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.

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#AbleistScript: Pointless Venting, Or A Sign Of Hope?

For the uninitiated…

If you’ve been hanging out on Twitter lately, you’re likely to come across the #AbelistScript hashtag. The hashtag is meant to gather tweets from all kinds of people, detailing all the ways the able-bodied have said hurtful, offensive, and discriminatory things. It sounds sort of pointless and bitter, doesn’t it? It’s a bit of an outrage fest, no? Well…

The tweets are incredibly disturbing

This hashtag has revealed far more than the typical “Hey, Helen Keller, where’s your dog?” nonsense. It has revealed deeply unsettling stories—stories most of us would rather ignore. Some “ableist” people are innocent, but misguided.

Some people are shockingly presumptuous and uninformed.

Some lack tact and respect, even when dealing with loved ones.

Some, of course, are downright offensive.

Scary, isn’t it?

It’s more than mere outrage fuel

It’s viral, and for good reason: it is a medium through which we can come together and express the things that make our blood boil. It’s an opportunity for us to release some of the tension, helplessness, and frustration many of us have been bottling. Some of us have kept quiet out of courtesy, or the fear of burdening people. Others are afraid to be perceived as whiny or high-maintenance. Still others feel ashamed of their anger. Do they have any right to be upset? Are they being unjust? Is their suffering legitimate? Are they just “easily offended,” “thin-skinned,” or “obsessed with political correctness?” I’ve no doubt that some people are, but there are too many of us to dismiss our feelings entirely.

I’d like to think our suffering really is legitimate. Life can be very lonely, especially if your disability is particularly rare. That feeling of isolated desolation is emotionally crippling.

We are bombarded by unwanted opinions. Stop taking those medications and deal with your problems. Use the power of positive thinking. The only disability is a bad attitude. Suck it up, buttercup; it can always be worse. Be grateful that you have as much as you do. What you have is more than many can enjoy, so keep your chin up.

This is so much more than a hashtag

You may well ask what we could accomplish with all this public, viral venting. Besides the undeniably cathartic benefits, there are more concrete, long-term goals we can achieve if we reach enough able-bodied people. Much of the “ableist script” can be altered or eliminated. We can clear up misconceptions and debunk myths. We can explain why certain ideas are genuinely harmful. We can foster empathy. We can educate. The internet does a lot of harm, but in this case, it’s a remarkably useful tool. Viral attention can be an asset, and I think we need to pounce on this opportunity.

Some are already feeling hopeful, which is a very welcome sign.

We need more than an echo chamber. We must do more than blow off steam. We should strive to advocate for ourselves, but we should not do so at the expense of clarity. We can’t allow our anger to distort our messages or alienate the very people we are trying to persuade. We are capable of intersectional solidarity, and we can put it to good use. Don’t dismiss this purely because it’s a hashtag. In this case at least, it has enormous potential. We mustn’t waste it.

FAQ: Improving the Accessibility of Social Media Posts

Last week, I published a short article listing the most common inaccessible posts sighted users tend to make. While it was not meant to instruct, I did intend to shed light and raise a little awareness. I refrained from advising sighted people to alter their posting habits in any way; I did not want to give the impression that I believe they are somehow responsible for making any and all material accessible.

Once the post had been published, though, several sighted people expressed gratitude, and were eager to make minor adjustments to their social media practices for the benefit of their blind friends and followers. Immensely pleased by all the enthusiasm, I agreed to write a brief Q & A, covering the most basic aspects of social media accessibility. And here it is.

Note: I’m using Facebook as a starting point, though many of the same general rules apply on other social media platforms.

Q: What should I do when uploading a photo?
A: If you upload a picture of your own, there will be no caption or description by default. A screen reader user will hear a string of meaningless numbers and letters (this is how photos are rendered) and that’s about it. They will know you posted it, but unless the accompanying comments provide context, it is impossible for a blind person to interact with your post. Most blind users will be perfectly happy with even the briefest description. For example, if you post a picture of your cat, you need only mention its name. Your blind friends don’t need to know all the details; if they are truly curious, they can contact you for more information.

Q: What should I do when sharing a photo?
A: When sharing a photo from someone else’s page, you may get lucky: there might already be a description or caption attached. Blind users can often interact with shared photos, because either the comments or the description provide enough context. If, however, the photo stands alone, you may have to add a short description, which is very easy to do, especially on Facebook where space is not at such a premium.

Q: What should I do when sharing screenshots and text embedded in images?
A: Many sighted people don’t realize that text embedded within images is completely inaccessible to screen reader users. The reader interprets the image as a graphic, and cannot recognize the actual text inside it. In this case, you may actually have to write out the contents in plain text so your blind friends can understand it. If it is a particularly long post, (or, as in some cases, the post is a lengthy article constructed entirely of images) it may be wiser to wait for a blind person to request information. Don’t spend ages writing everything out before you know whether your efforts are necessary.

Q: What should I do when posting from Instagram, Pinterest, or other largely-visual platforms?
A: Again, you must consider what you’re posting before making a decision. If you’re posting from Instagram, and it’s just a picture of what you had for breakfast, write a quick, plain text description like, “Look at my scrumptious chocolate muffin!” Blind users will understand the gist; they don’t necessarily require lavish descriptions of the muffin’s various attributes. Keep in mind, though, that most blind people understand that Instagram and similar platforms are primarily intended for sighted people. As such, it is not a sin to post visual items from those sites without taking the time to describe every single photo. There will be certain things we just can’t access properly, and most of us are totally fine with it. It’s not life or death, after all.

Q: Can you give me some general advice that will cover everything?
A: Yes. The best general rule is this: perform a cost-benefit analysis. If what you are sharing is important, taking steps to make it accessible is greatly appreciated. If you run a business or promotional page, you are obligated to make your content as accessible as possible. I recently admonished the CNIB for posting on Facebook without including a description of the photo they’d uploaded!
If you’re just posting on your private page, though, don’t worry too much. Blind people may skip past four out of five visual posts without being particularly bothered about what they’re missing. If you’re worried, extend an invitation to them, encouraging them to contact you when they want more information. That way, you never waste your time adapting things no one will benefit from.

Your time is valuable. Thank you for the minor adjustments you make for us. They don’t go unnoticed.