As many of my readers know, I am always dreaming up new ways to effectively evangelize accessibility of information technology for the blind. It’s quite literally my mission in life. But, I also know that the work of one individual means nothing without the participation and support of the entire connected online blind community. Precisely measuring that level of participation has been virtually impossible.
It has always been my contention that frequent advocacy done on a consistent basis is absolutely critical in order for our voices to be heard by the technology industry. The conversations I have with company executives keep baring out this assertion. Agencies, businesses and organizations respond to and prioritize feedback based on both its quality and quantity. Executives are looking for clearly presented, detailed feedback on any issue. They’re also looking for numbers. If one, two or even ten people bring up an issue, it’s not likely to get much play especially in a large company like Google, Microsoft or Nuance. Perhaps, if several hundred blind people keep bringing up an issue frequently, it will have a chance to rise to the top and garner the attention it deserves.
We thus understand that successfully concluded accessibility advocacy often requires persistent contact with companies on the part of many individual members of the blind community. How can we achieve this goal as a blind community? Who is advocating? How are they contacting companies? How far are they getting within a company’s corporate chain of command? What are they telling these people? What is the company’s response to the advocacy? What changes are they making to improve accessibility for us? Has the company committed to accessibility or has only a one-time victory been achieved?
Right now, finding answers to these and many other key questions is virtually impossible. Though some organizations like the American Foundation for the Blind, American Council of the Blind, National Federation of the Blind and a few others advocate, we often don’t know their results until they have explicitly come to the blind community for help, a lawsuit has been filed or we learn that structured negotiations have been completed. Little or no attention is given to the advocacy efforts of individual contributors. What incentives do individuals have to do the hard work necessary for grassroots accessibility advocacy to be effective? How many times could the concerted work of individuals achieve a positive result without the need to involve the lawyers or otherwise turn the process into a messy adversarial battle? How could individual efforts be effectively consolidated into one effective, successful advocacy result?
I propose that an online system be created for the purpose of tracking the accessibility advocacy efforts of individuals in the blind community. If a blind person encounters an issue with a piece of hardware or software or a service and believes it may be inaccessible, she visits a website, fills out a simple form and creates a case. A team of volunteers pull the cases out of a queue and work them to the best of their ability. They consult each other and solicit additional assistance from the rest of the blind community. A note is added to the case for each advocacy attempt with the results being tracked along the way. A case is worked until a successful result is achieved, it has been referred for legal action by one of the organizations or it has been determined that no grassroots advocacy effort will resolve the case in a satisfactory manner. A dedicated steering committee meets once per week to discuss the status of the cases in the queue. Cases may be closed only on a majority vote of the members of the steering committee. If that vote is not unanimous, then the case is closed with reservations. Nobody else, including the original creator of the case, may close the issue.
A case management system for doing accessibility advocacy could bring many positive results. Advocates could see the effects of their work as cases move forward along a well-defined process. Technology companies would feel the effects of consistent, quality feedback from a significant number of members of the blind community. When companies choose to be intractible, lawyers could use the information from protracted cases as leads or potential evidence in lawsuits and structured negotiations. Finally, the reporting capabilities of a case management system might make it possible to obtain grants and other sources of funding for some in the blind community to do accessibility advocacy work on a paid basis, thus permitting a greater level of consistent dedication to this all-too-important aspect of securing equal opportunity for the blind.
There are many milestones that must be achieved in order to get such a case management system off the ground. Who or what organization would be willing to sponsor such a project? Who is available and willing to do the work necessary to program such a complex system? How will it be structured? Would building a custom solution work best or is there an existing customer relationship management application that could be modified to meet our needs? What information should be collected and how would it be used? These and many other questions would need to be answered as a first step toward building a system I believe could help move accessibility advocacy for the blind forward by leaps and bounds over its present state.
I would like to start by opening discussions with those who might be interested in actively and consistently volunteering to participate in such a case management system. I ask all those who think they might be interested to subscribe to the blind-access e-mail list for the purpose of discussing the merits of such a system and coordinating specific meetings as it moves forward.
As always, comments to this article are welcome here on the journal as is e-mail to us at editor (at) blindaccessjournal.com.