Category Archives: how to be accessible
If you spend a lot of time talking or writing about accessibility, someone will eventually tell you this apocryphal story:
When Steven Hawking (and it’s always Steven Hawking) started teaching at Cambridge, they needed to put in ramps in all of the buildings, since they all had those beautiful huge sets of stairs as the only way in. One security guard (and it’s always a security guard) protested. “What are you doing that for? I’ve been working in this building for 30 years, and not once have I seen anyone in a wheelchair come through those front doors!”
(I know when people tell me this story I’m supposed to laugh. It’s kinda hard, though: I’ve basically been told exactly that by university administrators; professors; graduate students; student representatives; municipal, provincial, and federal candidates and elected officials; bus drivers; taxi cab drivers; small business owners; large business owners; Fox news commentators; bloggers of a variety of political stripes; apartment building managers; independent book store staff; national chain bookstore staff; people who run on-line campaigns, tea shop staff, coffee shop staff….)
I think what I’m supposed to get out of this story is the ha-ha, look at the ignorant person.1 What I end up getting out of this story is that the burden of pushing for something to be accessible pretty much consistently falls on people with disabilities themselves. We have to ask because no program, no building, no website, will be willingly designed with the idea that people with disabilities are part of a broader target audience. Only websites, buildings, and programs aimed right at people with disabilities will do so. 2 (Until laws are passed, of course. And even then the law will be only grudgingly followed.)
Accessibility is often treated like a favour that non-disabled people do for (or even to) disabled people, one that is given out of the goodness of one’s heart. It’s an individual’s problem to bring up, and the solution is for individuals to come up with.
This attitude comes up in lots of different ways, both online and off. To focus specifically on what larger entities do:
– The issue of subtitling the political ads on YouTube is brushed aside because D/deaf people apparently don’t complain enough about subtitling for politicians to bother subtitling their ads.
– I am on the planning committee for a conference and was told that if actual disabled people signed up for the conference they would bother moving one of the events to a wheelchair accessible space, but otherwise they’d keep it in the room down a flight of stairs because it’s a nice room.
– As I have also pointed out before, having your requirement for receiving funding to complete your education being “student leadership” while simultaneously telling students with disabilities that they’re not able to attend events that are sponsored by the university (which is what having your event up two flights of stairs not suitable for “the very elderly or disabled” is doing) is telling students with disabilities that they can’t get the funding to complete their education. And yes, student funding in Canada is increasingly tied to poorly-defined “student leadership.”
When I point out these issues, I’m often told that these are individual problems: D/deaf people need to complain more! More people with disabilities need to attend conferences! Here, let me give you a list of individual solutions! It basically asks people with disabilities – people who already have a lot on their plate – to do more. And it often puts people in the situation where they may find a solution for themselves, but it’s one that leaves everyone else – whether friend, ally, or fellow traveler down the road – to sort out their own individual solution. To re-invent the wheel every time.
This isn’t the way this needs to work.
How it needs to work: Assume people with disabilities exist. Just like we assume people without disabilities exist.
So, politicians should make their political ads with both disabled & non-disabled people in mind, and thus the idea of subtitling isn’t one that’s new or unusual to them, it’s one they thought of all along. (Bonus points: maybe they could think of actual disabled people when making their platforms, too.) Plan events without assuming that everyone attending is going to be non-disabled. Then no one has to say “I’m disabled, I can’t go down a flight of stairs.”
We don’t act like putting a door in the front of our building is a favour we are doing. We assume that doors are necessary. And yet, people treat having a ramp to that door as a favour they are doing, when the ramp serves the same purpose: it allows people to come inside.
- I’m not particularly exploring the class issues here, but that’s only because I’m focusing on disability and not because I don’t think they’re there. Of the dozen or so times I’ve been told this, roughly half have had the teller start mimicking a “lower-class” accent when repeating the security guard’s words. ↩
- Before the website upgrade last month, the only page on my entire university website that passed an accessibility challenge was the Student Accessibility Office website. Because of course that’s the only website that a student with a disability will look at, right? ↩
There’s a common idea I encounter among nondisabled people when it comes to discussing accessibility and making spaces accessible to all users. That idea is that as long as there’s a ramp, a space is accessible. That accessibility is solely about ramps, and nothing else, so once you’ve got a ramp in place, you’re covered.
This is, as we know, not true. Not even for wheelchair users; a ramp is only the beginning of accessibility and it’s useless if, for example, all the doorways in a space are too narrow to allow a chair to pass. It’s not helpful if the front entrance is ramped, but as soon as you get inside, there are steps up or down to another area of a building. Or if the bathroom in a space is too small and cramped to use safely. Or if, hey, someone decided to put all the light switches ridiculously high up on the wall.
The universal symbol of accessibility is our old friend wheelie blue:
This symbol reinforces the idea that accessibility is primarily about wheelchairs. Now, granted, it would be functionally impossible to come up with a symbol representing all disabilities and all accommodation needs. The goal with symbols like this is to keep them simple, clear, and communicative.
But contrast that with this:
This icon shows the familiar wheelchair user, but also hands Signing, representing the d/Deaf community. And Braille. And a brain, which to my mind (ha ha) reads as a representation of neuroatypicality, for people with intellectual disabilities, for people with mental illness. Suddenly, the concept of accessibility is widened and the concept of different bodies and minds is represented here, reminding the viewer that accessibility goes beyond the ramp.
Wiscon’s accessibility policy is something we often point to here as an illustration of expanding the definition of ‘access’ and trying to work with people with many different kinds of disabilities to make a space comfortable and welcoming for them. It addresses issues ranging from wheelchair-accessible hotel rooms to the need for a quiet space to allergies. It also expands the conversation to talk not just about how spaces can be made accessible, but how people in those spaces can contribute to accessibility:
Offer help–don’t assume it’s needed. Most of us are taught to “help the handicapped” but not “does this person want or need help?” If you think someone needs assistance, just ask. If they say yes, don’t make assumptions; instead listen to the details of what the person with disabilities wants. If they say “no thanks” don’t be offended. What might look overly complicated or inefficient can be what that disabled person finds works best.
Wiscon also thinks about how the programming, the structure of the event, can be adjusted to create accommodations. Making more space between panels, for example, and providing information to attendees about which rooms have florescent lighting. Three facets of accessibility are being considered here: The physicalities of the space, the people in it, and how the programming inside that space is organized. That goes far beyond the way most people conceptualise ‘accessibility.’
Getting people to expand their minds when it comes to accessibility is more complicated than just getting them to think about the fact that there are issues beyond wheelchair accessibility. It also requires people to think about, discuss, and acknowledge conflicting accommodations and how to balance the needs of multiple people with disabilities. Some accommodations automatically exclude people from spaces. Conversations about conflicting accommodations are uncomfortable because we want to make spaces welcome to everyone, but sometimes there’s a fundamental conflict; take, for example, people who need to use essential oils to manage their conditions, and people who can’t be around strong odors or alcohol-based compounds.
Wiscon’s policy includes a statement and discussion about conflicting accommodations, something rather unusual. I haven’t encountered many discussions about conflicting accommodations in the mainstream, although one place I do spot them is online, where some sites have options like switching between a light on dark/dark on light theme or have other configurable options designed to address various disabilities.
Making spaces accessible requires thinking about a lot of things; about how people with a variety of disabilities will interact with a space, about how people will interact with each other in that space, and, often, how to manage accessibility with limited budget options. Many people trying to design accessible spaces may also not really know how to go about it, and they’re not sure about who to turn to. As a result, we end up with situations where spaces are not accessible because no one bothered to ask for input, instead trying to anticipate needs and failing. Often, the burden falls on people with disabilities to demand access and to provide education about how to make spaces accessible, even when that information is already available, with a little bit of searching.
Accommodation should also be provided automatically, without needing to be something that people specifically have to request and ask for. And people need to be provided with information about available accommodations, as this story Anna linked me to recently points out:
One barrier PCR finds is that access officers in universities tend to ask students to tell them what services they require rather than telling the students what is available. The student is at a disadvantage before the first lecture even begins, as they may not know about all the services available.
Considerations about accessibility and accessible spaces should be on the forefront of the mind of anyone tasked with building, arranging, or coordinating a space, not just people who need accommodations, and people need to expand the way they think about accessibility, actively seek out and solicit information to make the spaces they control better. People often seem to think that accessibility is something you add when someone asks for it, which presumes that people with disabilities will always ask for it, when instead, more commonly, we go ‘oh, that space isn’t accessible or there’s not clear information about accessibility, so I won’t bother attending that event.’
Like a lot of consumers in North America, I carry my debit card with me pretty much every where I go. From buying my yummy lattes to buying school supplies to paying for groceries, I use my debit card for probably 90% of my financial transactions. For me, the debit card and PIN system is excellent because I don’t need to carry cash and try and figure out the taxes to be carrying the right amount, or worry about how much money I might lose if I drop my wallet.
This is becoming increasingly difficult for Blind consumers across Canada. While the old debit card machines had a raised number pad, almost always with at least a raised dot indicating the center key (and thus allowing a blind person to orientate themselves and put in their private security code without assistance), new debit machines are being introduced that use dynamic touch screens instead of a number pad.
This puts Blind consumers in a tough spot: Either carry enough money with you everywhere to cover all of your expenses, or give someone else your private security code, your PIN – and give them access to your finances.
If you can’t independently verify that you are being charged the correct amount or expected amount, you are liable for the cost that gets authorized through this POS system and no bank or credit card company will help you.
The banks and credit companies use a PIN system for authentication. If you can’t use the [Point of Sale] device, you can’t independently enter your pin. If you give your PIN to another person you are now giving them full independent access to your finances and they have the power to clear you out financially and you are liable and no bank or credit card company will help you. So scenarios where you get a friend, buddy or store employee to enter the PIN for you are not an option.
Blind and low-vision consumers have been raising the issue of the need for point-of-sale transactions to be accessible to them for a very long time. In Everett’s blog post on the subject, Sorry, We Don’t Serve the Blind: inaccessible point-of-sales devices, he points the reader towards articles written in 2004, and I’m certain there are ones from before that since I’ve had a bank card since 1986. As society becomes more and more digital, with fancy touch-screens for everything, the need for the designers of these touch screen devices to consider Blind and low-vision consumer’s needs is greater. Without that consideration, more of the world becomes as inaccessible as, say, a Government of Canada website.
The thing is, as both Everett and Jeffrey point out, it doesn’t have to be this way. Both Google and Apple, leading developers of consumer products with touch-screen technology, have made touch screens accessible to blind users. If I go to use my bank card in an ATM, there is an option there for Blind or low-vision consumers to use assistive technology to make the ATM accessible to them, privately, without needing anyone else to have access to their personal financial information.
I believe, perhaps naively, that this is an oversight, and one that merchants and Interac Inc, the primary provider of Point of Sale devices in Canada would work with consumers to correct. Please take the time to contact Interact and raise your concerns about accessibility for Blind and low-vision Canadians.
Also, be sure to read The epidemic of inaccessible Touch Screen Point Of Sale Devices to blind consumers and Sorry, We Don’t Serve the Blind: inaccessible point-of-sales devices. Jeffrey has started a working group that is going to also lobby on this issue, and you can contact him directly for more information – his contact details on in his blog post.
Last week, Mathsnerd attempted to sign up for a new GoogleMail (know as Gmail elsewhere) account. I say attempted because this did not go well. At all.
Oh, wait, what’s that, Google? After trying more than three names, I have to go through CAPTCHA to prove I’m a real person? Okay, that’s kind of soon, but whatever. Gee, you sure scrunch those letters together and make them all wavy so that I have a real hard time figuring out what the hell you want me to enter…
Huh, okay, I’ve tried eight times, Google, and I can’t seem to read it well enough that you’re satisfied that I’m a real person. And while you offer a “read-aloud” accessibility option for the CAPTCHA down below for submitting the form (which, incidentally, doesn’t work in Chrome, yeah, you know, YOUR BROWSER!), for the CAPTCHA to keep trying different handles you conveniently don’t offer any alternate options.
Captcha is a sort of Challenge that a user must pass when a program thinks that the user might be a spambot instead of a person. Wikipedia’s article looks useful if you want to learn more about it. It’s certainly not the only Challenge software out there, but it is one that is widely used, especially by Google-related products, such as their web-based email and their blogging software, Blogger. In fact, Google likes Captcha so much they bought the company in 2009, making Google responsible for implementing their accessibility policy.
Some Captchas, including the ones used by Google, have an audio option. I’ve occasionally tried to use the audio Captchas, which are a series of numbers read outloud with a large amount of background noise, designed, I assume, to keep an automated system from being able to distinguish the Challenge. I’m an experienced audio typist, so while I found this irritating, I could cut through it. Earlier this year, Blind Bargains did a study and found that 73% of blind users were unable to succeed at the Captcha Challenge – and blind users, according to Google and Captcha, are exactly who the audio function is designed for. 1
Google has an Accessibility Feedback Form. In order to use it, you must have a Google Account. Depending on any number of factors, your attempt to get a Google Account to discuss their accessibility problem with Captcha could require you to pass a Captcha Challenge in order to prove you are an actual person.
Actually, let me highlight that: In order to tell Google about their problems with accessibility, you need to be able to pass through the inaccessible Challenge.
Those of you who already have Gmail or GoogleMail accounts, you can contact Google to raise your concerns at their Accessibility Feedback Form. The Feedback form has a lot of fields to fill out. I just filled out the one that I felt was most applicable, and it went through without requiring me to put in any more information.
Here is a template you can use. Please feel free to use, edit, or adapt this for your own purposes.:
I was very distressed to learn that Blind users and users with other disabilities were having difficulties in signing up for Gmail accounts through the Captcha challenge. One user has detailed her experiences here: http://accessibility-fail.dreamwidth.org/33494.html , and as well, Blind Bargains reports 73% of their users had difficulties with using the audio version of Captcha: http://www.blindbargains.com/bargains.php?m=5383
I know that Google wants to be a more accessible service for users around the world. I hope that the accessibility people at Google will have the opportunity to look into these complaints and work with various people with disabilities in order to solve these problems.
Thank you for your time.
This is an issue that cuts to the heart of the problems with inaccessible web content. Obviously there are thousands – maybe millions – of blind or otherwise visually impaired users of the internet, but in this increasingly-flashy internet age, where not only information but job applications are going increasingly online, web accessibility is a huge barrier to people’s participation in society. Google, as we all know, is a huge multi-national company with the ability to make an incredible difference by working with users with disabilities in order to make the web more accessible to us. By contacting Google, you will be adding your voice to the chorus asking for greater web accessibility.
- Thank you to Codeman38 for bringing this study to my attention. ↩
Jesse the K hopes you can take a disabled feminist to tea this month. Her previous guest post was 20 Years and a Day for the Americans with Disabilities Act.
These guidelines come out of my experience working on WisCon, a 1000-person annual convention in a recently remodeled hotel.
There are many elements to making your event wheelchair-accessible. While U.S. law requires minimal wheelchair access, never rely on a venue’s general assertion of “oh yes, we’re accessible.” Those little wheelchair stickers? Anyone can buy them and post them at will, even at the bottom of a flight of steps.
There’s an entire shelf of 2-in (5,08 cm) thick books on this topic; so consider this the Twitter version. Links to helpful resources appear on June Isaacson Kaile’s site.
David Hingsburger is a long-time disability rights activist who’s begun using a wheelchair in the last few years. His essay “12 Steps? Me, I’d Rather Sit” captures the frustration of a last-minute change from an inaccessible venue to one that worked for him:
…These things are difficult because while I appreciate everyone’s understanding, I didn’t want it. While I was thankful for the extra effort made to find a room immediately, I didn’t want it. What I wanted was simple. Accessibility.
Accessibility doesn’t just mean I get easily into a building. Accessibility means anonymity. It reduces the need for compassion, understanding, special consideration, to Nil. It allows me to slip in unnoticed and set up quietly. This doesn’t mean it masks my disability, it just makes it mean something very different.…
Verify & report
Do an on-site survey with someone who’s truly familiar with the needs of wheelchair and scooter users. (Not all wheelchair users automatically have this knowledge, just as not all walking people know everything about sidewalk construction. Some non-wheelchair users also have these skills.)
Check for level paths to every area. A single, unramped step is as significant a blockade as two flights of stairs. Wheelchairs need at the very least 36″ (1 m) for corridors and 60″ (1,5 m) to turn around.
Describe any non-conforming areas in your publicity and program: forewarned is forearmed, and it demonstrates that you’ve actually checked the place out. Don’t use the term “wheelchair-friendly,” which has no defined meaning. Do reference any standards the venue meets: “ADA compliant” in WisCon’s case.
Make sure that stages are ramped as well. (Our venue can only ramp one stage at a time. This requires members to self-ID at reg, and program coordination to place ensure the ramped stage and the wheelchair using panelists are in the same room. I know from experience it’s easy to blow this one.)
Wheelchair Parking aka Blue Zones
Providing designated wheelchair parking in all seating areas permits wheelchair users the same freedom to come and go as those using the seats. Well-meaning non-disabled people will often say, “oh, but of course I’ll move a chair out of the way if you just ask.” And from their viewpoint, that’s a one-to-one personal issue. But from perspective of us wheelchair users, it’s a one-to-many problem, since we must ask for seating rearrangement every where we go.
While leaving empty spaces seems like a solution, chairs inevitably migrate further apart, filling them in. The inexpensive and highly effective alternative are “blue zones,” 36 in (1 m) squares outlined with 1in (2,54 mm) blue painters’ tape. It’s bright, stays down on carpet and comes up easily.
If you know how many wheelchair users are in attendance, be sure you make that many blue zones at the big get-togethers. (Otherwise, 1 for every 100 is a rough guideline.) Always have at least one blue zone, especially in the smallest program rooms (where crowding is most an issue). When you have room for two, put one up front and one in the back. The former is great for the wheelchair user who may also have hearing or vision impairment; the latter works well for those of us who get claustrophobic and need to be able to leave right away.