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The Emotional Side of Advocating for Accessibility

February 10, 2005 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker


I am taking some serious flack from some in the blind community, mostly staunch members of the National Federation of the Blind, for my frank, hard-hitting, insistent, passionate approach to advocating for greater accessibility. I am being characterized as an emotional, “loose canon” who goes “over the top” on issues that aren’t as important as some other concerns in the blind community. Not at all surprising, I take great exception to their assessment of my efforts.


Whenever something is inaccessible to us due to our blindness, we are being locked out, excluded from participating in the associated activity or taking advantage of the opportunity that is being made inaccessible. It is just that simple. To the extent that we are willing to accept that loss of opportunity, we allow inaccessibility to go unchallenged. Due to limited energy, finances, time and other resources, we may prioritize, deciding that some issues are more important than others. Inaccessibility results in curtailment of our ability to participate in society. Though it is hard to swallow, this is an indisputable fact. Employment and educational opportunities are lost on a regular basis due to the inaccessibility of one or more pieces of technology. We may even find that, one day in the near future, we are unable to independently perform basic daily living tasks such as cooking dinner or washing clothes due to the inaccessibility of digital home appliances. Our entertainment options are also being more frequently abridged due to inaccessible consumer electronics.


Given the currently declining state of affairs with respect to our ability to gain access to the electronic world around us, why would I not be emotional about the need for accessibility? If I lose my job due to inaccessible computer software, that’s personal! If I am presented with information in print without any accessible alternative, that’s personal! If I can no longer cook my dinner in the evening after a long day at work, that’s personal! If I’m not able to buy a nice stereo system, television or other neat piece of electronic equipment that I can effectively use without need of sight, that’s personal! Finally, if I am unable to sign on to a web site due to one more graphical security verification system (CAPTCHA, Turing test) due to its inherent inaccessibility and lack of an accessible alternative, that’s personal too! Inaccessibility is personal, at least for those of us who feel very strongly about the need for accessibility and reasonable accomodations. When I encounter an unmitigated issue of inaccessibility that is harming me in some way, I feel angry. I am being locked out. If the inaccessible company or organization has been made aware of their inaccessibility but continues to avoid the issue, then I am being blatantly discriminated against in the worst possible manner! My adrenalin starts to pump andI can feel my blood pressure rising! There is absolutely nothing wrong with me. I am allowed to have these feelings and even to express them to others inside and outside the blind community in a reasonable, even insistent, manner.


I am a “loose canon” going “over the top” when I absolutely refuse to just sit down, politely accept that we don’t live in an ideal world and just “use a reader” to make my own accessibility. I am not at all against making our own independent accessibility. In fact, since we are our own best experts on accessibility, all such efforts should be driven by participation from the blind community. When we’re able to make our own accessibility, that’s wonderful! We should certainly do it, avoiding requests for accomodations we don’t truly need. On the other hand, in most cases, we must insist that the mainstream electronics and technology industry meet us halfway in our efforts to insure our ability to access electronics and information technology products and services. We must all, blind and sighted alike, do our best when it comes to accessibility. The lives of the blind depend on it!


With passion comes motivation. Once motivated, we innovate and drive ourselves forward! That’s how it works for all movements. What would have happened if Rosa Parks simply got up and politely moved to the back of the bus like a good little black woman? Similarly, we must always insure that we are not pushed aside or thrown away when it comes to accessibility! It is just this simple, boys and girls. Anyone have anything to say about it?

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4 opinions on “The Emotional Side of Advocating for Accessibility

  1. Darrell, I found your comments about access and federationists interesting. I know I won’t make some in NFB happy but I agree with your point. For a long time I have been convinced that there has to be some middle ground between ACB and its general attitude that everything needs to be acccessible and the NFB which sometimes to think that hiring a sighted reader is the answer to everything. Well readers aren’t perfect and if that concept is so great, why do we need to buy accessible voting machines any way? Let’s just hire sighted folks to do these things for us. No thanks. I had my fill of readers in college in the early 1970s and vowed I’d only go back to school when technology made the reader unnecessary for the most part.
    Part of the problem with making things accessible however is that there isn’t a good definable access target for these companies to reach. Heck, sighted folks have problems programming their vcrs. Why should we think making things accessible would be easy if the needs of the mainstream aren’t being totally met?
    Having said that, nobody is going to help us achieve this task unless we rock the boat some. I’m sure you’ve made a mistake or too in your quest but for the most part, I think you are on the right track.
    Randy Black

  2. Hello Darrell. I think your comment that you have been taking some flak in
    the blind community because of your stand on accessibility mischaracterizes
    the controversy which some of your posts generate. Everyone who monitors the
    lists to which you post in the National Federation of the Blind has a keen
    interest in accessibility. They understand the relationship between
    accessibility, education, and employment, and they also understand the
    tremendous benefits which allow them to communicate with one another via
    e-mail, the Internet, screen readers, and the partial accessibility we had
    to the Windows operating system.

    Disagreements as a result of your posts come about because of your sometimes
    implied and sometimes straightforward criticisms that others do not take
    accessibility as seriously as you do. When you say that to a group of
    people who dedicate a large percentage of their free time to promoting the
    equality of the blind, it should be no surprise that they react with some
    anger. If you want to limit your efforts exclusively to the accessibility of
    hardware and software, then your contribution and focus will be appreciated,
    but if that focus implies that the rest of us are misdirected because we
    also put our energy into working on preschool programs for blind children,
    seeing that they can attend elementary and secondary schools with textbooks
    that come on time, that they have good quality choices for rehabilitation to
    gain the daily living skills they will need, and that college students gain
    the right to take standardized tests without the flagging or negation of
    their scores, then people who give every bit as much as you do will react
    critically and defensively to the tone of your messages which is that they
    are off track.

    When people on the lists I’ve monitored disagree with you, the issue has not
    been whether we would like greater accessibility but what priority a given
    item should have in the mammoth task we face. Emotionally it is easy to say
    that in accessibility is immoral, but this attitude only serves to alienate
    us from the people we need to get to know in solving our problem.
    Admittedly there is a certain appeal to pontificating from the mountaintop
    about the immorality of those who keep us out, but the real issues of
    accessibility that keep us out require much more. As blind people we do not
    have many contacts in the large national and international corporations
    which now make the software, hardware, home appliances, and business
    machinery which pose accessibility problems for us. Few of us have any
    contacts in the field of engineering where design work is done. We are
    trying to make those contacts, and doing so is time-consuming and expensive.

    We live in a time where it is excepted that the marketplace will govern the
    affairs of the world just as the fit and the fast prevail in the wild. As a
    child of the 60s and early 70s, I reject this kind of thinking, but
    rejecting it doesn’t mean I have the right to ignore the reality that this
    is the prevalent view in our society today, and it is the basis on which the
    laws of our country and many others around the world are being enacted and
    implemented.

    Many of those you criticized for not careing about accessibility have gone
    to our state legislatures to pass bills regarding nonvisual access to
    technology, have worked to develop regulations to implement that
    legislation, and had negotiated with departments to figure out how
    accessibility should be implemented. Many of us know the pain of going to
    work at jobs where the demand for our time and talent is much less than it
    used to be. We know how much more precarious are our jobs than they were 10
    or 20 years ago, and we worked desperately not only to remain employed but
    also to make a contribution to the solutions that will hopefully provide
    employment for others in the future. The world needs a John the Baptist
    personality to keep us looking for what must come, but certainly John the
    Baptist could differentiate between when he was talking with the true
    believers and the unconverted.

    Out of respect for you, this will probably be my last post on this subject.
    there are times when give-and-take is necessary to understand what each of
    us is saying, but there also comes a time when we are simply making the same
    point over and over again with slightly different words.

    Warmest regards to you my friend,

  3. Yes sir. I sure know where you’re coming from. It used to be that I would read or hear about some new piece of cool gadgetry and get excited about the possibilities immediately. Now I’m getting older and more cynical, and my first thought tends to be, “What roadblocks have they managed to build in this time?” As well, it’s very seldom that it’s readily apparent where the stumbling blocks will be. There’s almost always the obvious one of the inaccessible little visual display, many of which are becoming dimmer and dimmer so that even an Optacon won’t read them. Subtler issues are those such as, “Will the menu system come up in some well-defined initial state that I can anticipate, or will I find myself placed where I wound up last time so that I’ll have to try and remember what I last did just to know where to go from here?” Just talking like this is depressing me, and it’s easy for the inaccessibility of life to become an obsession that can really screw up one’s whole viewpoint. The mental strain of simply remembering what all the buttons on a remote control are supposed to do, even if I could use them effectively if I could remember their functions, is getting to the point where I just can’t handle all the effort. The lumber room of the mind can only hold so much trivia, and I’m losing my patience with junk like trying to memorize a half dozen keypads.

    All this having been said, I think we have to focus on the blessings in life. There are still nice people around. A good (accessible) book is nice. Somehow we have to maintain some sense of humor and objectivity and not take all this stuff too personally, even when there’s a real temptation to do so. I keep telling myself to be patient. That said, I do feel some pigheaded tendencies like, “I’m going to get my own cell phone when they really have one I can use fully and not before!!!!!!!!”

    There, them’s my ruminations for today. Hope you enjoyed them.

    All the best,
    Jerry

  4. I have often wondered why the NFB seems to take such contradictory views on accessibility. Allow me to give just one example. I have often heard it said that the NFB opposes audio description for entertainment such as movies and plays. Yet they seem to support audio description for those little text blurbs that sometimes are flashed across the television screen. Before going any further, let me state unequivocally that I am a huge fan and supporter of both forms of audio description. I own tons of audio-described videos, and I have at times been known to watch one or two with fully-sighted friends and neighbors. These videos have always been very well received by everyone. However, I would also like to see text blurbs verbalized. I think the NFB has a very good point that these important messages need to be verbalized. I have heard that the ACB also supports this form of audio description. According to the NFB, however, we the blind and visually-impaired are not allowed to watch movies. That is the type of logic I see here. Just last night, I went to see the new “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” starring among others, Johnny Depp. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. The theater I went to is equipped with an audio-description system that employs the use of wireless headsets, allowing those who are visually-impaired and don’t want audio description to not have it. I honestly think that, if people such as those staunch Federationists described earlier want us to become first-class citizens, there needs to be a change of mind with regard to some of these accessibility issues. Those of us who support audio description for movies, plays and other forms of entertainment, are in no way inferior because we do so. Nor should we be thought of as inferior for being supporters of this service.

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