Better Living Through Severed Shoestrings

“Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know,” played on repeat throughout my time in public school. I was better off than many blind students, since my school division rarely hesitated to fund what I needed, and my educational assistant’s skill far exceeded her salary. Despite this relative abundance, I was never permitted to forget how lucky I was to receive basic educational tools. Fellow classmates were forever losing or damaging their books and equipment, while I was reprimanded for so much as bending a binder. I was threatened with a $700 fine for misplacing one volume of a Braille book. If a piece of expensive equipment malfunctioned—usually because I had not received the most rudimentary lessons on how to use it—I was held solely responsible, my attempts to explain myself summarily dismissed. Almost nothing I used belonged to me, so a broken coil or missing stack of Braille paper was grounds for outright hysteria. In fact, my first panic attack was triggered by a problem with my school-issued laptop. It had been drilled into me by a few overzealous adults that I could either be a faultless steward of my assistive technology, or I could surrender the right to have any at all. Panic seemed warranted.

University was a welcome reprieve. Generous grants and scholarships covered all my equipment. There was an expectation that I’d take care of my technology to a reasonable extent, but no one was hanging over my shoulder, evaluating the way I carried my Braille display. Grant money wasn’t unlimited, so I still had to be cautious, and when something broke down, there was no guarantee I could afford to repair it. For those fortunate enough to be uninitiated, specialized technology seems to break down a lot.

Then, as if to cement this shoestring pattern, I started working in the nonprofit sector. Anyone who has worked in nonprofit organizations for any length of time knows that you can’t assume you’ll have reliable access to stamps and functional phone systems, let alone costly assistive devices and software. Funding is available for Albertan employers, but I had already developed the habit of accomplishing all tasks with bare-bones resources. Years of living on the disability shoestring meant I was a convenient employee, but not necessarily an optimal one. In the disability world, you often get what you pay for, and the nonprofit tendency to use no or low-cost alternatives to standard products spurred me to avoid asking for anything at all unless my job depended on it. My employer checked in periodically to make sure I didn’t need anything new, but I insisted I was just fine, thanks. Again and again, I chose the long, winding path to every goal—whether at work or in my personal life–because it meant conserving other people’s money and time. What could be more important than that?

Recently, I switched to a position in which employees are expected to make any reasonable request that will increase their productivity. Nothing is promised, but much is delivered, and my shoestring habits are neither lauded nor useful. Profligacy isn’t encouraged, but neither am I praised for taking hours to perform simple tasks just because I used a cheaper option, or refused to ask for help, or failed to request an accommodation. In my new environment, resources are plentiful, and I’ve had to do major soul-searching to become comfortable with that.

It has taken me years to pinpoint why I find the hard way so easy. The trouble with the shoestring lifestyle is that while it’s not enjoyable, it’s comforting. If no one can accuse you of being a drag on the system because of those dreaded “special needs” of yours, you can indulge in self-righteous piety. Doing everything the difficult but economical way is a bulwark against societal pressure to take as little from a harsh world as you can. I convinced myself I had to earn my right to work, which meant ensuring that no employer or disabled peer could view me as financially burdensome. Amid all my anxiety about costing too much or needing too much help, I forgot that employers are typically more attached to excellence and efficiency than economy. If I proved to be valuable and competent, employers would find ways to accommodate me. On the other hand, if I cost them next to nothing but lagged in terms of productivity, they’d be well within their rights to trade me in.

A lawyer friend said it best: “A good dose of get-sh*t-done is important, but time is money.” Cultivating an independent, innovative spirit is worthwhile, but it’s equally important to identify what you need, and have the guts to ask for it. Shoestrings make great security blankets, but when resources are within reach, it’s best to snip those strings. The severing exposes you to potential criticism, yes, and it means someone might conceivably make the case that you’re too costly to keep, sure …

But it also means you’ll do your best work, in good time, with minimal risk of burnout. What could be better for your work-life balance, your health, and your employer’s bottom line?

I’ll keep my ability to improvise and adapt. I’ll hang onto my talent for working under tight budgets and tighter deadlines. I’ll learn multiple ways of circumventing disability barriers, because the ideal environment will not always be there.

As for the scarcity-based, shoestring mentality? I think it’s time I let that go.


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.