How about a good, old-fashioned rant today.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about accommodations, and how we accommodate people with disabilities, (or don’t). The ADA has given us a term for this, “reasonable accommodations.” Everybody says these words like we all know what they are, but it’s really just an easy buzz wordy way to make black and white something that, by its very nature, is always going to be gray.

I’d like to talk, specifically, about the reactions of people who hear about the “reasonable accommodations” someone with a disability might receive. When, on the rare, rare occasion that I’m given some printed text in an alternate format, whether it’s Braille or a Word document or an audio file, I’m thankful for the consideration that has been given to me and my situation. I will usually thank the person responsible, and mean it sincerely.

However, if someone else finds out about the alternate format, they often will break into a gush about how fantastic that is, and how nice they were to provide an accommodation, etc etc. And, don’t get me wrong, it is incredibly thoughtful, and I appreciate that, but it is only particularly noteworthy because of how rarely it happens.

I could count on a few fingers the times I have not had to ask and advocate for my own accommodations. Most people have know idea what accommodations are, and how to define “reasonable.” I tend to say that, for a blind person, a reasonable accommodation is whatever is comparable to what a sighted person receives in a given situation. This is most important, for me, where text is concerned. If someone sighted has access to identifying text, I should too. It is not “nice” for someone to do so. It is the law. It’s not “nice” when it’s done for sighted people, either, and it would be silly for someone to say so.

Since most of the reasonable accommodation giving centers around employment, and whether or not a requested accommodation is, indeed, reasonable, I’ll mention, too, that I’m sick of the way we talk about people with disabilities finding and sustaining work. Often when I have a job, I feel enormous pressure to be constantly positive about it, because someone was so “nice” and “took the risk” of hiring me. And often, an employer will expect so little from a blind employee, and be all too quick to say, “Well, it just wasn’t working out. They just couldn’t perform the essential functions of the job.” (In case you were wondering, “essential functions” is another ADA phrase which employers love and I loathe.

Blind people, overwhelmingly, are not unable to perform the “essential functions” because they don’t have the skills to do the work. They are unable to perform the functions because they are not given adequate, reasonable accommodations. Can you imagine if a sighted person didn’t have something as simple as an agenda for a team meeting in a format that they could read? What if a whole population of sighted people were continually not given agendas? When someone comes to me and apologizes for not getting printed materials to me in a manner in which I can read them, my expected response is supposed to be: “Oh it’s ok. I know you’re busy. … Yes don’t worry, you have a lot to do.” Certainly, everyone has a lot to do. But what if blind people had permission to say something like, “I understand you’re busy, but not having the same materials as everyone else compromises my job performance and my job security in turn. How can I work with you to ensure I get the materials in advance next time? And how can we work together to get me the materials for today as soon as possible?”

I’m sure many of you, looking at the above, diplomatic statements, are thinking: “Say it! You go girl!” And certainly, I wish we as blind people could all feel empowered and confident enough to say these things. But even if we’re not told by individuals, we’re told by society that we should simply be grateful to have a job. If we’re not making adequate money, or don’t have full materials, we should just be grateful someone took the risk when our skills are inferior to others. We need a shift far greater than “reasonable accommodations”, which only sounds good to a certain point. It needs to be practiced, to be demanded, and to be honored without repercussions. Of course, there will be blind people (just like sighted people), who will turn out not to have sufficient skills to do a particular job. They may have to seek other employment. But blind people should be given everything comparable to what a sighted person receives, so that there will be no question about why it didn’t work out.

Shortly after my last post, my friend Arlie sent me a link to this kickstarter. Funnily enough, the previous evening we’d been bantering about how there should be a suite of apps under the heading of: “Where the fuck’s my…” and the app could help you find objects with audio feedback, like keys, a garbage can for an ill-timed doggie bathroom break, a particular bus stop, etc. The Kickstarter is to improve an existing app, Blind Tool, which has some of that “where the fuck’s my…” capability.
It’s pretty cool! Check it out if you feel so moved:

P.S. My apologies to anyone reading this who is offended by the word “fuck.” Like, I dunno, my grandma. Though, knowing her, I bet she’s not offended.

Several times in the last few months there have been situations where I’ve been dealing with inaccessible technology. One such situation cost me a job I had gotten as a transcriber. The transcription interface turned out to be inaccessible without the use of a mouse. When I mentioned this tiny but major issue, the company who hired me said, “Well, we outsource the maintenance of that site, so we can’t do anything.” Basically, “Sorry, but not our problem. And if you can’t do this one thing, no job for you.”

That was the most extreme and the most frustrating. But other situations have come up where a site has been inaccessible: whether it’s content not being spoken by my screenreader, a required signature that can only be achieved by “drawing” with a mouse, or a a “submit” button that doesn’t respond to keyboard commands. In every instance, I try to find someone to report the situation to. I send emails. I speak to my colleagues. And in almost every situation, the answer comes back: “Well, we outsource this, so there’s not much we can do to fix it.” Also known as: “So not our problem, and we’re busy people with a lot more pressing problems to deal with.”

No one has actually said that. People have tried to be helpful, I suppose. People have suggested I send feedback to the web administrator, which may or may not get read, or wait for sighted assistance, which may or may not be remembered by the sighted person. These solutions are fine, but ultimately, I want a solution that I feel like will fix the problem and not just be a waste of time.

I think what it comes down to is: I don’t understand social irresponsibility. Maybe this comes from my work in nonprofits, or more specifically, the nonprofits I served where people have gone totally beyond necessity to help me, to help others, or at least to make a concerted effort to find the person who knows what must be done to help. And these aren’t people who are bored and have nothing better to do. These are people who are as exceedingly busy as everyone else claims to be.

It’s not that I’m a martyr, or a saint. I’m not even that good of a person a lot of the time. And yet, I also feel a kinship with and a responsibility to others, and if I had a company who outsourced an inaccessible web site, or rented an inaccessible building, or was somehow paying companies that were complicating the life of someone, I would be going to those companies to see how we could fix it, and I would consider it a priority. Totally my problem. Certainly not solely mine, but mine enough to work diligently for a solution.

What frustrates me the most about the “not my problem” attitude when faced with inaccessible technology is that so many people are content to let the issue rest there. And if it rests, it doesn’t make its way to the people who can fix it. It stays with the people who are too busy, too harassed, too maxed out to push it forward. I can’t help but think that so many of these issues are simple coding flaws, and that they could be fixed reasonably quickly. But if they never make it to the proper person because someone decides it’s not their problem, the code is left to continue tripping people up.

I don’t mean to blame the entire tech industry, but I would like to see a lot more social responsibility and way more collaboration on this. And it starts as easily as acknowledging our responsibility to one another as people.