I absolutely shouldn’t have phrased my point the way I did. I think I was just trying to express frustration that even our large numbers aren’t enough. You’re correct that our numbers should not determine whether we should be supported, obviously, and I certainly don’t mean to take away from the rights of trans people. I think I will go and edit this post for clarity. Thanks again for bringing this to my attention.
I find I’m constantly asking if people are comfortable describing what’s in photos or if a video is music and nothing else or if the video is of something but it’s in another language most have been okay with describing such things although I sometimes wonder whether this could be becoming a habbit. If I’m thinking of friendships for example this is a common question I ask so as to be sure they are friedship material
Unfortunately this does not surprise me. I don’t know why we are always left out of general activism on behalf of diversity but I do know it’s standard practice here in New Zealand, too.
Ten years ago when I was working for Radio New Zealand and a friend was the Disability Commissioner at our Human Rights Commission she told me of running battles she’d had with the then Race Relations Conciliator. There would be an annual forum for every conceivable minority, yet disability was always excluded. as far as I recollect she was unable to get a straight answer as to why this was so.
Today there is a talented and high-profile constitutional lawyer who, born in Taiwan and raised in New Zealand, is now championing diversity. at a speech she made in my home town I urged her not to exclude disability, since we exist in every culture on the planet. She did not reply to my comments, though she did reply to others. However, I did get quite a bit of applause from the audience so perhaps there is hope.
As to the reason for this behaviour among those whom we would expect to be enlightened, I can only imagine that it’s because they don’t see us as whole people. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we are whole and entire, including — not despite — our impairments. This goes against millennia of societal conditioning and, while breaking it will be difficult, it is not impossible. It will require absolute determination from all of us, whether or not we have impairments.
Hi, Kylee. I sympathize with your frustration. I wouldn’t say we are always left out, and I’d also say the general landscape is improving, but situations like the ones we’ve been through prove we’ve a long, arduous path ahead of us.
This makes me sad. Here are people who hoot and holler about inclusion and yet, and I’m wondering how conscious this is, they participate in the very sort of marginalization they spend all their energies on being against. Only thing this demonstrates is human nature outweighs political or even religious beliefs. No, we’re not ghosts that you can banish away, we’re real solid living people. Try as you might you can’t wish us away so you might as well just accept reality and accept us, unless of course you actually don’t believe the things you say you do.
I think it is mostly unconscious. People don’t include us rather than actively excluding us, if you know what I mean. Once we’re brought to someone’s attention, though, it becomes conscious, and you’re right: human nature so often prevails over principles.
Hi Meagan,Hi Meagan, I have resonated with so much on your blog and I will most certainly continue reading! Thank you so much for your response to my earlier comment!!! And I just want to reiterate how much I resonate with your outrage. It’s completely unacceptable and hypocritical.
Thank you. 🙂
“Intersectionality, a buzzword many on the far left are fond of using, only applies to some groups. Disability is not included in that group, which is typical of a lot of feminist, left-wing activism; we’re often invisible to the loudest, proudest voices.”
Have you read Everyday Feminism? Not only is disability included but cartoons/images are described. Any time intersectionality is used disability’s included. Like any group not dealing with it many don’t get it, but to suggest it isn’t on the radar is inaccurate.
I’m disappointed (nay, pissed) at the reaction you got. That kind of thing is exhausting. I hope they get themselves together and make a better effort in future.
I hope someone has learned something from this too. I think it’s important to be aware of what are needs are and how they mesh with others – we can all advocate for each other without creating a “my issues are more important than yours” feel to it. That won’t help anyone.
I’m not sure I ever claimed my issues were above someone else’s. If I implied this, it was unintentional. You are correct that arguing over who is more important is totally useless. Division is the last thing we need.
Hello there. Thank you for reading, and thanks also for your thoughtful response.
You’ll notice that I was careful to qualify my words: I used “many” rather than “all,” to illustrate that I’m aware of exceptions like Everyday Feminism and Medium and The Mighty. There are growing numbers of feminists who recognize and support us, and many of the ones who don’t are not excluding consciously. That said, experiences like the ones I had prove that at least some are totally okay with dismissing us, even when they’re given suggestions as to how to extend their banners to cover us, too.
You’re right that saying we’re not on anyone’s radar would be inaccurate, but you’ll also notice I didn’t say that. I simply said that we’re not on many people’s radar, which I believe to be true. Yes, things are getting better, and yes, I see us included in far more discourse than ever before, but activists much wiser and better-acquainted with the community have felt the lack. I’m not the first to point this out.
As for the blanket statement about intersectionality…yes, I know in theory it should apply to us, too, but in this particular case, it did not. People who preached intersectionality didn’t feel it needed to extend to people with disabilities, especially when it was inconvenient to accommodate us. However, if this was unclear to even one reader, it means I need to qualify my sweeping statements more carefully. Thank you for pointing this out; I will go back and edit it when I have a moment.
Thank you for posting this. What you’ve described here has been an ongoing issue I’ve also encountered since returning to (or rather, trying to return to) activism now that I’m older and have accumulated some health problems myself, and some better awareness of things like sensory accessibility issues in digital communication.
Catching up on comments at last. Thank U so much for reading and commenting; I really appreciate it. I’m sorry to see that you’ve come across this phenomenon yourself, but I’m so glad that you are aware of and sensitive to this issue. I’m sure a lot of people are very grateful.