The Subtle Differences Online Petitions Can Make in Accessibility Advocacy Issues
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.