A Better, Better Way to Accessibility

Someone recently shared this article in a discussion forum in which I am a member.

Progress Over Perfection: A Better Way to Accessibility

As a totally blind screen-reader dependent individual with a long (very long) history of dealing with a sighted world, I found this article interesting and thought provoking. I can’t honestly disagree with much of what the author writes; however, a couple of lines jumped right off the page at me and demanded a response.

“Educate, don’t berate. If the world needs more of anything, it’s kindness.”

I can’t disagree with this on its face, and I agree that angry berating rarely accomplishes anything, no matter what the issue. Having said that, from my perspective, I would rephrase this more along the lines of, “Educate, don’t berate. If the world needs more of anything, it’s employment of more people with disabilities.”

The author continues:

“On things related to disabilities and accessibility, some people with disabilities or supporters come across as angry. This could be happening for different reasons.”

 In an effort to further explain, the author shares this example:

“Think about it. If your five-minute drive turns into an unexpected 65-minute drive, how do you think you’ll feel?”

I have to confess; this actually made me smile. As a blind employee dealing with inaccessibility in the work place, let me rephrase this:

“Think about it. If every single day your 15 -minute task turns into a 90-minute undertaking due to an accessibility issue known by your employer but which they refuse to fix – or refuse to fix in a timely manner, how do you think you’ll feel?”

Answer? Angry.

Both examples presuppose that accessibility issues can actually be resolved by the investment of extra time and effort…an inconvenience along the lines of highway construction or an accident on the road. Returning to the driving analogy, far too often, digital inaccessibility is like catching an Uber in downtown Boise for a 5-minute commute, only to find one’s self abandoned on a rural dirt road in the middle of the Owyhee mountains with no cell service and no human beings for miles around. (Hey, I live in Idaho…look it up).   

While I wholeheartedly agree that berating is totally unproductive, I would also suggest that constantly educating is exhausting. I find that, far too often when I point out an accessibility issue, it is not enough for me to bring the issue to someone’s attention, but rather I am frequently expected to also provide the solution. When I find myself in such situations, my first thought is always, “I’m not a developer, how should I know why this control isn’t keyboard accessible. What I do know is that it’s broken, so fix it.” After many, many years in this life space, such thoughts are mere nanoseconds, compared to the significant portions of time I used to park there. Committed to being part of the solution – almost always on my own time as a volunteer – I soldier on.

The author’s advocacy for a “kinder, gentler” approach is most definitely the best approach when you are discussing missing alt text on Aunt Sally’s Facebook post about her new kitten. When, however, we are discussing the ability of people with disabilities to earn a living, pay our mortgage, send our children to college, participate in the producer economy, experience the self-respect and satisfaction that comes with using our education and skills as a contribution to society as a whole, then I’d like to offer a different approach.

Deliberate – How important is this issue? Organizations have limited resources at any given time, and issues pile up in a queue that is prioritized as to severity. Likewise, I, too, have limited bandwidth. Personally, I would never expend my valuable (and limited) resources on missing alt text. Keyboard accessibility and labeling of controls required to do my job are my personal top priorities. I’m certain that everyone has their own top-of-the-list issue.

Investigate – Does this problem appear elsewhere? Is a new feature or technology, or is it just a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing?

Communicate – Depending on what you discover in the investigation stage, you can reach out to the organization with the issue, or the assistive technology company, or both. Sometimes, we just assume that everyone is always all-knowing, and frequently, I find that not to be the case.

Demonstrate – Unfortunately, it is a reality that – far too often – support personnel have no idea what you are talking about when you mention “screen reader,” or – if they do – they have no idea how they work. Like it or not, it is helpful to be able to demonstrate the issue using the screen reader (or whatever assistive technology you use).

Validate – It is also helpful to be able to validate that the issue has been resolved.

Mitigate – If you are dealing with your employer, it is helpful to have a conversation about what process will be put in place as a work-around to enable you to continue to do your job until a permanent solution is implemented. Too often, I have seen inaccessibility that comes about from technology changes force people out of their jobs.

Escalate – If no one is listening to you, don’t hesitate to escalate. Unfortunately, this is frequently seen as “confrontational,” but frequently, it can’t be helped. If an organization is even slightly sincere about its public commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, then they should walk the talk internally with their employees, not just their consumer-facing products.

Litigate – …and then, of course, there is always the option to file a lawsuit. Personally, I have never chosen this route, not because I haven’t had cause,  but because I value my personal quality of life too much. This is – to my mind – one of those intensely personal decisions that each individual has to make for themselves. Nevertheless, regardless of your personal litigation stamina, I do not believe that lawsuits should be the first step in the process, but then that’s just my personal opinion.

In closing, let me conclude with my personal philosophy that accessibility is not simply a “nice to have”…something that good-hearted employers can offer to their employees with disabilities as a matter of social conscience or charitable undertaking. Rather, accessibility is a civil right that is a “must have.”

It’s time for employers to “elevate, don’t equivocate” – elevate accessibility to the top priority civil rights issue that it is, and stop equivocating as to why you don’t have the knowledge, the resources, or the integrity to make it happen.  

It’s time for employers to “accelerate, don’t procrastinate.” The time for an accessible workplace is now…not with the next release…not next year when the entire product platform will be rewritten. Now! I have bills to pay and a retirement to fund…just like you.

Leave a Comment