All posts by s.e. smith

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

Dear Web Developers: Stop Breaking Functionality and Calling it a ‘Feature’

There’s something that keeps happening to me. Maybe it keeps happening to you too. I use a website. I get attached to it. I start relying on it for the services it provides. And then, there’s a redesign or they roll out a new feature, and suddenly I can’t use it anymore. Because the site has been rendered effectively inaccessible to me.

Maybe you have an old computer or you’re on dialup, and the resource-hogging ‘features’ make it functionally impossible for the website to load. You can’t even get it to load enough to see if you can opt out or to see if there’s a stripped-down version of the site for people on slow connections.

Maybe you have problems with visual perception and the site redesign makes it effectively unreadable. Perhaps you have sensory issues and having sounds and flashing lights and things that move across the screen means you can’t use the site anymore. Or those noxious preview popups that seem to be all the rage these days cause your brain to basically short circuit and you’re unable to do anything on sites that use them.

Maybe the site did a graphics overhaul and suddenly it is filled with a bunch of untagged images, including images you need to be able to SEE to navigate the site or understand the content. Or, hey, they’ve decided to start posting videos to describe key parts of site functionality so you know how to use them, and there are no captions. Or transcripts. Or text-only walkthroughs for people who might prefer that. Perhaps there’s a monstrous Captcha barrier.

Whatever it is, something about the site is fundamentally broken and you can’t use it anymore and you are annoyed and wish they hadn’t done that. Maybe you’re lucky and it’s a big site, say, Google, which decided to do something like add a ‘feature’ called ‘Instant Preview’ that makes it impossible to use their search products1 and someone kindly made a plugin to bypass said ‘feature.’ You can hope for a plugin only if the site is big enough that one of the people annoyed by the change is someone who can write plugins, and if the ‘feature’ isn’t so integral that it’s impossible to plugin around it. Say, a site that replaces its text with images. There is no plugin to add image descriptions to pictures that do not have them.

If it’s a smaller site or it’s a huge functional change that can’t be addressed with a plugin, maybe you write them and say ‘hey, you know, I really love your site, I have been using it a long time, and now I cannot because of this change you made, let me detail why it is a problem.’ Most of the time? The response is no response. Or it’s a canned form letter telling you all about the new feature you were complaining about and how great it is and aren’t you excited. Or. It’s someone writing to say ‘sorry, but your ability to access our site just isn’t that important to us.’

How many times have I encountered this. Let me count the ways. At this point, when web developers decide to break a perfectly usable site in the name of ‘improvements,’ I just quietly stop using the site. Because I know that asking them to reconsider, to provide other options, to make a fix to address the problem, is not going to have any results.

There are several ways web developers could avoid the problem of losing disabled users (and other people bothered by big site changes, for that matter), assuming they care about us in the slightest, which they apparently do not. The solution is not to demand that people freeze sites in time on the design that everyone is familiar with (especially since that design may not be very accessible either), but to ask that people redesigning sites and rolling out new features take some time to think about their users.

They could start by considering accessibility from the ground up in a redesign or a feature rollout. Small features that can be really easy to add can make a huge difference. Just for example, the microblogging site Tumblr could insert a field for an alt tag on image posts. It would be extremely easy to do, it would prompt users to add image descriptions, and it would seamlessly integrate into the functionality of the site. You could also remind site users to actually use the functionality. I cannot tell you how many sites I find with blank alt tags, showing that the code for an alt tag was inserted by whatever content management system they are using and no one used it, or alt tags like ‘DESCRIPTION HERE.’ How helpful.

They could also ask their users for feedback. Dreamwidth, a journaling site, regularly posts polls with mockups of planned site changes, including functional mockups you can navigate through, asking for reader feedback. They ask specifically about disability issues, with questions like ‘does this even make sense in a screen reader?’ as well as asking more generally if users find the planned functionality…actually functional and useful. And they incorporate that feedback into changes.

Both of these things, of course, actually require giving a shit about the people who use their site. Tumblr has been repeatedly asked to enable alt tagging on image posts and hasn’t responded. They don’t give a shit. Dreamwidth goes out of their way to address concerns about usability. They do give a shit.

Guess which site I use more.

  1. Not that this happened to anyone we know recently.

Signal Boost: 2010 TASH Conference in Colorado

The 35th Annual TASH Conference will be in Denver, Colorado – December 7- 11, 2010. The conference will focus on encouraging inclusion of individuals with disabilities in the workplace, at school and in the community. The conference will include several half-day workshops such as, “Supporting all Young Children within Inclusive Early Child Programs,” “Designing Individualized Behavior Support Strategies,” and “What Does the Future Hold? Making the Transition to Support Adulthood” plus a self-advocate forum and community living sessions and more than 150 peer reviewed sessions.

More information about the conference, including a programme, here.

Signal Boost: Employment Survey for People With Mobility Impairments

If you have a mobility impairment and limitation, you may be eligible to participate in a new research project. This research aims to understand how people with mobility impairments and limitations accomplish job tasks, how their environment affects their worksite participation, and what, if any, help they need to complete employment activities.

Eligibility requires that you:

  • Have a mobility impairment and limitation (difficulty moving legs and/or arms)
  • Be employed for at least 2 years at your current job
  • Work at least 20 hours per week regularly at your current job
  • Be 18 years of age or older
  • Have access to a computer
  • Can read at or above the 6th grade level
  • Can enter responses into a web-based survey or direct another individual to enter your responses into a web-based survey

If eligibility is established, you will receive a code to log on to the survey site and complete the study. Qualified participants will be asked to complete the survey a second time in 4-6 weeks. All information will be kept confidential and no connection between you and your survey answers will be made. Participants will be reimbursed for their time and effort. The web-based assessment will take approximately one hour to complete.

Link to the survey is here, as always, FWD/Forward does not have any additional information about this survey, and you are encouraged to contact the organisers if you have questions or concerns.

Dear Imprudence: The Advice Column of the Year Goes To…

It’s been a busy year in advice columns. Normally,  I don’t like writing retrospective columns in November, let alone being so bold as to name the advice column of the year this early. Who knows what could come in the next month, right? But I am 100% certain that this advice column cannot be beat by anything anyone else writes in the next month.

It contains a mixture of all the things I look for in a good advice column:

  • Brevity. Advice should be crisp, simple, and to the point. Columnists who can cut to the chase win a lot of points, in my book. Yes, some situations are complicated, but when you’re talking about letters edited to fit in a newspaper and the responses, it should be short and simple. Sometimes, concepts are clear and don’t need to be explained.
  • Crispness. I like columnists who add dry wit and snark to their columns. It makes their work more fun to read and it  makes it more memorable. If I read some blah-y, preachy advice, I usually start tuning out, and I don’t really remember what it said. When the columnist says something funny or snarkalicious, it sticks in my mind.
  • Bluntness. Sometimes, advice needs to be blunt. A question is so ridiculous, so invasive, that the only dignified response is one of disbelief, expressed through bluntness. Bluntness is not just a reminder to the reader that what they are asking is eyebrow-worthy. It’s also a reminder to people that they are, in fact, allowed to be blunt in certain social settings.

There’s one advice columnist who tends to embody these things. In fact, she’s known for it: Miss Manners. Miss Manners is penned by Judith Martin, and has been since the start, unlike other advice columnists, where the face behind the pen name has turned over not once but even multiple times. Miss Manners is always crisp and fresh and one of the things I love about her is that she belies pretty much every stereotype about her. People might expect older women who are experts in etiquette to be conservative and stuffy, and she’s not. She’s highly progressive and wicked funny. In fact, one of the driving thrusts of her columns is the idea that if you’re being offensive, people have a right to stop associating with you, which is kind of a cornerstone of my own philosophy.

Given these facts, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I adore Miss Manners on general principle, and that she would probably be shortlisted for advice column of the year. I’ve been reading Miss Manners since I was a wee thing and I think she gives generally sound advice; in fact, usually I agree with what she says and only rarely have I differed from Miss Manners. In part that’s because she focuses on etiquette rather than entangled personal situations like Ask Amy or Dear Abby. But it’s also because she has a way of cutting to the chase in a situation, divining what’s really going on, and setting things straight.

Miss Manners taught me that while it’s never acceptable to be rude, a firm ‘I beg your pardon’ can be just as effective as snapping at someone for saying something I find abominable. She also taught me that if I find behaviour unacceptable, I’m allowed to say so; she taught me to value my own opinion rather than going on what other people tell me, and she reminded me that I have autonomy, as a person, to make my own decisions and to formulate my own thoughts on matters. Since marginalised people are often informed that they don’t matter and that their lived experiences are not as important as what other people think, this was an important thing for me to learn at a young age.

In October, a Miss Manners reader wrote in with the following question:

Dear Miss Manners—What is the proper way to ask someone why they have prosthetic limbs?

Miss Manners responded in true form:

Gentle Reader—As that person’s new doctor, you can ask outright. If Miss Manners is mistaken and you are not that person’s doctor, you have no business asking.

The first time I read this, I said ‘this is my platonic ideal of an advice column,’ and I stand by that. Everything about the framing of this response is superb:  Start with the ‘innocent assumption’ and move on to ‘but if I am mistaken in this assumption, you, gentle reader, are clearly an ass.’ It’s delicious and it’s a sharp reminder to readers of her column that, hey, you shouldn’t ask people for information about their disabilities unless you have a professionally relevant reason for needing that information. Furthermore, it goes the other way, too; as a disabled reader, I know that my desire for privacy and respect is perfectly reasonable and that I am allowed to say, as Miss Manners taught me, ‘I beg your pardon?’ when someone asks an invasive question of this nature.

I am immensely pleased to announce that this column takes the advice column of the year award, hands down, and that Miss Manners’ position as Supreme Advice Columnist of the Universe remains secure.

Today in Journalism: The Disabled

Usually I relish picking apart a crappy article in the news for this feature, but today, I want to take a moment to rant about a phenomenon so widespread in the media that I don’t feel fair singling out one poor journalist for my ire. I’m cruel, but not unreasonably so. Also, I had a hard time picking between so many examples, but the first explanation makes me sound like a nicer person, so let’s go with that, ok? Excellent.

‘The disabled.’

Almost every time I read an article covering disability in some way or another, this noxious turn of phrase comes up. ‘The disabled’ say this and ‘the disabled’ do that and ‘the disabled’ feel this way about something. It’s a dehumanising way of referring to people with disabilities, as though we are a vague, collective mass that all think, behave, and act in the same way. It assumes that our experiences are shared and universal. ‘The disabled,’ you know, they are all alike.

This is not the first time this subject has come up here. Anna wrote about it in June.

This contributes to the de-humanization of disabled people. “The disabled” aren’t people, they’re a big collective noun who can’t be reasoned with, can’t be talked to, can’t be considered – they’re just to be placated, and dealt with, and put out of our minds as quickly as possible in case they sue us.

So did I, for that matter.

We are not a monolith. Or a collective noun. Nor are our disabilities the sum total of our identities.

Every time I encounter this phrasing, I am reminded that people think we are interchangeable, that we do not think and act independently, that we are just a kind of amorphous mass over there somewhere. You know. The disabled. I need look no further than the comments section of this very site to know that people with disabilities do not, in fact, agree with each other on everything. That we do not, in fact, have the same lived experiences. Nor do we conceive of disability in the same way, have the same ideas about how to address issues we deal with in our daily lives. I, for example, cannot be interchanged with commenter Astrid. Astrid and I even share some disabilities! But we are not members of the Borg.

People treat us like we are. It is assumed that accommodations are one size fits all, for example, which has real world consequences for people who need accommodations. Writing off an entire group of people with a collective noun is a neat way to shove them in a box and not think about them, and when that collective noun is in widespread and acceptable use (a number of journalism style guides approve ‘the disabled’), society internalises the attitudes that go along with it.

The media seems to  have learned that it’s not ok to say ‘the women’ or ‘the gays,’ referring to an entire group of people with a collective noun, like they are a flock of sheep. It has been suggested that this is not very helpful, that it tends to strip people of their humanity. Yet, the same has not been extended to people with disabilities. We are still ‘the disabled,’ viewed as a generic collective, in most media outlets. Exact phrasing varies from journalist to journalist and some are better about it than others, clearly making a conscious choice to humanise us by using a more appropriate phrasing when referring to members of the disabled community.

‘The disabled’ is not just a problem because it’s a reminder that people think we are all the same. It is also a reduction of our identities to our disabilities. And people feel free saying it about individual disabilities, too. ‘The bipolar.’ ‘The borderline.’ ‘The paraplegic.’ And so on. This framing reminds us that this is all we are; that our identities consist wholly of a single noun. You can aspire to nothing in life because you’re ‘the disabled.’

Asking people to say ‘person with…’ or ‘disabled person’ sounds nitpicky. It sounds fussy. We get challenged on it all the time. But it’s not unreasonable. It’s a request that people consider the fact that a huge percentage of the population is disabled, and there’s no way that, say, 20% of the people in the United States think, behave, and feel in exactly the same way. We are all individuals. We are all different.

We are not ‘the disabled.’

Signal Boost: United States: Ninth Annual Tennessee Disability MegaConference in June 2011

The Tennessee Disability MegaConference is Tennessee’s largest disability-specific conference for individuals with disabilities, families, and professionals.  At the conference, people share the latest information and innovations on many topics including housing, employment, education, health care, recreation and leisure, mental health, and others.  Continuing education credits are offered in many categories.  People attending make new friends and important connections as everyone works together to encourage the full participation of all people with disabilities in their own lives!

More information here!

Creative Work: Yinka Shonibare, MBE

Everybody, I have found my new art crush. Yinka Shonibare, MBE is a British-Nigerian artist with an impressive list of awards, publications, and gallery exhibitions on his resume. And I am all kinds of in love with his work, from his art installations to his gallery pieces. I do love an artist with flexibility who  is just as likely to be found on the stage as in a gallery. And I like an artist who forces me to confront things about myself, to boot.

A headless mannequin in an ornate batik dress, leading three ocelots.

This piece is ‘Leisure Lady (with ocelots)’ and it pretty much sums up everything awesome about his work. For this sculpture series, he explores batik and other traditional textiles in ornate, beautiful gowns (seriously, if he did garment construction, I would totally be ordering from him) with clear Victorian influences. The headlessness of the mannequin provokes all kinds of thoughts in my head about identity; you could also read it as dehumanising, but I think it’s more complicated than that.

Two headless mannequins dressed in ornate and beautiful gowns. Each is holding up a pistol to aim at the other.

‘How to Blow Up Two Heads at Once (ladies).’ It’s disturbing. It’s challenging. It’s beautiful.

This quote about his work sums it up better than I can:

Known for using batik in costumed dioramas that explore race and colonialism, Yinka Shonibare MBE also employs painting, sculpture, photography, and film in work that disrupts and challenges our notions of cultural identity. Taking on the honorific MBE as part of his name in everyday use, Shonibare plays with the ambiguities and contradictions of his attitude toward the Establishment and its legacies of colonialism and class. In multimedia projects that reveal his passion for art history, literature, and philosophy, Shonibare provides a critical tour of Western civilization and its achievements and failures. At the same time, his sensitive use of his own foibles (vanity, for one) and challenges (physical disability) provide an autobiographical perspective through which to navigate the contradictory emotions and paradoxes of his examination of individual and political power. (source)

Congratulations, Gregory Hlibok!

Gregory Hlibok, for those who do not know (and there’s no particular reason you should!) is a Deaf attorney who was just appointed to head the disability rights office at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States.

This is news for two important reasons.

1. The FCC is responsible for regulating communications in the United States, including addressing issues like providing mandatory subtitling on media, approving designs for accessible telecommunications devices, and other such matters. Having a disability rights office is a good thing, because the FCC’s work directly impacts people with disabilities. Having a disabled person head that office? Even better.

2. This is the first time the head of the FCC’s disability rights office has been a disabled person. The reason they thought it might be a good idea to get a PWD heading the office? Because they are getting ready to start work on developing a framework for enforcing the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, and, hey, maybe a disabled person would know a little something something about that kind of thing!

What does the disability rights office do, exactly? Some important stuff:

According to its website, the DRO addresses disability-related telecommunications matters, including telecommunications relay service, access to telecommunications equipment and services by people with disabilities, access to emergency information, and closed captioning. In addition, DRO provides expert advice and assistance on issues relevant to people with disabilities, and initiates rule making for the development of policies to ensure that communications are accessible to this population. (source)

Hlibok is a pretty great candidate for this job, I have to say. He’s not just a Deaf attorney with almost 10 years of experience in the disability rights office; he’s also been an activist for Deaf rights in the United States. In 1988, he acted as a spokesperson for the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet.

“Greg will be heading up the Disability Rights Office at a crucial time, as the FCC ramps up to implement the most significant disability law in two decades,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a press release. “Greg possesses extensive knowledge in the field of telecommunications access for people with disabilities as well as the leadership qualities necessary to lead the office.” (source)

He sounds like the right person to get the job done. It’s a pity that the FCC apparently didn’t think it was necessary to have a person with disabilities heading the disability rights office until they were faced with a major disability-related law they have to enforce. Yet another reminder that it is generally assumed we don’t need to advocate for ourselves and certainly won’t have anything to add to discussions about our lives.

I wish Mr. Hlibok success in his new job position, and I’m really looking forward to the changes in telecommunications and media communication in the United States that are going to come about as a result of this landmark legislation.

They Call it ‘Reverse Discrimination’

Affirmative action has to be among one of the most contentious, controversial, and misunderstood social policies. I encounter all kinds of bizarre attitudes when it comes to talking about affirmative action, not least of which is people who insist on calling it ‘reverse discrimination’ in some sort of backhanded attempt at suggesting it’s just as evil as denying people opportunities on the basis of being female, say, or a person of colour, and should be abolished on those grounds. Because, oogity boogity, under affirmative action, all people are not considered blank slates with universal experiences, and thus, it’s a discriminatory policy.

Here’s what affirmative action is: A policy and programme adopted in many regions of the world to encourage employers and educational institutions to consider the history of discrimination against certain classes of people when it comes to admission and hiring decisions. Such policies usually cover women, people of color/nonwhite people, and people with disabilities. The goal of affirmative action is to counteract the effects of centuries of discrimination to create more opportunities for oppressed groups of people by not shutting them out of education and employment opportunities, acknowledging that prejudices are often deeply internalised and people can’t overcome them by sheer force of will. (And are often not aware of how deep they run.)

Here’s what it isn’t: A demand to always hire/admit the marginalised person, no matter what. Yet, it’s often framed that way, as seen in the ‘reverse discrimination’ slang. Everyone, it seems, has a sob story about how ‘someone they know’ didn’t get a job because there was a less qualified Black woman or disabled man or someone else who was there to swoop in and take the employment opportunity away, riding smugly on a cloud of affirmative action1. I have had dyed in the wool liberals informing me with clear, innocent faces that their white, middle class, nondisabled, heterosexual, cis friends and relatives have been horribly oppressed by being passed over in favour of ‘underqualified’ marginalised people who just happened to compete for the same jobs/places at school. They inform me that this is unfair and awful and should stop immediately because it’s wrong.

People. No.

Here’s what affirmative action is about: When you have, say, an employer who is considering a group of job applicants, that employer is asked to consider the applicants equally. Not to, for example, throw out an application from a woman who uses a wheelchair for mobility because it will be ‘too hard’ to accommodate her. To give everyone reasonably qualified a chance to interview and to honestly and fairly evaluate applicants for a job, rather than deciding that someone is automatically unfit on the basis of personal characteristics. And, yes, if you have two equally qualified candidates, one of whom happens to be a member of a dominant group and one of whom does not, to consider preferentially hiring the person who has not benefited from discriminatory practices throughout life. No affirmative action policy demands that people hire the less qualified people, deciding whom to hire solely on the basis of who is the most oppressed.

People talk about ‘quotas’ and they talk about how businesses and educational institutions ‘get in trouble’ if they don’t have enough ‘token minorities’ and they miss the  point entirely. I see this depicted everywhere from pop culture (Cuddy yelling at House for not having a female physician on this diagnostic team) to casual interactions with people who inform me that they ‘would’ apply for a job somewhere but ‘some Latina will probably snag it from me anyway because they’re worried about not having enough brown faces behind the front desk so what’s the point.’ Actual cases where businesses and schools have been punished for failing to adhere to affirmative action policies haven’t involved a government auditor checking to see how many marginalised people they have, but documented discrimination against marginalised groups in interview and admissions policies.

Do affirmative action programmes in colleges and universities ask for more leeway on things like test scores? Yes, they absolutely do, and there’s a reason for that: People in oppressed classes are less likely to do well on standardized tests, for a whole lot of reasons ranging from unequal access to educational opportunities to biases built in on the tests themselves. This means that, yes, when an applicant identifies as poor, for example, that the school will weigh that in the student’s application and will consider the impact that poverty might have on test scores and academic performance. The school won’t say ‘oh, we should let a clearly unprepared student in because she’s from a lower class background,’ but the school will say ‘this student clearly has potential, even if she’s not there yet, so let’s give her a chance, given that she’s had an uphill slog to get to the point where she can even apply for college.’

What this asks people to do is to consider the historic role of discrimination in access to everything from education to employment, to recognise that because of the widespread and deep biases in society, some people can’t access the qualifications/experience that others can. And, yes, affirmative action does ask people to consider marginalised people preferentially, in the hopes of balancing out internalised biases and attitudes; trust me, people, in terms of how people actually behave, it’s a wash.

People say this is ‘unequal treatment’ and that ‘if you want to be treated like everyone else, you need to be held to the same standard.’ What they miss is that the standard is inherently discriminatory and biased. Holding everyone to the same standard is effectively an act of discrimination, because it demands that people fit into a mold they can never fit into, reach goals they can never attain, because the deck is stacked against them from the start.

It’s an attempt to compensate for privilege to say that the lived experiences of applicants should be considered to contextualise their applications. Not an act of discrimination. A corrective measure, an attempt to address and rectify an entrenched culture of prejudice by creating more chances for people who have historically been denied those chances, is not ‘reverse discrimination.’ And I’d like to humbly suggest that people retire that particular slang term, post haste.

  1. I note that this usually includes the assumption that the marginalised candidate was automatically, inherently, less qualified.

Action Alert: United States: Congressional Hearing on ADA TODAY


Landrieu to Chair Hearing To Examine Regulatory Burdens Facing Small Businesses

WASHINGTON – United States Senator Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., Chair of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, will hold a hearing Thursday, November 18, 2010 entitled “Next Steps for Main Street: Reducing the Regulatory and Administrative Burdens on America’s Small Businesses.”  This hearing will give small businesses the opportunity to discuss federal regulations resulting from labor and workplace safety law, environmental protection laws, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Committee will also have discussions on the Form 1099 reporting requirement taking effect in 2012.

Your coverage is invited


U.S. Senate Small Business Committee Chair Mary Landrieu, D-La.
Small Business Committee Members


Hearing entitled, “Next Steps for Main Street: Reducing the Regulatory and Administrative Burdens on America’s Small Businesses”


Thursday, November 18, 2010
10:00 a.m. EST


Russell Senate Office Building
Room 428A
Washington, D.C. 20510

More information at the Justice for All Website. ht/ @lizhenry.