Inclusion For All! (Unless You’re Disabled)

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.

How Do You … Stay Organized?

This week, we have another post in the new “How do you…” series. As always, I’m wide open to suggestions!


How do you stay organized?

Uh-oh. I was afraid of this one.
Is this where I admit that I live in a constant state of organized chaos?
Okay, I lied…about the organized part. Basically I live in chaos. My life is chaos, okay? Happy now?
All right, so I do have some ability to keep track of my belongings, and since blind people spend a good deal of our precious time finding and identifying objects, I thought it made sense to address this topic today, squirmy as it makes me.
The key to relative success seems to involve a whole lot of consistency. If I, as a blind person, don’t put things back where I found them, I will never find them again (or, when I do find them, it’ll be because I tripped over them). Since I’d rather not spend my life rescuing items from the danger zone that is my floor, I use a combination of labels, technology, and complex organizational systems to ensure everything is easy to keep track of.
Labels are very useful, especially when I can use handy gadgets like the Pen Friend. The pen comes with special adhesive tags that you can attach to objects. You touch the tip of the pen to the label, hold down a “record” button, and speak your desired message aloud. Then, each time you touch the pen to that specific label, it will play back your message. I use this to categorize my vast tea collection, for example.
My memory isn’t what it was—a combination of medication and migraines has seen to that—but I still rely on it for simpler organization. I memorize which items of clothing make great outfits, and line up foods in my cupboards a certain way so I can prevent culinary disasters (like that time I almost used frozen berries instead of frozen peas).
Technology is more of a last resort: if my other systems have failed, or if I’m unable to identify something I’ve just purchased, there are mobile apps I can use to take photos of objects and have them identified for me. The process can necessitate a whole lot of fiddling, especially since one of my many weaknesses is taking awful photos, but it works well in a pinch.
Perhaps now my sighted friends will understand why it’s imperative that blind people’s belongings be left alone. If you reorganize or move our possessions without our permission or knowledge, you could inadvertently disrupt a complex system that will be difficult to straighten out. Besides the fact that leaving objects where you find them is an element of basic courtesy, failing to do so can throw us off for days while we struggle to put things right. Please, be careful and respectful when handling our things. We appreciate it very much.

Dear Web Developers: You’re Out Of Excuses

It’s been one of those days—a day that makes me want to shut down my computer and hide under a quilt to cry. It’s barely noon, and I’m already utterly fed up. If I had chocolate, I’d be binge-eating it; if I had wine, I’d be guzzling it.
Fellow disabled people will understand the kind of day I’m having: it’s the kind during which almost every single task I try to accomplish online is blocked by accessibility issues.
I encounter accessibility roadblocks all the time, though they usually have workarounds. I’m so used to them that I hardly give them much thought, and don’t waste much of my limited emotional energy on being annoyed with them. They’re a fact of life and, while I do report bugs and encourage web developers to improve, I’ve worked to embrace a positive, patient attitude when it comes to navigating the internet. Most days, I’m just grateful that I can access the internet at all. Sure, I get snarky, but generally I would rather help than condemn.
On days like these, though, I’m less philosophical. Smothering my frustration when I ran into yet another inaccessible capcha became increasingly difficult, and when I tried to report the issue using the site’s contact form, I discovered that the “submit” button wasn’t accessible either. At that point, I realized I had no chill. None. I searched for it, willing it to return, but I’m thoroughly, disproportionately discomposed.
I get it: accessibility isn’t always intuitive, and many developers are self-taught. They learn as they go along, and mistakes like these are almost inevitable. While I’m not a developer myself—I’m proud when I manage to use html correctly—I can imagine that accessibility might not be covered well in school, either. During a course on web design and online information architecture, my class received one short lesson on accessibility—just enough to explain what accessibility actually is and why it’s important, but not enough to provide insight into how it can be accomplished. There was little mention of accessibility tests, plugins, consultants, or basic handbooks. Few practical solutions were discussed. In other words, the lesson focused on awareness only, without providing a solution to the issue it raised. How useful is that? Well, it’s not useful at all.
So, yes, I understand that inclusive web design may not come naturally to a budding developer. It also might be challenging for a veteran because web accessibility has evolved considerably. As people with various disabilities speak out about what they need, accessibility becomes more comprehensive and, therefore, more complicated. I don’t pretend to know all there is to know. I’m not even close to that point yet.
Still, as in so many areas of life, ignorance is not a justifiable defence. It’s 2016, and accessibility guidelines are one click away. I’ve just performed a basic Google search, “web accessibility,” and the entire page of results is filled with helpful articles ranging from the most basic to the most advanced. Surely even beginners can take at least a few steps to ensure their websites are as inclusive as possible!
I’ve concluded that my frustration is fuelled by years of feeling like a burden when I asked developers to fix some problem or other. I was often treated like an unreasonable user who was asking for the moon, and I became accustomed to that. With notable exceptions like Apple and Buffer, my requests for improvements have often been ignored or dismissed. Several companies have lost my business entirely because I literally could not use their services anymore.
I’m growing weary of explaining that accessibility is not a privilege, but a right. I’m sick of reiterating that, no, accessibility is not about doing us a “favour.” I’m desperately tired of insisting that while ease of use isn’t mandatory, accessibility certainly is.
Developers need to add accessibility to their core values. They need to stop lumping accessibility into a category alongside perks, special features, and enhancements. They need to stop reducing it to a public relations stunt, designed only to generate glowing publicity. They need to consider it standard, not extra. Making your site accessible should be framed as the least that can be done to provide a satisfactory user experience. Companies like Apple, which include accessibility as a matter of course as often as possible, shouldn’t be as notable and praiseworthy as they are. What they are doing should not only be common, but normal. Expected. Fundamental.
So, developers, please listen: you are running out of excuses. You can’t claim ignorance; there is too much information out there for you to do that. You can’t hide behind pleas that you don’t have the time or the skill; accessibility plugins abound, and the simplest steps you can take are ones so easy to implement that even I, not tech-savvy by anyone’s standards, can figure them out. You can no longer classify accessibility as optional. Unless we’re talking about visually-based games, for example, there is no sufficient reason to leave a button unlabeled or an image undescribed. By failing to take these essential measures, you’re effectively shirking your responsibility to your users.
For now, we have workarounds. We have specialized software to help us circumvent accessibility challenges. We have extensive experience, accessibility consultants, and countless developers who are already on the right track. All is not bleak. Much of the internet is mostly, if not totally, accessible, and it’s getting better all the time. But …
I’m done making excuses for you. I refuse to apologize when I can’t access features of a website. I can’t in good conscience allow you to view my access issues as an inconvenience. I’m no longer going to defend your ignorance, your unwillingness to take the time, or your belief that I’m asking too much. Developers, I’m not asking a lot. I’m merely asking that I and fellow disabled users be able to access your website. That’s it. I just want to create an account, browse your services, and maybe even give you my money and share your content. I’m happy to help. I’ll cheerfully act as a beta tester. I don’t mind reporting bugs and offering suggestions on how to make your site better. I understand the difference between “inaccessible” and “imperfect.” When it comes to helping you make your site more inclusive, my time is yours.
Until you recognize that it’s time for change, however, I will no longer give you a pass. If you have the resources to make your website eye-catching and flashy and exciting, you definitely have the ability to make sure it’s usable, too. Karl Groves puts it more eloquently than I ever could: accessibility problems are “quality problems,” and nothing less.

4 Sources Of Functional Illiteracy That Technology Can’t Fix (Yet)

Most blind people are perfectly literate. We may need screen readers and/or braille dots to do it, but most of us can read as well as any sighted person. Further, much of the reading material that was once unavailable to us—magazines, newspapers, pamphlets—can be accessed online. It’s much easier to be a bookworm in 2016 than it was in, say, 1995. The world of the written word is, more often than not, accessible now. There will always be exceptions, though, and those unfortunate little exceptions can conspire to create a lot of grumbling, at least in my life. You see, no matter how accessible the world becomes, blind people will remain functionally illiterate when it comes to…

1. Signs

Signs: helpful little things, which do a lot more than indicate street names and business establishments. GPS and a healthy knowledge of the city was not helpful to me when I nearly trailed the delicate sleeve of my favourite blouse in wet paint because I couldn’t read the sign on the railing. I’ve nearly ruined a cherished skirt while trying to sit on a newly-painted bench. I’ve slid on wet floors, only finding (and knocking over) the helpful wet floor sign after the fact. (Those really do lend themselves well to being loudly and conspicuously toppled, don’t they?) I’ve tried to use elevators and toilets that were out of order. I’ve tried to walk through emergency exits when there was no emergency in sight. All the many helpful hints signs can provide are lost on me, and it is only the boundless kindness of strangers that has saved me from many an embarrassing mishap. (Thanks to the odd passers-by, I still own both blouse and skirt!)

2. Subtitles and Captions

So there I am, watching some powerful video or other, when suddenly the actors switch language. The nice video editors have thoughtfully provided subtitles, but I’m left feeling totally lost. If I’m lucky, the video comes with description, so at least the describer can read the subtitles to me, though this is quite distracting and really takes away from the flow of dialogue. Mostly, I’m unlucky, and nearby sighted people are subjected to eyelash-fluttering and relentless entreaty until they agree to read me the subtitles. It’s frustrating, and while it doesn’t come up very often—I’ve memorized the Elvish bits in LOTR, so that at least is no issue—it’s a real thorn when it does.

3. Handwriting

No matter how skilled we become at inventing and using technology that can read printed material from menus, books, and photos, I don’t know if we’ll ever progress to the point where the blind can access handwriting. Everyone’s handwriting is unique, some more readable than others, but even the neatest penmanship is essentially inaccessible to anyone who can’t see it for themselves. I’ve only a rudimentary understanding of printed letters as it is, so when someone leaves handwritten notes, or uses fancy calligraphy on a bottle of perfume, I’m left wondering. Reading about how personal and intimate handwritten letters are does not help with morale, either. Excuse me while I go shed a few tears over the fact that I’ll never receive a handwritten love letter. I’ll never even take a Buzzfeed quiz on what my handwriting says about me.
Okay, I’m done now.

4. Packaging

It’s getting easier to read labels on packaging now that we have image recognition apps. If you’re able to snap a clear photo of the object in question, it’s possible to have your smart phone rattling off the information in seconds. This assumes you, unlike me, are any good at taking good photos on the first or seventh try, of course. No matter how intelligent the technology, no matter how clear the photo, no matter how strong your desire to read the packaging, however, the fact remains that some companies just don’t make it easy for us. The print on some items is so miniscule even fully-sighted people struggle to read the finer points. Try reading an expiration date or ingredients list without a microscope. And, if you can find and read the instructions without five minutes of fiddling, come talk to me. It would take less time to read a five-page forum on how to open that stubborn bottle of toilet cleaner than it would to find the convoluted instructions printed in tiny lettering on the back. Besides, you meet cool new people while trying to open things. If that fails, you can always resort to more eyelash-fluttering, obviously.

I’m glad to report that, as with so many issues, functional illiteracy for blind people is diminishing. We’re able to access so much material online now that the need to read conventionally is lessening every day. I am seldom reminded of my disability when it comes to reading material, and maybe that’s why it’s so jarring when I am. If you become accustomed to accessing something, and are suddenly and definitively unable, it stands out even more sharply for its rarity. Nothing transports me back to childhood faster than having something read to me, and that’s not the type of childhood nostalgia I welcome. My hope is that strangers will stay kind, and friends will stay patient. Just remember, while you’re rereading that piece of paper for the fifth time, I’m just as frustrated as you are.

If I Had A Million Dollars…

When I become a rich and famous copyeditor (stop laughing, damn it), I know exactly what I will do. Forget the posh beach vacations and the shopping sprees and the sumptuous dinners (okay, I’m keeping the dinners). When (not if) I have a million dollars at my disposal, I’m going to get … a personal assistant.
Yup.
That’s it.

Just imagine it, friends: I could say to this assistant, “I have a job interview. I don’t want to be late. Could you drive me please?” (Naturally I’d ask, because Canadians do things like that). I could say to this assistant, “I don’t understand what this bizarre Facebook video even means. Help!” and they’d describe it to me. I could say to this assistant, “Does this outfit work?” and they’d say “…it does, but you might want to turn that top right side out…” and I’d skip off, safe in the knowledge that a crisis was averted. (Just kidding, guys! That never happens. Never ever.)
I can just feel the heavy weight of blind-person frowns. I can hear the mutterings: “Meagan, you are perfectly capable of coordinating your own clothing, and calling a cab or taking public transport. What do you need an assistant for? Aren’t you a strong, capable, independent blind woman?” (I’ve fooled you all so well, ha ha!)
To this I answer, yes. Yes, I am capable of calling a friend and asking for a description of a confusing video. Yes, I’m capable of jumping on the bus or calling a taxi. Yes, I’m capable of going through the store with a customer service agent and collecting what I need. Yes, I’m *capable*. But…

But what if I don’t wanna?
That’s right, I said it. What if I don’t feel like calling the Edmonton Transit Service and trying to figure out which bus goes where, while dealing with fuzzy directions and confusion on both sides? What if I don’t know quite what I want in the grocery store, and just want to browse? What if I don’t want to wait around for a kind friend to describe that video? What if, like any sighted person, I just want to get something done–quickly, efficiently, and without fuss? What if?

Yes, you’re still frowning at me, I know. Most of the time I prefer to get things done on my own, it’s true, even if it’s not always quite as efficient as it might otherwise be. Still, I don’t think customer service workers at the local grocery store would appreciate me asking them to read every single tea they carry so I can choose just one. It would be so lovely to know that someone was being paid specifically to walk around with me and tell me what they see. If a sighted person can hire someone to wash their floors and book their plane tickets—all things they could do themselves but choose not to—surely I can pay someone to be my eyes for a while?

I used to judge, too. Even a couple of years ago, when meeting someone with a PA for simple shopping and traveling, I might have frowned nice and deep, and said, “Don’t they value their independence?” (Judge judge judge.)
Then I did a little more living in this fast-paced world of ours, and I realized that this PA thing? It’s damn handy.

So, I will continue to get things done on my own, usually as efficiently as any sighted person, but not always. I will not waste my precious coin on personal assistants, spending it instead on the necessities of life, such as tea and books. (What are you frowning about now? Stop that!)

But a girl can dream.

Accessibility: What It Is And What It Isn’t

I’d be hard pressed to overstate the importance of accessible technology. The world leans so heavily on it that excluding any group from its use borders on injustice and is, at best, an unwise move. Accessibility makes good business sense. It widens audiences. It generates glowing publicity. It raises awareness. In short, it’s a win-win for basically everyone.

Unfortunately, it appears that some people with disabilities, and blind people in particular—the population I know best—have lost perspective. Accessibility is, at its core, a goal that demands that products be designed with as many people in mind as possible. Ideally, a blind person playing with, say, a new feature of Facebook should be capable of accessing it. Put another way, accessibility simply means that every button is labeled, every graphic is described, at least in simple terms, every link is clickable, and every menu is navigable via means other than the mouse. This does not even begin to scratch the surface of accessibility for all populations, but it’s a fairly comprehensive list of the things blind people hope for and expect from technology. The cost of inaccessible software alone can be devastating. It’s a real slog to mess with vital services that are inaccessible, like government websites and debit machines.

All this being said, accessibility is not inherently synonymous with ease of use. Obviously it is in everyone’s best interest that products be easy to use; user-friendly products make good sense, after all, in a world so driven by productivity. However, an app or website does not need to be a dream to use in order to be accessible. An app might be a little difficult to figure out at first, because it has an unfamiliar interface or a button whose function is not immediately and glaringly obvious. Maybe the documentation is low-quality and support lacking.

Even so, this does not mean the app or website is universally impossible to access. There are many programs I use often that other blind people consider partially or totally inaccessible, not because they are, but because it takes a little fiddling to get them to work. Unfamiliar interfaces are not inaccessible by default. User-unfriendly apps are not inaccessible by default. The world certainly owes all disabled populations a reasonably accessible environment, but it does not owe them a perfect, effortless experience. We fight so many legitimate battles over accessibility, so we cannot waste energy screaming over features that are merely tricky or troublesome, not inaccessible outright. I don’t believe that we ought to shut up and be grateful, but it is worth taking a few steps back, and remembering what accessibility is (and what it isn’t).

Yes, Blind People Can Use Computers

Being blind in the 21st century means I get to have conversations like the following two:
1. “So, I’m interested in this job…”
“Oh, no, impossible, sorry.”
“Why?”
“Well…you’d need to use a computer, you see…”
2. “Hi. I’m new to this chat site and I can’t figure out what I’m doing. I’m blind, so I need some shortcut keys instead of mouse commands. Does anyone know any?”
“If ur blind then how are u using a computer? Ur obviously faking it.”
“…What?”
“Ur looking for attention”

I’d like to think that awareness of what blind people can and can’t do is more widespread than it’s ever been, thanks to the internet and the many blind writers and speakers out there. Despite all the awareness campaigns and advocacy groups, the idea that blindness and computers don’t mix remains stubbornly entrenched. While most people seem to understand that I must use some kind of computer—probably a “special” one—many are still under the impression that I must dictate my blog posts to a hired aide. Given how prevalent computers are in every facet of society, and how vital they are for the accomplishment of even the simplest tasks, it’s no wonder that people believe we’re on the fringes! It’s not surprising that we’d be lumped in with, say, Great Aunt Rosie who still refuses to touch a keyboard.

No matter how often we tweet, “like,” share, blog, and text, some people are still convinced we are unable to use a computer or similar electronic device independently (or at all). I suppose they assume we have assistants who manage every aspect of our online lives. Who knows what they assume goes on when we try to work? When you think about it, it’s not altogether unreasonable for these people to believe we couldn’t possibly work, because of how deeply computers have penetrated the workplace. How can we be expected to function as equal, contributing members of society if we can’t even update our Facebook statuses or pay the phone bill on our own? Even if we can use computers, how exactly do we manage it, since we can’t see the screen?

In my everyday life, computers are not only usable, but necessary. I have a smart phone and a laptop, and I use both daily. As I’ve previously discussed on this blog, computers help me through a variety of hurdles, among them reading printed documents, deciphering labels, finding my way around the city, and communicating via all the social networks. Computers are not only within my ability to use; they are also a portal to parts of the world I never could have accessed without them.
So, how do I use computers? Since I can’t see the screen at all, my smart phone and laptop are both equipped with a screen reader, which is a piece of software that runs in the background and reads the information on the screen using text-to-speech output. (For the low-vision users among us, screen magnification suffices.) It is also possible to read what’s on the screen in braille, provided you have a braille display handy. If you have an iPhone, you can demo Voiceover, the built-in screen reader; it’s lots of fun. Otherwise, there is a wealth of information online about all the different screen readers, so if you want to learn more about them, you could easily dedicate an afternoon to that research. For our purposes, all you really need to know is that, with the help of special software, computers and phones are mostly, if not totally, accessible to blind people all over the world. Assistive technology is expanding so that we can access everything from GPS trackers, to smart televisions, to bank machines. With the help of this software, I can do most of what a sighted computer user can, putting me on a more equal playing field than a blind person from the past could even imagine. While using a computer to navigate the internet, you’d never even know there was anything different about me at all.

Yes, blind people can use computers, and have done so for decades. Yes, we can (usually) perform well in workplaces using computer software, as long as that software supports our screen readers. Yes, we can send texts, write tweets, and manage online banking independently. Yes, we can develop software, write programs, and administer technical support.
Yes, we can keep up.

So, next time you meet someone who believes blindness and computers are like oil and water, do us all a favour, and pass on the good news!