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The Subtle Differences Online Petitions Can Make in Accessibility Advocacy Issues

July 27, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

As I continue to promote the Yahoo! Accessibility Improvement Petition initiative, I receive occasional private and public comments from those who wonder whether these online petitions really can make a difference or just represent a waste of everyone’s time. Of course, I feel they can serve to effectively support taking positive action on the accessibility issue in question, even when the differences made are subtle.

It has been my experience that the following positive things happen when an online petition is initiated and widely disseminated:

  • The petition acts as a single rallying point within the blind community around which debate and discussion takes place.
  • It is easier to convince blind and sighted people to show their support for the needed accessibility accomodation by signing a simple petition than it is to ask them to take more complex actions such as those involved in traditional letter writing campaigns.
  • Individuals, organizations and even the media will, sometimes, take their own initiative, asking questions of the company being petitioned.
  • The costs for organizing, promoting and bringing an online petition to its ultimate conclusion are quite low, even fitting within the budget of one blind couple not receiving any other means of financial support for such activities.
  • People who sign the petition often add comments, which can also serve as testimonial evidence explaining the reasons why the requested action is needed. Many signers of the Yahoo! Accessibility Improvement Petition, for instance, are telling the world that the company’s representatives usually do not answer requests from blind and visually impaired people for assistance with the features protected by the visual CAPTCHA.

Are online petitions the right path to the promised land of resolving all accessibility issues? I’m absolutely sure they are not! Instead, they can represent a good first step in the process. The Google Word Verification Accessibility Petition garnered almost 5,000 signatures. Did it make a difference? Did the decision-makers at Google consider 4,725 signers sufficient representation of support to warrant creating the audio word verification scheme that now permits most blind and visually impaired people admission to all Google services? We just do not have these answers. Some tell me the petition made a difference, while others tell me it did not. The petition did evoke discussion of the CAPTCHA issue inside and outside the blind community, thousands of blind and sighted people indicated their support by signing and the concerns of the blind regarding the harm caused by the lock out imposed by visual CAPTCHA were raised effectively and repeatedly in the sighted world. The point is, we did something. We asked Google to make their visual verification more accessible to the blind, and it happened! The petition was open for only four months when Google roled out its audio CAPTCHA. The point isn’t the number of signatures on the petition or, even, whether the petition made the ultimate difference. It may have worked together with a couple of other efforts at contacting Google executives concerning the issue. In any case, we won our right to access Google, educated the public about the pitfalls of visual only CAPTCHA and may have ultimately helped to increase the availability of accessible web sites as well as commercial and free tools including audio or text based CAPTCHA for use by developers! Whether direct or indirect, isn’t that a great accomplishment for a grassroots advocacy effort?

It is time for all of us to get the job done once again! Right now, the Yahoo Accessibility Improvement Petition has 609 signatures. Reliable sources tell me that decision-makers at Yahoo! are already aware of the existence of this petition, and that implementation of an audio CAPTCHA is now being considered. The question is apparently one of priorities. The company’s unworkable scheme has been in existance for five years now. Let’s not allow this lock out to continue for another five years or longer! Yahoo! is watching us! Let’s all sign this petition right away, get our family and friends to do likewise and publicize this initiative as effectively as possible! Please feel free to contact me with any questions regarding this critical accessibility evangelism campaign.

5 opinions on “The Subtle Differences Online Petitions Can Make in Accessibility Advocacy Issues

  1. I for one will never sign an online petition unless I have absolute assurances that the company in question will even bat an eyelash, let alone acquiesce to a bunch of signers and forgers. I have been taught to pick your battles. Expend your energy where it is going to make a difference. I talked to someone, several years ago, about Canada’s gun-control laws. She was a proponent. I asked her if she really thought it would help solve the problem. She said no, but “at least we’re doing something”. In my view, doing something to accomplish nothing is worse than doing nothing, because it gives us a false sense of accomplishment. It reinforces the modern notion that putting in a good solid effort is what matters. Anyone growing up on a farm knows that you can put in all the effort you want, but one hail storm can make the whole thing go for naught. You can pat yourself on the back all you want for “at least doing something”, but in the end you’re still stuck trying to find money for your family’s next meal. Did my online petition accomplish anything? Wel … no. Did they listen? Well … no. Did they read it? Well … some unnamed source tells me they’re aware of it. Would they have changed their minds anyway? Well … probably. but I sure feel good about all I’ve done! What makes the difference, what gets the results, and what is a much more productive use of energy, resources, and so on is rooting around the beaurocracy and finding the influential person who (a) can make a difference, and (b) can be sold by your cause. To this end, three letters could ultimately make a far, far greater difference than six thousand bay-be-legitimate names on an online petition.

  2. Walk down any crowded city street and you are likely to be asked to sign a petition for something. On one recent weekend I was asked to sign no fewer than 10 petitions. While accessibility is important, at some point petition after petition starts to become that same noise.

    Will Yahoo improve the accessibility of their verification processes? I’d suspect yes and likely within a year or so. I have no inside information but given that their competitors are doing this, it is typically only a matter of time.

    And let’s not forget that these audio options are certainly not inclusive, it is just that you are now on the other side of the fence. So keep in mind that what you are asking for still, in your terms, locks some folks out.

    None of this is to diminish the importance of accessibility. But you are likely to have more success by finding and influencing the people that can make things happen.

    Petitions are easy but don’t fool yourself into thinking that in most cases they have a large impact.

  3. I agree that it is often if not always more productive to have the luxury of getting the support of an influential person on the inside of whatever group you are trying to have changes made within or become a part of. However, I also believe that this view of don’t do it if you are not absolutely sure it will make a difference is extreme, discouraging if you don’t have that luxury of knowing the right person in something and very limiting in what you will possibly accomplish. Does this mean don’t apply for a job you are not absolutely sure you are going to be the one to get? How do you apply for any job then unless you are extremely fortunate to know somebody. I agree that is a better way to possibly get the job, but not always an option and not necessarily the only thing you should try in the mean time. Don’t go to the store for something unless you are absolutey sure they are going to have it and not run out by the time you get there in this case either. Don’t plan events for the future because you can not absolutey be sure the weather will cooperate. I don’t believe petitions are the best of all possibilities answer and neither does Darrell as he states in the original post. They can help though in showing support in large numbers for a cause. Sometimes a company won’t take actions unless they know that a large group of people would benefit / want it done. I strongly disagree with your statement that trying without success is worse than not trying at all. What if you may have been successful in something, but there is no way to predict it to a 100% degree of certainty? “Well did you try?” “no” Then you know what the outcome is going to be. I guess it does solve the “problem” of absolutely predicting your outcome…

  4. The job analogy is not a good one. I don’t get people to petition to a company that I be hired. I got my current job by applying myself and getting an interview. They knew they were dealing with me, not a bunch of people who could be forging signatures for others. And while I was not certain I would get my job, I was certain that my application would at least be looked at. The odds of my employer looking at my application were far greater than the odds of Yahoo looking at the petition. What I said in my initial comment was not that I would only sign a petition if I were guaranteed success, but that I would only sign a petition if I could be sure they’d even look at it.Very different concepts. The chances of anyone with influence looking at the petition at all seriously are almost nill.

  5. Though I have promised not to give away my source at this time, I can tell you that I have it on good authority that Yahoo! is, in fact, watching this petition. We should not assume that influential people aren’t watching us. Sometimes, they are…

    When you apply for a job, you are, in a sense, petitioning that employer. You are showing the employer your qualifications and working to convince them of the reasons why they should hire you over other equally (or perhaps even greater) qualified candidates for the same position.

    A petition is a petition. It simply asks another person to take some sort of action. Some petitions, like this one, involve signatures, while others do not.

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