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Tuesday 1 May 2007

Against disabilism - Ensuring accessibility

Today is 'Blogging against disabilism' Day and it's timely. I've got the issue on my mind right now. Plus I'm attending a conference on the subject tomorrow.

So what is disabilism and what's this day about?

Well firstly, the term's possibly unfamiliar, like a fair few 'isms'. You'd think it means either something esoteric or what you think it means.

It's the latter. It's discrimination:

Says Wikipedia:
'Ableism is a term used to describe discrimination against people with disabilities in favour of people who are not disabled.

Advocates of the term argue that ableism is, like racism, and sexism, a system by which main-stream society denigrates and devalues those with disabilities, while privileging those without disabilities. In extreme cases, morality, worth and intelligence may even be equated to being ablebodied or ableminded, while disability is conflated with immorality, stupidity, and worthlessness.

An ableist society is said to be one that treats non-disabled individuals as the standard of ‘normal living’. This results in public and private places & services, education and social work that are built to serve 'standard' people, excluding those with various disabilities.

The presumption that everyone is non-disabled is said to be effectively discriminatory in itself, creating environments which are inconvenient or inaccessible to the disabled. Inclusion means that all products, services, and societal opportunities and resources are fully accessible, welcoming, functional and usable for as many different types of abilities as possible. An ableist society tends to isolation, where an inclusive society tends toward sociability and interdependency[citation needed].

In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act enacted into law civil penalties for failing to make a public place accessible to individuals with certain impaired abilities and/or using standard assistive technologies. In the UK, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and 2005 attempts the same. There are also disability rights activists attempting Inclusion movements in various countries.

The caveat empor to all this, in my opinion, is the issue of resources — you cannot avoid it, although often the issue is circumvented. Because for a society to (truly) grant access rights, for example, usually requires resources. And 'rights' can and do clash.

Some of the societies I've worked with have few resources to start with, so this issue resonates differently around the world and is not universally the same.

In those societies which don't resource the severely disabled for example — because they can't — I wouldn't want to see our Western, privileged view prevail. Or, god forbid, a religious or PC one.

Where in my view 'disabilism' should be sited is human rights, because in different societies it's the value of a human being, for what they can contribute, which counts.

So, should it in ours.

If you start from that point, our society has the resources to enable many more citizens. It's a human right we can easily uphold if we choose to. And the daily cases in the UK where people have made no effort for disabled people - laughed at the effort, pitied it and upplayed it - should be understood as denial of human rights.

Having worked with and seen just how powerful computers and the web can be for disabled people, denying that — especially for reasons like so we can pay 1p less on our petrol tax for example — just feels like denial of the rights of fellow humans, fellow citizens. We collectively decide where our resources go.

The Day was set up by the blog 'Diary of a Goldfish' and this is the second year. And the aim is "to write about disability and rail against the discrimination that disabled people continue to face".

JackP told me about it and I jokingly replied that I'd ranted on the subject only that very day in an email. We both work for councils. My comments come largely from that viewpoint, plus I don't live this subject (so I'm kindof hoping this has been said).

See, what bugs me is technical talk, and - worse - mere technical comprehension, about accessibility. I'm fed up with it.

Not because it's not important — it's essential — but because it amounts to a very small hill of beans in the end.

No. Technical accessibility is largely, straightforwardly fixable with the truly difficult being ensuring that it actually, consistently happens — humans, able bodied ones, are the issue. Even all the complicated stuff thrown up by web 2.0 and mass Flash usage will be technically fixed. Partly by the market.

But it's largely also not prioritised — there is a very strong 'all or bust' vibe and hence a key, real world driver is often plain guilt — and this leads into my main point/hurdle.

What I'm thinking about is ensuring accessibility, which can be seen within my wider peer community, in my view, as 'the next stage' when really, my point is, it's the only stage.

I'd like to post this, on this day, as a different way of speaking about this subject. Ensuring it.

And the only way I can think you can do that is by being led by disabled people, led by the user, just as you should be with web development generally.

But is this what happens? No. Whilst you're 'fixing the accessibility' do you actually know if disabled people consider you accessible? Do you ask them? Can they answer you - do they have the capacity? Is it only one type of disability you ever hear from? Is what you are making accessible of any use? Has the accessibility software you've just blown your budget on done anyone any good?

Do you do things on disabled people's behalf?

Thinking more widely, doesn't the website actually reflect the organisation? If your council hasn't got it's act together in lots of other areas are you just making innacurate or incomplete information accessible?

So many web developers in my group whinge on about technically getting accessibility right. Why? What are you making 'accessible'? Are you actually letting down disabled people or have you just convinced yourself you are? Did a disabled person tell you you are?

These are questions I could have posted many times to comments within my community on this subject.

See how far we've actually got to go, just conceptually, in considering 'accessibility'.

For me, in thinking about this is does come back again and again and again to the user and being led by them.

How many accessibility conferences in the public sector have had no disabled attendees?

How on earth can we (the abled) know what to prioritise?

I have a story with this. I saw an incredible piece of kit, on CSI of all places, called Trekker. Now the poor blind woman in peril (that's a new one) had one of these and - F*** me - it showed her which floor she was on. GPS genius. Bye bye Baddy.

Now being a boy, I loved it. But one of my blind (female) friends practically salivated at the thought.

Thing is, bought wholesale, back-of-an-envelope, this piece of kit (on it's own, no training, believe me that would self-organise as if by magic) could be delivered to every registered blind person in my city for well under a million pounds. But the value, the liberating value, would be many, many times that. A million in the scheme of things is nothing and you could easily make a business case.

When I was on a conference forum once and mentioned this story, though, a fellow panellist from a blind people's group (who wasn't blind) gave me the right old eyeful.

I can see why. It's 'off-message' and all a bit 'pie in the sky'.

Why? Because we're settling for so much less. There's no roadplan to get to Trekker for all.

One of the things I've always noticed with minorities (I wonder why, could be the 'gay' thing ... ) is that those people asking for their rights are 'militant' and the rest are 'grateful'.

What minorities want and what they get given are very often, maybe always, two different things.

Well I'm sick of pity and gratitude too. Let's talk human rights. Same as one of the reason's we're getting rid of anti-gay discrimination is because all society loses because of it, we need to resource disabled people to our society's capacity.

Resources and priorities. Sticks and carrots. Let's move to Ensuring from Compliance.

1 comment:

  1. "How many accessibility conferences in the public sector have had no disabled attendees?"

    I don't really understand the question, but the answer is none: we all have abilities and disabilities.

    "Let's move to Ensuring from Compliance."

    Ah, now that I do understand and agree wholeheartedly with. Demanding compliance engenders such a negative view of the outcome, however positive it might be in itself.