Blind Access Journal is almost three years old. We will be celebrating our third anniversary of concerted online accessibility evangelism on December 17,2007. Now that we have embarked on our second major CAPTCHA (visual verification) accessibility initiative, I thought it would be a good idea to make the agenda of Blind Access Journal plainly clear to both long time and new readers. The overarching statement we consistently make in the pages of this journal is: “accessibility is a right”. Accessibility provides blind and visually impaired people with the opportunity to participate in society on terms of equality with the sighted. Inaccessibility excludes the blind and visually impaired, resulting in exactly the opposite condition. We must have accessibility in the form of “reasonable accomodations” that permit us to participate, in order that we may be afforded the opportunities to live, learn and work in the world around us. Though we greatly appreciate anyone who is willing to work cooperatively with us, we must also keep in mind that full and equal participation of the blind in society ought not, ultimately, be a charity, convenience, luxury or privilege, but rather a human right in just the same way as those earned by women, minorities and other groups of human beings who have found themselves disallowed from full participation in one or more important elements of their society at different times in history.
The concept of charity revolves around the ability and willingness of people who have something (clothing, food, shelter) to share that wealth with those less fortunate. Rescue Missions, soup kitchens and other efforts to feed and shelter the homeless population are excellent examples of wonderful charities. In many cases, these organizations simply hand out food to the people who are eligible for their services. We also have non-profit, “charitable” organizations within the blind community that provide us with opportunities we would not otherwise be granted from companies in the business sector. Benetech and The Seeing Eye are excellent examples of two such organizations. Benetech now provides over 35,000 scanned electronic books to its subscribers, increasing their opportunities to read for entertainment and educational purposes. The Seeing Eye provides trained guide dogs to blind and visually impaired people to increase our ability to safely move through the world around us. Organizations like Benetech, The Seeing Eye and many others are charities in that they are non-profit, tax exempt entities with a mission to provide services not otherwise available to a minority population. In this sense, the concept of charity is quite positive. Unfortunately, there’s another side to the concept of charity that is not so great with respect to accessibility issues.
In the old days, perhaps as recently as the 1960’s here in the United States and today in other parts of the world, blind beggars would stand on street corners handing out pencils and accepting coins from passers by dropped into a can or cap. In the modern world, most blind people receive monthly checks, such as those from Social Security here in the United States, as a replacement to begging. In both cases, begging and Social Security checks simply represent a way for society to show charity toward a group of people deemed too needy to effectively care for themselves. Since the blind endure an approximate 75 percent unemployment rate, the continuation of this charity remains absolutely critical. Unfortunately, there is a dirty little secret to this form of charity. The concept involves the assumption that these poor, pitiful handicapped people should be grateful for whatever they get and should thus take their charity and leave everyone else alone. People harboring such attitudes tend to feel, whether consciously or not, that whatever small measures they take to help us should be good enough. Any indication on our part that their actions may not be sufficiently helpful is written off as whining and complaining and met either with silence or, when we are lucky, with a statement of this attitude. They resent any insistance that a better job be done to work with us for a more positive result. Karen and I call this a settle-for-less attitude, for lack of a better label. This settle-for-less attitude is deeply and profoundly offensive to those of us who simply feel we must be granted the same opportunities as people without disabilities.
Unfortunately, many government agencies, businesses and even some non-profit organizations continue to take this settle-for-less attitude with us. For example, paratransit providers like East Valley Dial-A-Ride here in Arizona often take the attitude that “we’re doing the best we can” while refusing to hold themselves accountable for errors, act professionally with their customers or listen to constructive input from the community. This same attitude and approach to challenges is often clearly evident in the people working for the Social Security Administration, Vocational Rehabilitation and many other agencies and organizations with a mission to help people with disabilities. While people with disabilities are required to follow the provider’s policies to the letter as a condition of receiving the help they need, the provider feels free to violate their stated responsibilities, often without as much as a sincere apology and explanation of the actions that will be taken to insure the violation is not repeated in the future. The settle-for-less attitude is even clearly evident on the Internet.
Many web sites now feature a CAPTCHA (also known as visual verification) during the registration process or even as a condition of completing business transactions. The CAPTCHAs are designed to make abuse of the web site virtually impossible for scripts and other automated computer programs, requiring that a real human being be present to pass the test. The customer or user is asked to look at a picture of a string of distorted characters and enter them correctly into an edit box in order to be permitted passage to the promised land they seek. Some web companies, such as America Online, Google and PRWeb offer an audio playback of the characters as an alternative for the blind, visually impaired or even sighted users who simply need a different way to pass the CAPTCHA test. The job of implementing audio CAPTCHA on any given web site has become much easier over the past year. For example, the FormShield CAPTCHA tool for the Microsoft .Net platform provides quite an effective audio and visual verification scheme. Another example is the free ReCAPTCHA service that provides audio and visual CAPTCHAs that also serve to assist in the process of the optical character recognition of books from print into digital formats. There is even an example of a text-based CAPTCHA, WP-Gatekeeper that permits readers of WordPress blogs to post their comments after answering a basic, text-based challenge question. Though the audio CAPTCHA continues to exclude some users, such as the deaf-blind, it represents the current technological state-of-the-art, and there’s absolutely no excuse at this point for any web site to be using a CAPTCHA without at least an audio playback as a reasonable accomodation for the blind and visually impaired. Concerted research and development must continue in order to ultimately devise and implement solutions that can tell computers and humans apart in a method that is non-censory, so that all human beings will be able to pass such tests and access online resources.
Unfortunately, there still exist many companies and organizations on the web that insist on the settle-for-less attitude. Two examples are Yahoo! and Western Oregon University. Yahoo! invites the blind person to complete a separate form and wait for a human to call back in order to complete the action protected by the CAPTCHA, while WOU invites blind students to contact a telephone number that is supposedly staffed 24×7 in order to receive assistance. A student at Western Oregon University has told me that the results of their CAPTCHA accomodation have been less than acceptable. Many blind Yahoo! users tell us that, after completing the form as requested, the promised callback from Yahoo! personnel simply never comes, even after numerous attempts to request help. A petition has recently been initiated asking Yahoo! to add an audio alternative to their CAPTCHA. Western Oregon University, Yahoo! and all other web site operators that either provide no accomodation at all to their CAPTCHA or provide a manual process requiring human intervention are examples of those who seem to believe in the settle-for-less attitude. When no accomodation is offered, a blind person must rely on the help of a sighted individual, who may not be available for hours or even days. Many manual intervention approaches tend to result in no follow up at all or the follow up comes hours to days after the request for help is made by the blind person. In both cases, either no access is provided at all or the access is vastly inferior to that granted sighted users, who are allowed instant gratification as soon as they are able to pass the visual verification process. Some in the blind community, myself included, feel that the current state of affairs with inaccessible CAPTCHA is tantamount to the segregation experienced by African-Americans before the mid to late 1960’s.
A convenience or luxury item is clearly defined as something that is nice to have but is not required in order to fill basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. For most people in society, the acquisition of those basics ultimately requires gainful, paid employment. Most jobs now require the employee to use a computer and other electronic office equipment. If an employee is unable to use one or more critical job-related computer programs, they are unable to be considered as candidates for the position or may lose their existing employment. This happens to blind people on a regular basis. It would have happened to me in February of 2006, had I not put my foot down and absolutely insisted on a better outcome. We are regularly receiving testimonials from others experiencing situations where their employment is in jeopardy simply due to a lack of cooperation on the part of software developers to make reasonable accomodations that would allow their software to function with screen readers and other assistive technology. These accessibility issues are further frustrated by the fact that most of the currently entrenched screen reader manufacturers refuse to innovate in ways that would increase the usability of those applications that have already been identified as inaccessible. It is absolutely critical that all assistive technology companies focus on innovation and stop engaging in destructive, unproductive, wasteful efforts such as filing lawsuits and other similar anti-competitive moves.
In addition to technology access concerns, transportation is an issue for many blind and visually impaired individuals. Most sighted people drive themselves to work, while a small percentage of the sighted ride the bus, subway or some similar form of public transportation. While most blind people are able to safely utilize buses or subways, many are not for various reasons. Those who can’t take advantage of the regular public transportation system in a city may rely on a paratransit service such as Dial-A-Ride. When a paratransit service causes their customer to be late to their job due to an issue outside the customer’s control, the employee may be written up and, ultimately, may lose their job altogether, even after successfully working around the technology access challenges. Such scenarios are, of course, also quite inexcusable.
Accessibility is not a convenience or luxury item! We must have equal accessibility to information and transportation in order to educate ourselves and acquire gainful, paid employment. It is just that simple and obvious. Consideration of accessibility as a convenience or luxury item is another component of the settle-for-less attitude demonstrated all too often by the agencies, assistive technology companies and organizations with a stated mission to help us, Federal, state and local government agencies charged with the duty to serve all citizens, the developers of mainstream products and services and even most blind people who are willing to accept inaccessibility without insisting on something better. When we encounter a case of inaccessibility that holds us back, we must start by politely asking for positive change, but we must also be willing to insist on the right thing being done and, even, demand equal accessibility when necessary. In most cases, sadly, accessibility is going to continue under the settle-for-less banner unless we, the blind and visually impaired community negatively impacted by the lack of equal opportunity caused by inaccessibility, stand up and take action!
Although most sighted people in modern times would probably consider it a right, the ability to drive an automobile is actually an excellent example of a privilege. The driver must pass a test showing basic competencies, acquire a driver’s license and purchase the vehicle along with auto insurance, fuel and maintenance. Only after that do all the components exist for driving. Driving most certainly requires either gainful employment, retirement income in the case of senior citizens or some other substantial form of financial support. You do not have a legal right to drive a car. If you are willing to use public transportation or walk, you do not need to drive in order to meet your basic food, clothing and shelter needs. You can acquire most forms of education or employmehnt without independent use of a vehicle. The case is similar with luxury items, such as cable television or the ability to eat dinner out at a nice restaurant once in awhile. Of course, when accessibility allows blind people to acquire paid work, we are sometimes afforded these luxuries equivalent to similar opportunities afforded the sighted.
Accessibility is clearly not a luxury item or a privilege. Equal access places us on a level playing field with our sighted peers, so that we may equally participate with them in society for the purpose of meeting our basic needs as well as acquiring conveniences and luxury items when available resources allow. We are not able to meet those basic needs, much less acquire conveniences and luxury items, without the accessibility afforded by reasonable accomodations. No accomodation at all is never reasonable. Sighted people employed by or in leadership positions at agencies, companies, government institutions or organizations ought to be empathetic, understanding how they might like to be accomodated if they or a close friend or relative were blind or visually impaired. Blind people must learn to become better, more persistent advocates for themselves as well as evangelists for the good message of equal accessibility. Accessibility is simply the ethical, moral, and sometimes legal, right thing to do! I can imagine the great things that could happen if an increasing number of blind and visually impaired people would simply take more actions to convince, insist and, sometimes, demand more sighted people to become empathetic or, at least, do the right thing as a result of relentless pressure applied in the right amounts and circumstances. I believe the “if you build it, they will come” approach to accessibility evangelism can work if we, as a blind community, work much harder than we are now on both an individual and organizational level to communicate with the assistive technology companies and the developers of mainstream technology, reminding them of our needs and our constant insistance on having them met effectively. Remember, my blind brothers and sisters, most sighted people still don’t even know that we are able to use computers!