While most of us in the blind community agree that accessibility is an important issue, there is widespread disagreement on priorities and underlying principles. There also remains a lack of practical solutions to some accessibility challenges. The following transcript of a dialogue between two advanced blind users of information technology illustrates just part of the complexities involved in our quest for equal access to information and participation in society. You now have the opportunity to contribute to this dialogue by posting your own comments. Let’s find ways to break down current and future accessibility barriers to insure our ability to remain productively involved in our world.
JH: One leader in the blind community argues that if we ask for everything, it will just cause confusion. Most negotiators would say the first thing you do is ask for the world and then if you have to back down a little, you’re still way ahead. I don’t see any reason to believe that the blind community has had a whole lot of trouble asking for too much? Do you think that’s been a problem? If so why?
GW: I cannot cite an example where someone has actually said, “now, if you hadn’t asked for this thing, I’d have given you this other thing,” but I certainly have been in a place where I wanted so much that busy people cut me off after a time and said, “Of all these things, tell me what you really need.” When we meet with the congress, we are lucky to get 15 minutes with a staffer and maybe 5 with the official. Maybe if we had more money and our demands were accompanied by large contributions our list could be bigger, but when you get right down to it, what kind of stick do we carry. We have a few laws and they help, but ill-conceived suits are costly both monetarily and in the precedents they set. Though I’m reluctant to say it, I also think our laws are vulnerable to modification when push comes to shove because, whether we want to say it out loud or not, we don’t get what we get
because of the inward conviction held by the elected representative that we have inalienable rights which are being violated. He or she does what they do because they perceive not only that it is something good for which we ask, but that it won’t cost very much. For evidence, consider recent reversals of the ADA in the courts and also suggestions in congress that it be revisited to refine its scope. Refine, in this context, doesn’t mean to clarify and expand, but to limit. I perceive the climate today as much more interested in business and global competition than in the environment, the rights of racial minorities and the rights of the disabled.
JH: I was shocked to hear some blind people argue that the disabled are no different than other people who lose their jobs because they lack the skills to perform them. Assuming blind people aren’t any less intelligent or ambitious than the general population, it would seem the reason they can’t do their jobs is lack of accessibility. Is 75% unemployment just the way the world works? Or is it an example of complacency?
GW: I submit the root cause of inaccessibility is much more complicated than complacency. It begins as an issue of being unaware, but after awareness through education there are other issues. Economically we’re in a poor position to press for change by offering the carat of grater sales. The changes we want in software cost money and if you can’t at least expect to recoup that money then what lever do blind people use? The laws we’ve passed such as Section 508 are there, but their impact is limited, for again no one really wants to deprive their employees of the productivity achievable using Microsoft Word, Access, etc. If they can jawbone, they will, but how many times have you seen an agency lose federal funds for education based on IDEA or Section 504 though the language is clearly there to support it.
People care about what we want and will accommodate it if they believe they reasonably can, but when you tell them we have problems with transportation and need more of it, and they find they are already spending $13 a trip to provide Para-transit service, they soon decide what we want is understandable but not currently doable.
JH: I was disappointed that so many people thought it was absurd to ask
Microsoft to Braille the license key. Is that more absurd than asking every city in the country to rip out street corners and put in wheelchair curb cuts? I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin and they did that in the 1970s, 30 years ago, and I doubt they did it voluntarily. When new buildings are required to have wheelchair accessible bathrooms, why is it just plain absurd to require software companies to Braille their license keys? Or is the idea that that’s absurd an example of complacency?
GW: I think putting product keys in a form other than print is something companies could easily do, but I also think the problem these keys pose for us is so small relative to other issues that it isn’t worth giving companies the out of saying, “But look what we already do for the blind.” I can easily write down and file a key when I buy the latest version of Office, but if I can’t produce a quality document using Microsoft Word, I can’t afford the software and the key does me little good.
Your example about curb cuts and accessible buildings is a strong and
persuasive one and I only note that the numbers who benefit from these physical changes are much larger and the changes needed much more tangible. It is easier for elected officials and the owners of a business to conceive of their one day being wheelchair bound and needing a ramp than of being blind and needing the functionality of a complicated piece of software. It is easy to simulate the handicap of inaccessibility because of a curb or step, but let me try to demonstrate inaccessibility in a simple and dramatic way, and the first reaction once the computer starts to talk is “Well, isn’t that amazing.” “Can you really understand what he’s saying there?” “They can do so much now with computers: who would have thought?”
Not only is our problem harder to briefly articulate and its solution harder to see, but I’m not at all convinced that, in today’s climate, users of wheelchairs could bring about the passage of the laws now on the books. It isn’t even clear to me that on most issues we can offer a good technical solution to some of the access barriers we face. It’s relatively easy to say we want a word processor to let us read and write sentences and paragraphs, but what do we want from our computers when color is used to denote proposed changes in a document or when a map is displayed in a text to show how critical some port is in order to have access to the oil in the middle east. Do we want to ask that all ATM’S talk or that a universal device be developed we can use to read the display on the ATM, our cell phones, our satellite TV box and our microwave oven? Everybody knows we need access, but try getting a technical group to agree on which solution is the most versatile, the most user friendly, and the most likely to get from industry and government. I’d be significantly younger if I could buy back all the time we’ve spent going nowhere on these issues as people of good-will have tried finding solutions.
JH: I seriously don’t know. these are honest questions. Maybe I’m just a nut. But right now I am thinking maybe the people who represent us need to be more like Darrell and less like most of the people on this list.
GW: It seems to me there is very little difference really between Darrell and some of the people who have responded on the list. Darrell gets angry when he hears about the role of attitude and alternative techniques because he thinks there is implied criticism of his techniques of blindness, doubt about his having a positive attitude, and minimizing of the problems he and others face while trying to do a real job in the real world while a bunch of armchair philosophers tell him to use someone’s vision he can’t afford for reasons he finds indefensible. Some on the list hear in Darrell’s criticism that if a thing can’t be done electronically it isn’t worth doing, that sight should be irrelevant to functioning in the world, that he is the only one courageous enough to stand against the forces which would shut us out of the 21st century, that the blind organizations live with their head in the sand, unwilling to accept that in this new reality the problem really isn’t about attitudes and alternative techniques but about the right blind people should have to information which, because it is in an electronic form, could be made accessible if only blind people would demand and sighted people would care. I won’t advertise those last two sentences as a model of clear writing or that they accurately reflect all the nuances in discussions I’ve read and contributed to over the last few years, but they do capture my overall impression about how we talk passed one another and then get mad when we’re not heard. People on the list could and should be kinder to Darrell and realize how hard it is not to get angry and frustrated when it takes more than one’s best to get ahead or just stay even. Darrell doesn’t need to take general comments personally and should realize that just as he does not want his work as a person primarily concerned with electronic accessibility to be challenged or dismissed, so too are people on the list upset when they hear that there comments are, for the most part, irrelevant and reflect an inability to perceive how it is in the information age. We all come to the accessibility issue feeling overworked and under-appreciated, whether that work is concerned exclusively with making software accessible or it’s raising the money to buy the plane tickets to send people to industry conferences, the campus of Microsoft or the halls of congress. All of us want to perform as well as our sighted neighbor does on the job, to receive the same promotions or better, and to go home at night and simply deal with family and good books and television. To the degree we invest time in electronic access and other issues, we have less of all those things, and maybe it’s only around each other we can really say how mad it makes us.
JH: One other thing I wanted to mention out of the context of the dialog being
published is that although I’m perfectly satisfied with the article coming
across as an interview, if I were to continue the debate it would be to say
that Gary’s answers were to me a call to arms. I mean that in the best
possible way, Gary.
In other words, to me, Gary’s answers were an indication of how much work
we have to do. I believe that problems don’t solve themselves. And if one
of the problems Gary sees is that legislators don’t feel that reasonable
accomodations are a basic human right, then we need to convince them of
that. I don’t mean Gary needs to convince them of that. I mean *we*, the
disabled do. If Congress means to limit the ADA when it says it is going
to revisit it, then we have to take action to make sure our needs are
respected. I don’t mean Gary needs to take action. I mean the blind
I don’t know exactly what we can do. I’m not an experienced political
activist. But the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation here in
Wisconsin is so under funded that you can’t get help until you actually
lose your job and even then, there’s a waiting list that can go up to 6
months. With unemployment among the disabled in Wisconsin running 80%
according to an activist I talked to (California officially estimates it’s
rate at 70-75%), I think that’s disgraceful.