In Defence Of “Internet” Friendship

“So, where did you meet your friend ___?”

“We used to post to the same blindness forum, and–”

“Oh…so not, like, a friend friend.”

“A friend friend?”

“You know, like a…real friend. Someone you actually know.”

Friendships forged through online interaction have gained considerable legitimacy since I was a young teenager first experiencing the internet, but it’s dismaying how often online friends are casually dismissed by people of all ages. Apparently, there was an authoritative friendship conference several years ago that resulted in an unofficial friendship hierarchy, which influences the way friendship is viewed by everyone ranging from seniors to high schoolers.

According to this mystical hierarchy, you can’t measure a friendship in love, but rather in geography. If you only see your childhood friend once a year for a quick coffee and cursory catchup, that still ranks higher than an “internet” friend whom you haven’t met in person but with whom you communicate daily. Friends who live across the street usually carry more weight with people than a friend who lives across the world, regardless of intimacy, frequency of communication, and overall satisfaction derived from the friendship. (This also applies to romantic relationships, as I learned to my immense chagrin while dating men I’d met online.)

Besides the fact that I find this arbitrary standard inflexible and anachronistic, I also feel it comes down heavily on disabled people, who seem to have an especially large number of online friends. Anyone experiencing loneliness, isolation, and/or a lack of typical social opportunities can benefit from online social networks, and reducing internet interactions to something pale and second-rate targets a population that is already marginalized. While many disabled people can and do seek social opportunities within their geographical sphere, the internet is an enticing place where the playing field feels more equal and the supportive communities are numerous.

My isolated childhood is a living advertisement for the value of online friends. I was an introspective soul who struggled to make friends in traditionally-accepted ways, and internet social circles were far easier for me to embrace. Online, I didn’t have to be the awkward, introverted blind girl. I could talk to people who were older and wiser than me, share resources with fellow blind peers, and enjoy a sense of social freedom that couldn’t be found in my small-town ecosystem. I treasured the offline friends I did make, but they didn’t offer the diversity and understanding I found online.

Now, as my life becomes busier and my chronic pain limits my social activities, I appreciate my supportive online network of disabled and non disabled friends more than ever. The love, encouragement, assistance, and companionship they offer are as real and meaningful as anything provided by my equally-adored offline friends. As my heart breaks with the death of an online friend’s husband, and soars with joy at another online friend’s success at work, I do not doubt the gravity and significance of friendships conducted and sustained via the internet.

My internet friends are indeed “real” friends. When they are troubled or grieving or frightened, I comfort them. When I need a friendly ear in the middle of the night, there is always someone to call. My online friends send the best care packages, letters, and virtual (but no less heartfelt) affection. We pay astronomical amounts to visit each other, and make memories we cherish for years. We assist each other financially, emotionally, and spiritually. My online friends may not be able to drive me to an appointment or hold my hand when I’m ill, but they can provide love, advice, compassion, empathy, and laughter.

Never let anyone disparage your online friendships. The internet is a fickle friend, and you may certainly find dangerous, duplicitous people there–people whom you will befriend and later delete from every social network, wondering why you were ever naive enough to trust them. But more often than not, you’ll find people who are excellent friendship material–people who will fuse your happiness with theirs and do everything in their power to enrich your life. Whatever people say, however much they scoff, appreciate and cherish the friends you make online, and always measure your relationships in love and respect, not geography and popularity.

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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.

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.

What Does Blindness Look Like, Anyway?

I was at church a few weeks ago, and a women’s group I’m involved in was doing a bible study led by a woman who happens to be blind. We watched a video series featuring a blind person, and someone made the comment ‘You know, she doesn’t look blind!’ Of course I turned and said ‘What exactly does blind look like? Why doesn’t she look blind?’ While I had a smile in my voice, I silenced the whole table because no one wanted to answer. Their silence was answer enough.

This quote, contributed by one of my blind readers, perfectly illustrates the awkwardness that ensues when sighted people casually observe that someone doesn’t “look blind.” Many mean this quite literally, of course. Canes, guide dogs, and prosthetic eyes are dead giveaways, and they are fairly well-known symbols of blindness. So, when some people say this, they might simply mean that someone’s eyes look to be in working order, and they don’t have a mobility aid in sight. Unfortunately, there are many other sighted people whose comments are more complicated. Upon closer examination, the implications are somewhat troubling. It is rare that these people have given much substantial thought to what blindness is supposed to look like, and are reluctant to analyze their own perceptions when they are challenged.
So, what does blindness look like, really?
Maybe it looks like an anonymous person waving a cane around, or marching along with a dog. Maybe it looks like someone shambling in an ungainly manner like something out of The Walking Dead, arms outstretched, searching carefully for obstacles. Maybe it looks like someone who has half-closed eyes, or milky white eyes, or no eyes at all. This last, at least, makes a kind of sense.
For me, though, blindness looks like a normal person doing ordinary things. For me, blindness looks like anyone you might meet on the street, the only difference being a mobility aid and, in some cases, prosthetic eyes or dark glasses. For me, blindness looks normal—or as normal as any part of the human experience can be. Yes, blindness sets us apart; there’s no denying that. Still, people’s perceptions and the reality look quite different.
Whenever someone tells me that I don’t look blind, it’s meant as a compliment: they mean that I’m competent, graceful, and normal-looking. They mean that my eyes are pleasing to look at and seem natural enough, even though they move about constantly, never really focusing on anything in particular. They mean that I’m far removed from the graceless, clumsy mess they often picture blind people to be, and it surprises and delights them.
While I was trying on wedding dresses, my bridal consultant was apparently blown away by how quickly and easily I could move around in an unfamiliar environment. I don’t consider this of note, really, but she certainly did, and more than once she said things like “I don’t believe your blind!” and “You must be faking it!” For her, ease of movement and grace were not associated with blindness, and in her own strange way, she was trying to praise me.
The thing is, this compliment is backhanded, even when it isn’t meant to be. It is predicated on the assumption that a blind person will be pleased to be singled out from the rest, and happy to be recognized for their ability to participate fully in the wider world. We are expected, it seems, to look down upon other blind people—those people who look conspicuously blind—and be grateful that we’re not among them.
I’m not proud to be blind, per se; pride seems a little absurd to me. Blindness is, at its base, a hardware failure. That said, I’m not ashamed of it, either. I don’t see it as a stigma I am railing against at all times. My life’s mission is not to seem as sighted as possible or to stand out because of sheer normality. My life’s mission is to go out there and be a decent human being; to write and edit for a living; to play a little music in my spare time; and to love, laugh, and enjoy my time here with abandon. Blindness isn’t something that should define me overall, even if it is a significant part of my makeup.
So, what does blindness look like? Well, I think it looks … human.

“What’s Happening?”: on the Importance of Described Video

Described video for the visually impaired is becoming far more widespread in recent years. You’ll often hear “this program is presented with described video for the visually impaired” before The Simpsons, Law and Order, or some other popular TV show. It’s becoming commonplace for movies, too; if you buy a movie, you can often go into the menu and select the described version. It’s not ideal for sighted viewers, of course. The disembodied voice describing detailed versions of what they are already seeing drives some of them crazy, which is why I never insist that they watch the described movie with me. Some, however, think it’s the most entertaining way to watch a movie. These people are very special.

Described TV shows and movies are still regarded as a bit of a luxury (opinions vary) and it’s certainly not a life-or-death situation if someone fails to describe an episode of The Walking Dead. There are times, though, when description is not only helpful, but necessary. Take a look at this PSA about bullying. It’s not as though watching these announcements is likely to save a life, but if they are meant for the “public”, then that public needs to include visually impaired people. Excluding a sizable demographic of the world’s population doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially when there is almost always captioning present for the hearing impaired, and subtitles for those who speak different languages. Shouldn’t we be included, too?

Many of us grew up without described video, even for movies and TV shows, and we still managed to enjoy them as much as sighted people. Sure, it was somewhat restricting, especially for horror and action films, which tend to be a little short on expository dialogue. Either we watched shows that had enough dialogue to go by, or we enlisted a friend or family member who was willing to describe the most important bits to us. It’s not as though we need lavish descriptions; we’re not asking for the moon on a stick. We don’t need to know whether the protagonist is a “dazzlingly beautiful young woman with long blonde ringlets, high cheekbones, and a willowy figure”. Those details are nice (though some describers go a little overboard) but not at all necessary. Very few people need that amount of detail to get the basic gist. I had a friend in junior high who loved describing so much that we’d get together and have movie marathons. He was so dedicated that, for fast-paced movies, he’d get up, hit pause, and describe everything going on. It was lovely. I miss him.

Meaningful description isn’t an unreasonable expectation. People are often hired specifically to provide captioning for the deaf and hearing impaired, so why are people seldom hired to provide descriptions for the blind and visually impaired? There are agencies devoted to describing movies and TV shows, but they don’t usually cover public service announcements and similar videos. Really, they shouldn’t have to.
Description isn’t an extravagant demand made by angry blind people who want to be catered to. Description makes good sense. Nobody bats an eye at providing subtitles and captioning, and it’s time the industry started acknowledging other accessibility challenges as well. There may be other demographics with accessibility restrictions that I don’t even know about, and they need to speak up. If you want your ad or announcement to reach as many people as possible, you’ll need to use inclusive methods of communication. Remember that iconic Super Bowl PSA about domestic violence? It reached us because it had enough dialogue for us to fully understand what was happening. That PSA is a work of art on quite a few levels.

Hey, marketers: you’re always devising new strategies for reaching more people. Description is to your advantage. Many commercials are totally dialogue-free, to the point where I don’t know what half of them are trying to sell me. I’m saying this in a whisper, because no one really likes ads, but maybe invest in some accessibility consultants? It might help your cause.

I’ve written about when accessibility is necessary and when it’s simply helpful. I’m not expecting all my Facebook friends to start describing their cat videos (although I wouldn’t say no to that). I do, however, encourage people to think before they publish. Ask yourself whether this video is important enough to reach millions or even billions of people. Then ask yourself whether it is going to reach as many demographics as possible. If the second question is a no, then start exploring accessibility, for us, and for everyone else, too.

The Word Is Blind

“So, you’re blind—I’m sorry! I mean…visually impaired—I mean…uh…I’m not sure of the…terminology…”

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life (and, yes, most of them were nice). Many of the labels people have placed on me because of my eyes are diplomatic but straightforward: visually impaired, low-vision, visually handicapped, physically handicapped, disabled, etc. These are all accurate, so I have no objection to them (though low-vision perpetuates the misconception that I see far better than I actually can). Of course, I’ve also been called—and heard others being called—more “politically sensitive” terms: differently abled (really?), differently seeing (uh, no…), special (gag me with a spoon, please), and handicapable (I wish I was kidding).

We are currently surrounded by an environment that demands political correctness and unbiased language. Normally, I’m one of the most enthusiastic supporters of bias-free language, because I understand the power of the words we use. Even when we aren’t conscious of it, the words we choose to use carry plenty of potential impact. Language really does matter. In that light, I understand and support society’s efforts to attach meaningful, accurate labels to minorities, particularly labels free of derogatory associations. If I were conducting a business meeting and someone referred to me as a “blink”, I’d be rather offended: that’s not how you treat someone, especially in a professional setting, unless you know them well and have an intimate knowledge of their personal preferences. I would no more call a disabled stranger by a derogatory name—lighthearted as I may feel at the time—than I’d call my lesbian best friend a dyke. Personally, I don’t consider it a polite (or even wise) endeavor, no matter how good my intentions are.

But, as always, there’s another side to this coin. There is such a thing as tiptoeing to such a degree as to invite ridicule, and it is my opinion that some of the terms listed above are just begging to be mocked. I mean, come on—“handicapable”? That sounds like a bad joke, not a “politically sensitive” label to use in official settings. It sounds, in fact, like someone’s terrible idea of a catchy hashtag. Please, leave that condescending nonsense on Twitter where it belongs. Other terms, while being less deserving of derision, commit the grave sin of being totally inaccurate and misleading. Take “differently seeing”, for example: I don’t “see” differently than other human beings. True, I tend to use my other senses more often than sighted people, but as I’ve previously explained, those senses are exactly the same as yours. They’re not heightened or supercharged in any way; I simply know how to use them, and have little choice but to rely on them. Seeing differently would necessitate extra organs (or perhaps extra brain function) and I can assure you that I definitely don’t have any mutated eyes or visual cortices lurking around. I’d tell you if I did—imagine the money I could make from the media buzz alone! (And, no, I am not giving you permission to come and investigate for yourself.) It’s also worth mentioning that I despise platitudes like “you can see with your heart”. I understand the kindness behind such pronouncements, I really do, but we all know it’s gooey, sentimental rhetoric, right?

In general, I believe in calling a spade a spade. Dancing around the simple facts with labels meant to encourage respect and sensitivity does more to annoy me than set me at ease. It’s impossible to keep up with the terminology that is en vogue on any given week. For the longest time, it was my impression that “visually impaired” was considered the acceptable term for official documents and workplace discourse, as determined by the CNIB. When I was working for them a couple of years ago, however, I quickly discovered that I was doing it wrong: the new term was “partially sighted”. Visually impaired, it seemed, was sooo last year. Who knew? I certainly didn’t…

I’m not sure what it is about blindness in particular that makes people so timid, but I’d love to relieve them all of that heavy burden. It’s okay to admit that someone is disabled—yes, disabled, not “differently abled”. Some people have stuff wrong with them, and that’s not a horrible thing. It’s not a sin to openly admit that someone else isn’t a perfect specimen of efficiency. Flaws don’t have to be scary, and disability doesn’t have to be taboo. Set aside your worries about sensitivity and correctness for a moment, and listen: my eyes don’t work. I cannot see. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that I am blind. Not “differently abled”, or “differently seeing”…just “blind”. If you want to get really technical, you can use “visually impaired” for people who have enough vision to read large print and use screen magnification. Otherwise, “blind” is perfectly acceptable, at least to me and the majority of blind people I know. If “blind” scares you, go with “visually impaired”; you’re very unlikely to upset anyone that way. I have met a very few people who were especially sensitive about semantics, but even they were all just fine with “visually impaired”.

It really irks me when people treat “blind” like a curse word—as though the last thing anyone would ever want to admit to being is blind. Believe it or not, I’m rather okay with the fact that my eyes don’t work, and thus I am okay with being called blind. It’s what I am. I’m no more uncomfortable with being referred to as “blind” than I am with being referred to as “female”, or “brunette”, or “human”. These are all natural parts of my being and while I’m not necessarily proud of my disability, I’m at peace with the fact that it exists and that there’s a word for it. So, rather than wasting your valuable time stumbling over the “correct” terminology, just call me “blind”, because that’s what I am. It’s not insulting, or insensitive, or ablest; it’s honest.

Of course, my favourite thing to be called is “Meagan”. I have a name, so please use it. If you know my name, there is no reason whatsoever to refer to me as “the blind girl”, or “the disabled girl”, or anything similar. Names are given for a reason; please do me the courtesy of using mine. After all, more than “blind”, I self-identify as “human”, just like you.

Author’s note: If you are reading this from somewhere other than Earth and do not, therefore, self-identify as human, please forgive the generalization. I wouldn’t want to use improper labeling!