Trepidation and Triumph at CSUNATC2018

When an exceedingly kind friend offered to be my full-time sighted guide for 2018’s CSUNATC conference, I recognized that I was being offered a unique opportunity that could not, under any circumstances, be passed up. I’d spend a few days in idyllic San Diego, learning about accessible technology and basking in the company of a long-time friend whose social and tech savvy can’t be overstated. She promised to help me navigate the conference, escort me to presentations, and provide networking opportunities I’d struggle to obtain on my own. I was elated. I was grateful. I was excited!
I was also terrified.
You see, dear readers, the word “introvert” was coined specifically for me. While I enjoy a rich social circle and do well when representing employers at special events, high-energy occasions like conferences are about as frightening to me as a nest of angry wasps. In fact, if I have to attend a networking event outside of an employment context, I think I’d rather take the wasps, and that’s saying something. Excessive noise, bustling crowds, and unfamiliar environments combine to create a horrifying mix, and nothing but my relentless quest for self-improvement could make me brave it. (Meeting one of my best online friends helped sweeten the deal, but only slightly.)
I knew how fortunate I was to be attending CSUNATC2018, and I felt the appropriate level of eagerness, but part of me was sure I’d need several barrels of courage to manage. For if there is one thing that makes me more uncomfortable and cagey than large-scale, international networking events, it’s being around large numbers of blind people.
Yes, readers: I am afraid of blind people, especially when they get together, and attending CSUN would demand that I not only confront that fear head-on, but that I ask myself, finally, why the fear exists at all.
The gist is this: I went to CSUN to learn about tech. I learned a little, and certainly enjoyed the presentations, but most of the education had less to do with the accessibility world, and more to do with deeply-rooted insecurities so entrenched that I’d forgotten what it was like to question or even acknowledge them.
If you’re interested in my journey of self-discovery, stay with me. If you hoped to read all about promising new tech, I’m sure there are many excellent write-ups by people much better-versed on the subject. Either way, enjoy!

“Let’s play ‘count the blind people!’”

As we weave somewhat drunkenly through the airport, dragging unwieldy luggage and trying not to trample anyone, my sighted guide chatters blithely about how many blind people she sees going by.
“There’s another one! I think that’s the seventh I’ve seen already.”
“Oh God.”
“What?”
“I’m legitimately afraid of blind people. I mean, they’re okay in small groups, and I love them as individuals, but when we all get together, it’s … I just don’t like it.”
My friend is too gracious to pursue the matter, but it becomes obvious soon enough that my mobility demons, which I’d warned her of previously, are out in full force.
My cane grip must be all wrong. My posture, surely, couldn’t be close to proper. I’m leading with my right shoulder, which is a problem I’ve never been able to correct. Do I ride escalators in a weird way? Am I the only one who doesn’t know print numerals well enough to operate an elevator without brailled numbers? Does it show that I’ve received so little orientation and mobility training I’m not even sure if my rudimentary indoor travel technique is right? Is everyone judging me? Am I a fraud of a blind person?
Oh God, everyone’s definitely judging me.
I want to go home now.

“Let’s get oriented!”

I attend a small orientation tour to learn the hotel’s basic layout, reasoning that I’ll pick the information up more quickly if there aren’t too many people around me. But, as we meander along, passing various significant locations, I lapse into a fog of panic. There is no way one cursory jaunt around this massive hotel will tell me everything I need to know. The only orientation training I’ve ever received was highly specific and route-based, meaning it did not teach me how to master new environments through discovery. I have never wandered in my life—at least, not willingly. Getting lost for fun, exploring, taking a look around … these aren’t my style. Meanwhile, every blind person around me seems to have a mystical sixth sense or, if they are as lost as I am, it doesn’t trouble them. The atmosphere is effervescent, and I feel like an intrusive rain cloud that has accidentally splattered into an unsuspecting sun puddle.
What the hell am I doing here? Who do I think I’m kidding? This was not made for people like me.
I really want to go home.

“You’re not alone. Also, have a tissue.”

It’s been a long day, though for the most part a pleasant one. I’ve listened to enthusiastic Microsoft employees laying out a new and encouraging direction for Windows 10 and its associated accessibility features. I’ve attended a fascinating presentation on disability services departments in academic institutions. I’ve even discovered that the GPS app, Nearby Explorer, has innovative new features to facilitate indoor navigation. My sighted friend gives me sighted guide when I need it, introducing me to what feels like half the world along the way. She makes me sound like someone worth knowing, and I try to keep my impostor syndrome on a short leash. To my shock and delight, people admit to reading my blog—and liking it!
(So, it’s not just my mom and five friends? Cool!)
But now I sit, curled on my bed, offering the less flattering bits of my life story to complete strangers. One of them is an endlessly patient blind O & M instructor. I’m afraid of O & M instructors. (Are you sensing a pattern yet?)
They listen to me ramble despairingly about the inadequate skills training I’ve received; how out of place I feel among more competent blind people; how I am convinced I’m the only one who has ever been this useless at my age; how I must be a uniquely embarrassing failure; and how I’m afraid I will never, ever be anything more than I am right at this moment. In my self-effacement, I remain oddly verbose.
My equally patient sighted friend quietly passes me another tissue, putting her arm around me. This only makes me cry harder.
Then, the two compassionate blind strangers in my hotel room explain that they, too, have struggled. The instructor tells me that I’m far from alone, that it is possible for me to achieve the skill level I desperately want, and that I need not be so willing to let “I’m afraid” be what stands between the life I want and the life I have. Besides, she points out, plenty of blind people are where I am; they just choose not to put a fine point on it. For other blind people out there, the activities I find easy may seem like insurmountable challenges, and vice versa.
“Most of the people who intimidate you by going on about how good their skills are probably have something to hide.”
“I guess that does make sense.”
I plumb deeper, describing all the gaps between the talented and competent professional I know myself to be, and the bumbling wreck my brain insists I am. I was never taught to cut a steak in a way that made sense to me. I hold utensils in an unconventional way because the “normal” way has always felt clumsy. Sometimes, I simply don’t leave the house because the anxiety of existing in my skin is too much.
And, to my genuine shock, I am not alone in any of these things.
“But … why isn’t anyone talking about this?”
“We’re all too busy impressing each other, of course.”
“But I thought I was, like … degenerate.”
“No! You can be better. You can go higher. But you’re by no means the only one.”
“But I’m scared.”
“So was I.”
I am telling strangers the most intimate, shameful pieces of my long-buried trauma. I am exposing, to myself and to people I barely know, why I am so terrified of other blind people. I am opening up to unknown quantities in a way I’ve never done, not even with my friends, my family, myself.
Least of all myself!
And I am not afraid.
I am embarrassed and bemused and a little curious about what it is about conferences that fills you with the insatiable need to connect …
But Good God, I am not afraid.

“Just trust yourself.”

My default state, especially when dealing with new experiences, is “What do I know?”
Several times throughout the four days I spend at CSUN, my friend and I take a wrong turn of some sort, and something in the back of my mind insists we’ve made a mistake, gone the wrong way, gotten mixed up somewhere. Each time, I ignore it.
Each time, I am right.
Each time, my friend grows more playfully exasperated.
“Meagan, you should really try trusting yourself. You know things!”
“I just usually assume I don’t. Like, what do I know about this place?”
“You have good instincts, though. You should listen to them.”
Slowly, tentatively, I begin cataloguing the many instances over the years when my gut has stirred itself to alert me of some poor decision or wrong turn. In every case, if someone I perceived to be more knowledgeable than me disagreed, I became silent at once. Now, after more than a decade of systematic suppression, I don’t even consider speaking up.
Of course other blind people know more than I do.
Of course sighted people know where they’re going.
Of course I’m unqualified. Inexpert. Silly.
I can’t control the fact that I’m clueless about most things.
Or is this a choice I’ve made, one I forgot to unmake?
Is anyone telling me I’m useless, or have I been doing that to myself all along?
Heavy thoughts for a languid California afternoon!
But then, this does seem to be the week for them.

“Yes, it’s scary; and yes, you’re going to do it.”

Thump. Whir. Thump. Whir. Thump.
“What the hell is that?”
“That’s a door.”
“I don’t think we have these where I’m from…”
As it turns out, automatic revolving doors are much more frightening than they sound. Revolving doors are irritating enough; having once been stuck in one, I feel personally qualified to judge. The automated feature brings a whole new level of nightmare fuel, though, especially when you don’t have a clear understanding of how it works. All I could hear was an ominous thumping sound as the door thwacked repeatedly into something as it went round and round at what I considered an alarming speed.
I was open to trying it out, particularly since I was filled with new resolve and I had an O & M instructor with me once again. However, when she described the procedure, which involved me “sticking [my] hand in there so the door can hit it,” I balked a wee bit.
By “balked,” I mean I stood there for what must have been ten minutes, coming up with all the reasons I definitely could not—would not—attempt this.
Finally, I gathered all my courage and approached the door, only to have it hit me squarely in the face.
A little shell-shocked, hiding treacherous tears, I retreated and tried to regroup. Meanwhile, the O & M instructor, her blind friend, and my sighted friend stood by just as patiently as before, acting as cheerleaders and accountability officers in equal measure. Surrounded by all the (positive) pressure, I went for it.
As I leaned heavily on the door and followed it in a dizzying circle, one of my blind companions ran along behind me, shouting jubilant encouragement. It was rather like going on your first water slide, with your proud elder sibling shooting along behind you, utterly thrilled on your behalf.
Such a small thing, really, going through a door. Ridiculous, even. I’m twenty-three, for heaven’s sake. I’m an employed, educated, mostly-functional adult.
But that day, that damn door was everything.

“One more time before you go?”

On the day I was due to leave for home, I tried to cram as much as I could into a few too-short hours. I visited the exhibit hall, demoing a Braille tablet and expressing horror at how loud those new displays are getting. (I compared the scrolling sound to a very angry spider.) I met more people, flexed my extrovert muscles, and even handed out a resume to an accessibility company that was hiring overseas. Just to cap off the quintessential California experience, I drank a hellishly expensive juice blend and caught a few more rays of sun.
Feeling brave, I attempted to travel a little more independently, and promised a handful of new acquaintances I’d connect with them so I could share my writing and social media knowledge. This was a huge step forward, since I find it almost impossible to speak highly of myself outside of job interviews and cover letters.
Just as we were poised to leave the hotel, my sighted friend suggested I truly conquer that automatic revolving door, just to prove to myself I could.
It was tricky, and I grew progressively more nervous as concerned sighted people crowded around, hindering more than helping.
But, dear readers, I did it.
Twice.
Willingly.
As I came through the door the second time, more joyful than I felt was socially acceptable, my friend literally jumped up and down with sheer happiness, celebrating so loudly I could hear her through the door.
Most people might not understand why this tiny feat was important to me, and few people would appreciate the symbolism of it.
But she got it.
And, for the umpteenth time that week, I remembered: whatever I reveal, whatever I admit to, however I might struggle, I am not alone.
I never was.
And you know what?
Neither are you.

Advertisements

Dear Facebook: We Need To Talk

Facebook, honey, we need to talk. Seriously. This very instant.

I think I’ve been a good and faithful servant—I mean, user. I spend lots of time with you, usually every day, and have done so for several years. I have continued to check in with you daily despite the useless updates, the bewildering user interfaces, the sudden and unsettling amendments to your privacy statements—even your silly app, which enjoys draining my phone’s battery and sucking down data as though it were water in the desert. Through all of your confusing, outrageous shenanigans, I have done my best to navigate your bizarre design and even tolerated your overabundant ads with minimal grumbling. (I really, really enjoy grumbling, so please acknowledge the magnitude of my sacrifice. … Are you acknowledging? … Good, thank you.) In fact, Facebook, I love you so dearly and so faithfully that part of my current career depends rather heavily on interacting with you. I’m a social media specialist, Facebook, which means I have to work with you—and like it!
But, dear Facebook, you’ve shown me time and time again that you never really appreciated me. Yes, yes, you’re “free and always will be,” I know. I get it. I’m the user, not the customer. I’m the product. You sell my oh-so-exciting online life for far more than it ought to be worth, just so I can skip intrusive “suggested” posts to get to the good stuff. It’s business, this is the new normal—blah blah blah.
Still, darling, you’d think I might be worth almost enough to you, as a loyal user and frequent poster, to warrant a reasonably accessible environment. You see, Facebook dear, my eyes don’t work, and as such, you are an unpredictable and cruel companion.
One day, some complicated function works, and the next day you’ve broken it—again. Your much-lauded image description software—you know, that feature that meant we blind people would be able to “see” pictures—thinks dogs are cats and cats are dogs and any woman wearing white is a bride. It invents children that aren’t there and sometimes throws in an extra person, just to keep us all on our toes.
(“You got married? Again?”
“No no, I’m just wearing a white shirt. As you were.”)

I’ve lived in valleys of despair and soared to dizzying peaks of hope, perhaps a little naively. When you kept your mobile site clean and relatively accessible, I rejoiced. Alas, I rejoiced too soon: many of the features I wanted to use simply don’t work. Back to the sluggish, semi-inaccessible and wholly-infuriating desktop site I go, then.
I sang your praises when you introduced artificially intelligent software that would describe images, and the publicity it generated was very exciting indeed! Back to earth I drifted when I realized that not only was it laughably unreliable, but you were actually making sighted people think their days of describing pictures (very short-lived—I’d just gotten people to start doing it) were over. So, thanks and all, but please stop telling sighted people they don’t have to describe their pictures, cuz they do, maybe more than ever unless they want me to congratulate them on the new cat-dog or ask how married life is treating them.
I reveled in the simplicity of your Messenger app, reasoning that if you were going to get us all to use it by brute force if necessary, it may as well work. But, Facebook, you managed to break even that, so that I can’t scroll with any efficiency and am forced to ignore a whole lot of pointless nonsense on my cluttered screen.

This is not healthy, Facebook. At this point, I am staying for the good times, as they say. Each time you break accessibility or introduce a troublesome new feature, I grit my teeth and roll with the punches. When I struggle to perform basic aspects of my job because something on your end is mysteriously broken again, I smile through the pain and soldier on. If time is short and I don’t have an hour to fiddle with two versions of a website and an app, I call a sighted person over to help, silently cursing my dependency.

Meanwhile, you announce your access team with much fanfare and profess your commitment. You whisper (or shout, as the case may be) reassurances into my weary ear, promising that all will be well.

But you know what, Facebook? I don’t believe you.

Do I expect any of this to move you? No, of course not. You have me in a corner, and I must continue to shoulder the constant issues you create. My job and social life depend upon us getting along.
That said, dearest Facebook, I don’t have to like it.
And you know what? I don’t have to like you, either.
There, I said it. I love you, but I don’t really like you anymore.

Put your money where your mouth is. Use the same level of force to direct your accessibility team as you do to ensure that customers—I mean, users—use your ridiculous apps. If you put a fraction of the effort you pour into, say, the like button into accessibility, darling, we’d have a very different relationship, you and I.

So, Facebook, I ask only this. Until you make real, lasting strides in the direction of genuine usability and accessibility, please don’t pretend you care, because I’m done pretending I believe you.

Yours, very grudgingly,
A girl with broken eyes (and a broken heart)

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.