Meet The Human Behind The Accessibility Request

My accessibility requests, and those of most people I know, are never made frivolously and rarely involve costly or difficult action. Despite the fact that accessible design typically benefits those who implement it (most of my requests take the form of “I want to give you my money but your online store or facility or campaign or social media post or software is inaccessible,”), not everyone reacts as calmly as I’d hope. The most common response, in my own experience at least, has been silence. Companies are particularly prone to ignoring access requests, either because staff doesn’t have the resources to deal with them or because accessibility is not prioritized. Individuals are nearly always willing to respond, though they may not do so favourably.
If there’s one thing I want the world to know about the average person making an access request, it’s that we are ordinary human beings trying to make life easier for ourselves and others. I’ve read one too many comments, from disabled and nondisabled people, complaining that we’re all getting spoiled these days, accustomed as we supposedly are to wielding our access rights like a club. There appear to be those who believe that we hysterical disabled people are intoxicated with our new position of relative influence, and are using it to harass innocent people and businesses, fueled by sadistic pleasure or a misplaced sense of victimhood.
Instead of attempting to refute this, I’ll describe what my latest access requests have looked like. You can judge for yourself whether I carry them out in a manner you’d consider acceptable. They may not reflect how all or even most disabled people request accessibility, but they should, at least, provide some perspective.
A few months ago, I wrote to a stranger about her fundraising campaign. I wanted to give her my financial support, but couldn’t find a description of the shirts she was selling. I wrestled with myself for hours before contacting her at all, afraid to bother or place undue strain on her. I composed three drafts of my message before sending it, ensuring there wasn’t a single note of urgency, discourtesy, or judgment. My heart pounded and my stomach churned with anxiety. I’d been eviscerated publicly for an access request once before, and even though I’d had positive experiences since that incident, once bitten, twice shy. I fretted incessantly, Just as I had over numerous other such requests, and couldn’t rest peacefully until I’d received a reply which, thank goodness, was exceedingly kind. Even though the experience went as smoothly as possible—including assurances that she appreciated my message and was glad I’d reached out—no part of it was enjoyable or empowering for me. The whole ordeal was emotionally exhausting, which reminded me why I rarely bother to report accessibility bugs unless they threaten my job performance.
When I emailed CBC Books about an inaccessible infographic, tweeted Success Magazine about an article I couldn’t read properly, asked Buffer about their accessibility features, I endured similar feelings of uncertainty. What if I was dismissed as difficult? What if I gained a reputation for being a demanding customer? Had I worded my messages politely enough to be acceptable but firmly enough to be taken seriously? Had I upset anyone? Would anyone write back? (For the curious: CBC Books and Buffer responded with admirable grace and did everything they could to help. Success Magazine didn’t get in touch.) In the past, I’d tried taking a slightly bolder tone, and had been chased off by complete strangers who had decided I was only making the accessibility suggestions to harass people and waste time. Disabled people have nothing better to do, right?
Over and over while making these requests, I caught myself apologizing—for being blind, for encountering issues, for asking that those issues be resolved. In essence, I was apologizing instinctively for existing, and for the mortal sin of wanting to use someone’s product or service. My feelings and manner remained free of entitlement or self-importance. I was just one more customer asking for help, but, all too mindful of society’s general attitude toward accessibility, I remained apologetic to a degree that might be comical if it weren’t so depressing. As you might imagine, I rather envy those disabled friends who make requests with a quiet dignity I have yet to emulate. They might be just as nervous as I am, but unlike me, they don’t spend much time agonizing over the details.
I wonder if the companies and individuals who have responded to me with silence, canned replies, or outright insults knew how much trepidation I felt while reaching out to them. The optimist in me wonders if they’d treat me differently if they had an inkling of how much courage it takes to address a person or entity I have no power to influence, asking that my needs be met. Perhaps these interactions would play out differently if the people behind the hurried dismissals and cutting rebukes framed my requests as roundabout ways of giving them my money, or my time, or my support. Surely a customer or user reporting any other type of issue would be treated far more kindly? Anyone who is going to great lengths to improve usability obviously wants to patronize your establishment, read your content, give you their money, raise funds for your cause, or share your information. Where’s the entitlement, the victimhood, the sadism in any of that?
I can handle silence when I make access requests. Being told there’s nothing that can be done is something I can bear. There are worse things than receiving the standard brush-off: “I’ll look into it.” I can even roll with the impatience—often clumsily-concealed–that creeps into people’s voices when I ask for help locating items in a store or filling out paperwork. I, too, live and work in this complicated world, and I know what it is to be restrained by policy, or bureaucracy, or a severe shortage of time. Not every request can be met, and not everyone is going to take that news well. I understand.
What I cannot handle graciously is the implication that my access needs are trivial. If I am accused of being too demanding, of wasting precious time, of taking up space reserved for more important people, I’m no longer willing to nod meekly and shuffle away. I cannot, in good conscience, pretend to agree when accessibility is treated like a silly new fad that will, with any luck, fade away, along with all the irritating people who ask about it.
I could list several reasons why people should care about accessibility, but it’s been done, and done by people much wiser and more eloquent than me. Instead, I’ll tell you how a well-handled access request makes me behave as a customer, user, reader, and funder. People and companies making an effort to attend to my requests have my loyalty. Someone who demonstrates they are sensitive to the needs of others earns a position in my good books. If the manager of a fundraising campaign agrees to improve usability for disabled people, they’re almost guaranteed to receive whatever money I can spare. A company that handles my requests with courtesy can count on my business, and I will make a special effort to promote them more widely than ever. Buffer, CBC, L’Occitane—these are examples of companies I’m proud to support not only because they make quality products, but because they have shown me, whether personally or generally, that they prioritize accessibility when it’s brought to their attention. This is even more pronounced with solopreneurs: Daryl Lang Jewelry will always be my go-to, not only because she makes beautiful things, but because she always uses clasps and designs that accommodate my moderate difficulty with fine motor skills.
Conversely, companies and individuals that don’t make accessibility part of their mission are less likely to receive my business or promotion, not out of spite, but because I can’t use what they offer. An inaccessible online store isn’t going to encourage a disabled person to shop there. An unusable piece of software will drive traffic to its competitors. This is, at its core, about business, not ethics or morals or ideologies.
I understand that access requests will not always be presented politely. There will be those who will come to you angry, impatient, at the end of a too-short tether—and they may or may not have valid reason for those emotions. Every now and again, someone will point out an accessibility issue with an imperious, contemptuous air. Those making access requests will not always present solutions that are within reach, especially for small businesses. Some of the people making them may not even have solutions to offer. And, yes, you may be hit with an unjust lawsuit by someone seeking to capitalize on existing accessibility laws for their own gain. All these things are possible.
More often than not, however, you’ll be dealing with someone who doesn’t enjoy asking for assistance and feels at least as awkward and inconvenienced as you do. They just want to move through the world with as much ease and independence as they can, and identifying barriers takes guts, especially when asking that those barriers be removed or mitigated. Further, most disabled people lead full, active lives, such that they have limited time to give accessibility feedback. The process takes time, even when the response is cooperative, and I regularly skip opportunities to report issues because I have several other pressing matters dividing my attention. We don’t all sit around thinking up new and clever ways to make people’s lives harder. Shocking, I know!
The lesson here? Life is very short indeed, but it’s not too short to be kind. Respond when you can, fix issues where possible, and always be compassionate. Just remember: we’re all on the same side.

Advertisements

“Wait…You Work Here?”

About a month ago, I was charged with covering reception at my workplace. We were severely short-staffed that day, but in small non-profits, everyone pitches in. Our clients are used to seeing unfamiliar staff members covering the desk, and it’s common enough that it never raises eyebrows. When I sat behind the desk, however, everything changed.
Instead of asking me questions about how to send a fax or print in colour, clients asked, often openly and a little confusedly, “Do you…work here?” Many of them avoided the reception desk altogether, knowingly violating protocol and striding past the desk without so much as a by-your-leave. They’d quiz other coworkers milling about in the reception area, even when those coworkers encouraged clients to speak to me directly. At times when I managed to engage with them and ask them what they needed, they expressed a preference for the intern who had been with us less than a month and knew maybe a tenth of what I did about how things are done. Although the intern was nervous and visibly uncomfortable, clients chose to wait and interact with her rather than dealing with a long-term staff member who had a visible disability. After only one short hour in reception, I realized that having worked at this non-profit for almost a year, sitting confidently behind the desk, asking people directly if I could assist them, and being dressed as professionally as anyone else working there—none of it mattered. People just assumed I was either incompetent or not an employee at all. (I don’t know whether they believe my workplace routinely allows non-employees to sit behind the desk for fun. I didn’t ask.)
In a move that was a little twisted even by the cruel universe’s usual standards, I was stopped in my apartment building a few days later by a fellow tenant I’d never spoken to before. I was clearly in a rush, walking briskly, and doing my best to ensure I wouldn’t miss my ride to work. Ignoring every signal I was blasting frantically to the world at large, this inquisitive woman started to pepper me with questions.
“Hi. Where are you going today? I see you leave here most days. Always wondered where you go.”
“I’m heading to work.”
“You work?!”
“Yes, yes I do.”
“Like, every day?”
“Five days a week.”
“Where?”
“At a small non-profit.”
“Oh! Which one?”
The interrogation probably would have continued, but I was able to extricate myself by pleading lateness and managed to escape before snapping at her with much more irritation than she’d have deserved. It’s not a crime to ask questions, and I’m not one of those who will eviscerate someone for daring to try it, but having strangers ask you where you go every day and the exact location of your workplace seems a little dodgy, disability or no.
As with almost every other disappointing situation I’ve experienced because of disability, I soon realized I was far from alone. While discussing the matter with others, I heard several accounts of blind people being mistaken for non-employees who had strayed into forbidden areas, or who were merely assumed incapable on sight. Sighted people are used to seeing us sitting at a piano or acting in feel-good, promotional videos, but a blind person sitting at a desk or standing behind a counter seems to be a bit more of a leap for them. Fellow blogger Blindbeader has been stopped twice now at her new workplace, where she was warned by strangers that she was going the wrong way and was trying to enter a secure area. Only when she flashed her security badge and explained she was an employee did the people in question re-evaluate their assumptions. Apparently, even a professionally-dressed, confident-looking blind person looks lost and out of place in a work environment, at least to some people out there.
This type of unconscious discrimination can have more serious consequences than mild annoyance and inconvenience. While working as an intake assistant at CNIB, I conducted most of my consultations with clients by phone, so they readily listened to and respected my advice without question. When they’d walk into my office and meet me for the first time, though, some of them, even people who were going blind themselves, would do an astonished double-take, hard pressed to believe the helpful, knowledgeable woman they’d spoken to on the phone was blind. My partner, who has a moderate eye condition that is sometimes visible, was frequently discriminated against at work in retail and food service fields, despite his capabilities. While working for a fast food restaurant, coworkers were quick to blame any mistakes on “the blind guy,” and management was a little too quick to believe them. When he worked at a computer repair shop, customers would request to work with a different technician, or complain about him to his coworkers, because they thought it glaringly inappropriate for a person with even mild vision issues to be employed there. Their complaints are perplexing to me, since his vision issues are minor enough that he doesn’t usually use accessible devices and never uses mobility aids. He’ll never drive, it’s true, but he can certainly repair your computer and even read your screen without help. To this day, reliving these experiences makes him uncomfortable and anxious, and it’s easy enough to understand why. Hard as we work to convince interviewers and supervisors we deserve to work alongside everyone else, we still have to face the hurdles put in place by public and peer perceptions.
I didn’t realize how prevalent this casual discrimination actually was until I entered the workforce at age eighteen. At one point, while trying to comfort a distraught mother whose teenage daughter had just gone blind, I found myself explaining to her that, no, her daughter’s life was not irrevocably ruined. Yes, she’d be able to go to school, and have a career, and be successful. In a moment of weakness for which I don’t blame her one bit, she burst out: “How would you know? You’re just saying that!”
“Actually, Ma’am,” I said as gently as I could, “I’m blind, too. I’m getting a degree, and I have good career prospects. Many of my blind friends are very successful in their fields. It’ll be hard, no question, but your daughter’s going to be okay.”
So, if there are those out there who honestly believe blind people are destined for lives spent at home being cared for by our unfortunate families, and cannot aspire to anything higher, it makes sense that they’d react oddly when confronted with blind professionals. All manner of superficial attributes make people seem more or less trustworthy and credible, right down to appearance and voice. Why, then, should it be shocking that a visible disability would, however unjustly, decrease a person’s credibility in a stranger’s eyes? It’s not fair, and it needs to be combatted, but it does make a kind of sense. At least, it’s no less illogical than thinking tall, deep-voiced people are more credible than short, higher-voiced people with the same qualifications and credentials. The world is a vastly illogical place.
My solution to this issue mirrors the one I default to in so many other cases: education, education, education. The more blind professionals are seen out in the world, the more accustomed to us society will become. People’s minds do change, and I know a few who, since having met me, have altered their perspectives on a great many things. No more would they stop a blind person in a hallway and automatically presume they don’t belong there. No longer would they avoid seeking help from one of us if they found us behind an information desk, or repairing their computers in a shop, or cooking their food in a restaurant.
As usual, the way is long, and slow, and sometimes painful—but it is, I think, the only way we have.

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.