I’ve been thinking a lot about accessibility, and inclusion, lately, especially because events like Global Accessibility Awareness Day and White Cane Day and all the other events that are supposed to be for the advancement of Blind and Disabled people just, well, don’t do anything to make friends of mine aware of my challenges.
I’m sometimes afraid of the non-disabled friend circle because it is a place where I’m supposed to educate rather than gossip about how hot some guy is as he’s talking to his phone across the way or gushing about the new ice cream that I absolutely have to devour at local LGBT+ bookstores. Despite my many decades of educating, though, many people still, to this day, don’t have to learn. They love to be educated all day, but if they can be educated about describing their social media pictures, for example, without actually learning the value of it and improving automatically or after a mistake, my disability accommodations are not their problem they have to correct. They are mine. I, as the disabled person, have to constantly remind my well-meaning friends and partners again, and again, and again, and again, to remember that I have disabilities, and these disabilities can’t be erased.
I use educating deliberately. Education, in my mind, anyway, has morphed into explaining repeatedly without different results. Education is the endless loop I constantly play while I’m still on this earth. Education is different from explaining, in my view, because when I’m explaining an aspect of my world to someone VS. just educating them, there’s a level of interest and willingness when I’m explaining something to an eager ally. If I’m explaining something to someone, I know they want to meet me halfway. If I’m explaining something to someone, they’ve tried to listen, unlike situations when I’m placed in an educating box. Educating, in general, has made me honestly tired of days like Global Accessibility Awareness Day, White Cane Day, or National Guide Dog Day.
These events are rooted in what appears to be acceptances, at first. If someone knows about Disabilities and Disabled people, then they will just strive to do better, and strive to discriminate against us less. Maybe far into the future the attitude of Disabled people, including Blind people, will shift. As of today, though, these campaigns aren’t really helping my life. Inclusion is helping my life, not these awareness campaigns.
Every year, these campaigns, and campaigns like them, are constantly touted and celebrated. These campaigns give everybody a hall pass to be educated about accessibility without stepping into our world. As long as people are educated about screen readers for example, they never have to use one, until the day they do have to use one because they are suddenly a part of the Blind community.
Individuals and corporations love education about disability because it also gives them opportunities to be passive about their inclusion. I can’t tell you how many websites and apps say they fully welcome disabled people and yet, their forms for registrations are never accessible, their restaurant menus are scanned images that a screen reader can’t read, or their social media registrations all have captchas that are inaccessible to multiple disabilities.
It’s more than likely they simply don’t know any better. That’s fine if they don’t know any better. Dialog can happen. People can learn. People can understand. I refuse to believe people just won’t get it. I fully believe people get it and people start to understand, day by day, with more interaction with a Blind person. At some point, though, we have to start asking ourselves is accessibility education honestly doing its job. I think it’s a very valid question to ask ourselves.
Two very valid questions I ask myself daily are, Are these awareness campaigns doing anything? Why aren’t these campaigns working?
It’s made me compare and contrast accessibility and inclusion. It’s also made me start wishing for more open discrimination if you’re going to only commit to being accessible and not inclusive.
Part 2, openly discriminate against me.
I was browsing a website the other day and their accessibility statement was full of everything we know and love. Platitudes about how they strive to make the website as accessible as possible. I’m deliberately not linking to a specific website because, honestly, there’s a billion of them out there. Pick one, read their accessibility statement. After reading the accessibility statement, try to register for the website without properly labeled edit fields.
The above happened to me so many times I actually wished companies would actually just come out and say that they didn’t do any testing on accessibility at all, and we honestly don’t want to have people shop here but the law is making us do it anyway. With that kind of open discrimination, I at least know where I stand. I know how far I will get. I’m not tricked into a false sense of inclusion. If there was more open discrimination, that, ironically, would give me the agency to take my money, and my attention, somewhere else more inclusive.
If you’re willing to learn every day, and to be inclusive tomorrow, that’s one thing. I don’t mind explaining how we can be more inclusive tomorrow. If you honestly don’t care that your services or software are not accessible, I actually wish more individuals and corporations would openly say that. I wish more open discrimination was encouraged under these circumstances because it would give me the agency to not waste my time trying out a service or software.
With accessibility promises, such as those found on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, it’s teasing people like me into believing that you will be inclusive tomorrow and not just accessible today, but after the promises, there’s a whole world of disappointment and frustration because your promise was just that, a promise without action.
Part 3, learn.
I’d like to end this by illustrating an inclusive experience vs. an accessible experience. One of my favorite author friends, Joseph Anthony Rulli, invited me to a table reading for his play. This table reading was the same for everybody, sighted and blind. For once, everybody had to listen to the words on the page and not rely on visual happenings. They were experiencing the play as I would experience the play with audio description. Joseph Rulli had an inclusive experience. Nothing was tacked on or fixed after the fact. I didn’t need a Disability Dongle. I could just be there and listen to the table reading just like everyone else.
By contrast, I tried to go to a movie in person a week later. The movie was supposed to have audio description. The theater said it cared about accessibility. Nobody knew how to use the audio description device. Nobody knew what the audio description was. Nobody knew that audio description is necessary for me to participate in culture. I spent my entire time educating the managers, staff, and otherwise, instead of enjoying myself. When actions didn’t speak louder than words, I felt excluded.
It’s easy to forget. We all forget. I forget to describe my own images sometimes, as I’m sure you do. We’re all human and that’s what makes us, well, special, but even if I forget today, I’ll always remember to do better tomorrow. I’ll always remember to learn tomorrow and to take the time to understand what I don’t know. My challenge to everyone, on this awareness day and all others, is to understand what Disabled people must go through by listening to our debates. Read our social media rants. Learn how to create and use tools we use daily. Go beyond education and immerse yourself in our world. Learn from us. Learn what it’s like to be trapped in an inaccessible world and figure out how you’d navigate it if you had no other choice.