deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
[personal profile] deborah
(Disclaimer: This is not a post about the recent brouhaha I set off in an accessibility community. This is about a larger pattern for which that conversation was merely the final straw. The men involved in that conversation are well-meaning erstwhile allies and should not be demonized. My goal is to educate, not to attack.)

Over the last 10 years (to pick a random benchmark) software in general and the web in particular have gotten continually more accessible to users with a variety of disabilities. This is a good thing, and has come about in part because of important, often high-quality efforts of developers, standards designers, and advocates.note1

In my experience, however, many of those same developers are unresponsive when unsolicited people with disabilites describe their real life experience. In multiple forums populated by both PWD and developers, time and time again, I see the comments and concerns of PWD treated with scorn, neglect, or outright hostility. A user asks how to make a speech recognition package provide functionality he needs, and amidst a thread of other users giving him the information he needs, a developer pops up to explain to her that he is using the product wrong by even asking it to provide that functionality. A user complains that a multimedia product isn't compliant with her screen reader, and instead of asking what problems she's had, a developer for that product responds with "Yes it is!" A user comments that a specific form of coding gives him the best interaction with his adaptive technology, and an accessibility advocate politely explains that that form of coding is in violation of some accessibility standard, or contradicts the results learned in laboratory testing.

Moreover, I see two harmful models often taken for granted by developers who work in accessibility:
  1. The Rube Goldberg approach to accessibility: This is less common than it used to be, and it is certainly out of style. However, there are still accessibility advocates who claim that reasonable accessibility includes, say, requiring the user to write Visual Basic macros in order to get basic functionality.
  2. The passive victim approach to accessibility: This one seems to be much more common, perhaps in reaction to the Rube Goldberg approach. This approach to providing accessibility assumes that every user with disabilities is a naïve computer novice.

Both attitudes are harmful, although it is the latter that happens to be aggravating me today. It assumes that all computer users with disabilities are passive recipients of the user experience provided by the software developer. It denies agency to computer users with developers, assuming that they have no ability to navigate software or webpages except inasmuch as benevolent developers provide it for them. This attitude is contradicted by a survey much lauded among these same developers and advocates: the WebAIM screen reader user survey. 69% of the respondents to that survey report having customized their screen reader settings either "a lot" or "somewhat". The only conclusion the survey authors came to at the survey's completion was "there is no typical screen reader user"; screen reader users navigated webpages through a wide variety of different mechanisms and in a wide variety of different patterns. And yet the Passive Recipient model denies those results, claiming the users with disabilities are powerless and can't be handed choices in any useful fashion.

It's important to understand that "If disability policies are designed without the participation of disabled people themselves they are likely to be ineffective as well as to increase the very exclusion that causes disability and poverty. Nobody knows so much about disability and the process of exclusion than disabled people themselves." The slogan Nothing About Us Without Us isn't merely a catchy rhyme. If you have really dedicated your professional career to accessibility then surely you are emotionally invested in providing functional accessibility to as many individuals with disabilities as you can.

The best way to do that is to involve PWD in your advocacy, development, and standards making. And not just the mythical PWD you carry around in your head. A one-size-fits-all approach to accessibility won't help. We are all different, just like able-bodied people. Some of us are complete computer newbies and others are hard core kernel hackers. Some of us subscribe to the social model of disability and some of us feel broken. Some of us are wizards with our adaptive technology while others feel overwhelmed by functional loss. And (since some people need to be reminded, just as some architects need to be reminded that not all PWD use wheelchairs), not all of us are blind.

Dear developers: you're awesome. Really. But take 30 minutes away from programming and go read '"Check my what?" On privilege and what we can do about it'. And then next time a person with disabilities complains about accessibility, take a step back, breathe, and don't take it as a personal attack. Listen. Ask them questions. Maybe we'll all benefit.


  1. Although it is important to point out that these developers, standards designer, and advocates are nearly always professionals who receive financial rewards for those efforts. There's no shame in being paid for your work but it's nonetheless important to note what Kil Ja Kim in 'An Open Letter to "White Anti-Racists"' refers to as "the accolades and the book deals and the speaking engagements" through which allies profit off those they are theoretically working for. See also Barbara Karens on the same phenomenon, also talking about race. Back


Date: 2009-11-07 04:51 pm (UTC)
libskrat: (oracle)
From: [personal profile] libskrat
OK if I linkspam this over at Geek Feminism?

Date: 2009-11-12 06:50 pm (UTC)

Date: 2009-11-16 10:13 pm (UTC)
tigtog: Diana Rigg in costume for an episode of The Avengers (Default)
From: [personal profile] tigtog
I came to this from the linkspam at GeekFeminism, and I thank you. It's only this past year that I've become committed to accessibility in the website I put together, and I'm still taking baby steps. I've learnt so much from my co-blogger about what works for her, and through her I've learnt from other PWD about what does and doesn't work for them. Without their input I wouldn't really have a clue - the general "official" guidelines only go so far.

Date: 2009-11-07 10:01 pm (UTC)
jesse_the_k: My head on foam mat under pine trees (focused eyeball)
From: [personal profile] jesse_the_k
Thanks for the right-on rhetoric, as well as fascinating links!

Date: 2009-11-08 03:19 pm (UTC)
etana: (Default)
From: [personal profile] etana
I love this post, my friend linked me to it. As a PWD and an assistive tech specialist I've been fighting upstream for years to be included in conversations regarding programming and development. Hell even entering the field as a PWD has been a nightmare of re-educating people. We simply are not acceptable in the field, that would mean we're not special snowflakes who can inspire able-bodied folk to do good works.
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