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).

Advertisements

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.

Pleasing The Unpleasable: Say Goodbye To The Middle Ground

If you’ve spent a lot of time on social media—particularly Twitter and Facebook—you might have noticed a diversity spectrum. At one end, (let’s call it right, for giggles) we have people who are passionately opposed to diversity. At the far left, we have people who are equally passionate about encouraging diversity. There’s a whole lot of middle ground, but the opposite ends are usually warring with each other, and those in the centre are subjected to the excesses of both sides.

I’m not sure where exactly I’d place myself on this spectrum—though certainly more left than right—but I think it’s difficult to self-assess these things. It’s nearly impossible to examine my own behavior with an objective lens and decide where I belong. Even diverse and oppressed populations find ourselves unsure of where we stand, especially when we get caught in the intense crossfire. Objectivity itself is disturbingly scarce, in an age when we put less and less stock in fairytales, harmful superstitions (adopt the black cats, guys, pretty please!) and even extremist ideologies. There are a few publications that conduct ethical, verifiable research intended to challenge our cherished, long-held beliefs about the world. They are too few, though, and in a world of black-and-white thinking and instinctive loyalty to one’s beliefs, their voices are not nearly loud enough.

Now, the righthand side of the spectrum is a very real threat. These are the people—usually powerful majorities, but not always—dismissing diverse authors because they’re not “good” writers. They look down on women in comedy because, I kid you not,women aren’t funny. They despise disabled people because we are a drain on the system, robbing them of hard-earned pennies and indirectly taking food from their children’s mouths. (They conveniently refuse to educate themselves; many of us aren’t on benefits at all.) They’re usually the ones promising same-sex couples they’re bound for hell, calling black people thugs, and branding indigenous populations lazy drunks. Their claims sometimes stem from personal, unfortunate experience; even so, their attitudes are obviously detrimental to society. I think many of us can agree with that, at the very least. But …

It would be a mistake to consider the far left pure, just, and incorruptible. The Social Justice Warriors (as the right so affectionately calls them) are genuinely trying to fight the good fight as they see it. Overtaken by their intense fervor, though, they seem to neglect those in the centre of things. They are fighting for what they perceive as justice, but many of them are unwilling to entertain the idea of grey areas, full stop. They don’t appear to acknowledge (or care) that the tactics they so despise from the far right are often the ones they adopt themselves. Take it from someone who is left but not all the way left: more often than not, it’s safer to avoid getting involved, because you’ll feel ineffectual and exhausted in short order. It’s gotten so bad that more than once, I’ve taken a “mental health break” from social media, or at least from controversy. While I have been guilty of this overenthusiastic dog piling, (and may be again), I recognize that it’s largely ineffective and stressful for everyone involved.

If you examine the far left’s strategies more closely, you’ll begin to spot the multitude of contradictions:
• They hate to see diverse populations silenced by the right, but are constantly telling everyone to #SitTheFuckDown, including fellow diverse individuals.
• They occasionally consider evangelism deplorable, yet they preach every bit as loudly and proudly as the religious right. (I personally have no issue with preaching on either side, but it’s still glaring hypocrisy.)
• They accuse the right of being too exclusive, yet will ignore anyone who doesn’t toe the party line. (Try entering a conversation about race or disability if you’re white and/or able-bodied, even when you support the cause and honestly want to know how you can help.)
• They are forever telling majorities, (especially straight, able-bodied white men) to shut up, then accusing them of failing to do enough for the cause. (Either you want them involved or you don’t. Pick one.)
• They criticize majority artists for failing to include diverse characters in their books and movies (which they should, really), but then turn around and berate them for cultural appropriation. This is a very real and very important concept, but it is ill-defined and confusing. (This can be a powerful source of anxiety for writers who want to do the right thing but feel as though they can’t win either way.)

There are numerous voices for marginalized groups who either encourage majorities to get involved, (This book is an excellent example) or at the very least encourage them to boost the voices of diverse populations. These instructions are relatively easy to follow, and they allow white, straight, able-bodied, Cis-gendered males to take part without routinely saying the wrong thing or supporting the wrong people. Others, however, are simply unpleasable: they want you as an ally, but only if you say what they tell you to, when they tell you to. They want you to help, but then dismiss all your efforts because they’re insufficient. They refuse to guide your attempts, then spit on you for making a mistake.

This is not to say that all allies are perfect little angels just waiting to be told what to do, of course not. Many people who want to be allies have suspect motives, condescending perspectives, and narrow minds. Take, for example, the plethora of articles about how “inspirational” people with disabilities are. The gooey rhetoric of the able-bodied can be dangerous as well as irritating, trust me. In my experience at least, you’ll attract more flies with honey than with vinegar: if you calmly and kindly explain why this inspiration porn is not okay, people are generally willing to listen and take note. There will always be those who think they know best, but quite a few people out there are all too willing to learn, so long as we can tell them how best to do so. We can’t blame everybody for stumbling a bit along the way; none of us is immune to a stumble here and there. We need to be more compassionate, we really do.

Sadder still, the unpleasable, comparatively rare though they are, often drive people away from the message they’re trying to send. The medium is the message, so if you convey important ideas via abusive rants on Facebook or angry tweet storms on Twitter, your words will be lost in the mayhem. If you barge into a stranger’s Twitter mentions or Facebook posts specifically to deliver personal attacks and invective, don’t expect them to absorb your message with delight and say “Yes! I shall change immediately.” I recognize the need for anger, and passion, and even temporary preference for justice over mercy. There are many on the far right who do grievous social and even physical harm, and that’s something worth fighting against. So, yes: be angry. Be passionate and stand up for those who cannot do so for themselves. Be unafraid to express what you think is right; after all, I’ve been doing that here for over a year now. Be dedicated in the wish to educate and advocate. I’ll be right behind you.

Take care, though, that you do not push away the very people whom you claim to represent. If I, a disabled person, am bombarded by a barrage of social justice warriors because I dare to have a slightly more moderate opinion than they do, I’ll be tempted to abandon their cause altogether. The quickest way to divide people is to pit them against each other, and forming a “diversity club” is one effective way to do it. Silencing fellow diverse people because they don’t follow your exact specifications is going to damage your credibility and distort your message.

Those who silence others do not represent me. Those who gang up on vulnerable people are not my peers. Those who refuse to accept and guide allies do not help my cause. Those who shame, degrade, and dismiss other diverse populations for the sake of their own agendas are not my friends. The unpleasable are not my allies. If your only goal is to shut everyone up so your own voice is the only one that matters, then go your way. Don’t expect me to follow you.