I’ve been thinking long and hard about accessibility evangelism in general as of late. Although a few positive differences have been made along the way, the overall results of our efforts here at Blind Access Journal have represented significantly less than the proverbial drop in the bucket. Once in awhile, an online petition is initiated, a company voluntarily decides to make its products and services more accessible or an organization files a lawsuit in an attempt to compel a company to become more accessible based on existing, vaguely defined legislation. Despite continuous, ongoing technological innovation for the sighted, we blind and visually impaired people are being left further and further behind, both by a mainstream technology industry that largely ignores us and an assistive technology industry that can’t or simply won’t innovate to the level that is really needed in order for us to participate in society on anything approaching parity with our sighted peers. Unfortunately, a few dedicated souls in the online, connected blind community can’t reverse these disturbing trends alone. Successful accessibility evangelism that results in our being afforded the opportunity to fully participate in the information age is going to take a concerted, multidisciplinary, organized and systematic approach directed by an organization with a positive track record of acting in the best interests of the blind and visually impaired.
At the Blind Access Journal, I can count on the fingers of my two hands the number of people who have provided us with anything approaching a significant amount of assistance with any of the accessibility evangelism we have undertaken. As this continues to be the state of affairs, we at the Journal become discouraged, decreasing our inspiration to do our critical work. Any accessibility evangelism efforts must involve a consistently concerted effort on the part of at least tens or hundreds of members of the blind community and those who care about what happens to us. Until the amount of participation in accessibility evangelism increases by leaps and bounds over its current levels, no major steps forward can be taken. The following represent examples of steps one could take to further the cause of equal accessibility for the blind:
- When you see an accessibility issue, send an e-mail to the company asking for its resolution in a reasonable way that permits our participation.
- Promptly sign online petitions, write letters and take other steps requested of you by accessibility evangelists.
- Send an e-mail to us or to others you believe to be effective accessibility evangelists asking what you can do to help further the cause of equal access.
- If you are a blogger or podcaster, whether blind or sighted, discuss accessibility and ask your audience to take positive action.
The blind community is small, yet there are at least tens of thousands of us already connected to the Internet. If a company’s representatives hear from only one or two people asking for an accessibility accomodation, those requests are likely to go largely ignored in most cases; however, if they hear from even a couple of hundred people asking about the same issue, that’s bound to be sufficient to garner some serious attention. This is especially true if many such requests can get escalated up the company’s or organizations management chain of command. If these requests can be made by a large number of people in an organized, systematic manner, the impact could be even greater.
In order to be most effective, I have come to the conclusion that accessibility evangelism needs to be done in such a way as to coordinate the efforts of individuals in an organized, systematic manner. The employees and management of companies and organizations will become confused if many individuals make complex requests for wildly differing forms of accessibility accomodations. It is obvious that such confusion and complexity would turn anyone off to the possibility of working with us to meet our needs in a reasonable way that allows us to participate while minimizing the economic and time impact to their business operations. Both the individual and the organizational components of such evangelism are critical. The following are examples of steps that could be taken to make accessibility evangelism a more organized, systematic enterprise:
- House an accessibility evangelism department or team within the umbrella of an organization that truly cares about what happens to blind and visually impaired people. Examples of such organizations might be the Accessibility Is a Right Foundation, The American Foundation for the Blind or Benetech.
- Devise an accessibility help desk blind and visually impaired people may contact when access barriers are encountered, assign the access issue a case number and work the problem toward an acceptable resolution as would any other technical support help desk operation in the world.
- Create a knowledge base featuring assistive technology and mainstream solutions to accessibility barriers.
- Establish sound policies and procedures for handling accessibility advocacy projects from the initial request for help, through appropriate escalation steps to final disposition.
- Using information from the help desk in accordance with policies and procedures, initiate private and public advocacy campaigns in both the blind community and the sighted world at large to encourage positive resolution to those barriers that seem particularly intractible.
Such a mammoth project clearly requires coordination and support by a team of core individuals who are able to direct and encourage the advocacy efforts of the entire blind community. This core group should represent a multidisciplinary cabal of men and women from a widely diverse field of interests and professions. Experts in communications, marketing, public relations and sales could make requests of companies and organizations to improve accessibility and relate positively with the entire blind community to encourage their proactive participation in the accessibility evangelism process. Computer programmers and other technology experts could devise solutions to access barriers and educate other programmers on all the cost effective ways to go about resolving the issues effectively. Journalists could objectively report on the current state of accessibility issues and write opinion pieces covering all the ways the barriers may be effectively reduced or eliminated. As a last resort, lawyers and political scientists could address accessibility issues from a legal and political point of view, attempting to achieve structured settlements, filing lawsuits and encouraging the passage of additional, relevant legislation as needed. It takes significant depth to properly address these critical issues in ways that can result in successful outcomes.
It is our human nature to take the path of least resistance. We are often finding excuses for doing nothing about the issues that impact us. We believe “someone else” will take care of the problem on our behalf. This is an incredibly destructive fallacy for our community. There are far too few someone elses available to do this critical work. A truly effective accessibility evangelism effort must be concerted, involving effort expended by a large number of members of the blind community as well as those in the sighted world who care about what happens to us. In order to achieve any lasting impact, accessibility evangelism ultimately must be housed within a recognized organization and be comprised of a team effort with a dedicated core group of multidisciplinary professionals who will utilize a solid set of policies and procedures to direct the efforts of a much larger group of volunteers and the entire blind community. If we really desire the accessibility we must have in order to participate in society on an equal footing with the sighted, it is time for us to get serious by combining individual and organizational resources into an accessibility evangelism project that can take the needs of the blind community and educate the rest of the world in ways that turn problems into effective solutions.