Accessibility has an image problem, and it’s perhaps the biggest barrier to progress that hasn’t been seriously confronted by those of us working within the field. We all know it, but it’s the uncomfortable kind of knowledge that just makes things harder when we confront it. It’s so much easier to look at things changing for the better without worrying about in how many places they’re changing for the worse.
Michael Crabb is a colleague of mine. He works at Dundee University. He and I were working together on a draft of something called an ‘Expression of Interest’. It’s an ass-backwards phrase because really what you’re doing is exploring the contours of corporate disinterest. Most of what comes back from something like this is rejection. This EOI was about getting a prominent technology company to get excited about accessibility in a way that their actions in the marketplace suggested they weren’t. They’re a big company – it’s not like they don’t have resources. They just don’t seem to have any real concern about it and we were pitching as to why that should change.
‘God, I hate the word accessibility’, said Mike. ‘Can we not get something new?’
‘Ease of Use?’, I asked. That’s the branding Microsoft put around the concept. ‘Universal Access’, I suggested. That’s how Apple attempts to make the concept easier to understand. As part of my research I had delved a bit into this issue and found out that the majority of people who would benefit from the tools provided under these frameworks had no idea what these terms meant. Most people kind of understand the word ‘accessibility’ but even there the definitions are often skewed and inconsistent. Accessibility is often inaccessible.
‘It just makes people sigh’, he said.
He’s absolutely right – as soon as you raise the subject everyone braces for the lecture they fear is incoming. That’s because a lecture is incoming and it’s one of the worst kind of lectures – one where you look like a monster for just walking away. If someone comes up and starts ranting about you about the chemicals in the water turning the friggin’ frogs gay you can disengage and still look like the reasonable party. It’s harder to detach yourself from a conversation about why you should be more inclusive in the work you can do. It’s hectoring without an escape route. It’s like cornering someone in an elevator and knowing that they can’t press the button to open the doors without everyone in the building judging them.
Mike and I got to talking. How much would the field improve if its reputation was cooler? How much would we be able to move on the conversation if it was a sexier topic? If we could talk about accessibility without talking about accessibility it would likely be an easier job. The end goals are universally popular, even if honoured more in the breach than the observance. The business case is often inarguable, and the legal case even more so. And yet, people glaze over when you start having That Talk because fundamentally most people engage only because they feel they have to.
I think there are a whole pile of reasons for this. The topic seems preachy. It seems ‘holier than thou’. It makes those of us who advocate for greater accessibility seem like we’re trying so hard to make you believe we just care more than you do. It’s the academic equivalent of saying ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if all jolly well tried to better people?’. It’s cheerleading without any actual cheer. It makes people feel bad that they’re not more proactive or knowledgeable. It makes them defensive that their products are not accessible. It makes them feel heartless for not having developed the skills to meaningfully contribute to the discussion. Having a conversation with an accessibility specialist is a bit like being lumbered at a party with the militant vegan. The sheer guileless simplicity and earnestness that underlines their entire philosophy is exhausting.
You want to say ‘I have dozens of things I need to care about right now and this just isn’t one of them’, but that’s not easy to express without consequences. There is a thing called compassion fatigue, and it eventually numbs you to the point of indifference. Sure, you’re falling behind in terms of accessibility but is that worse than the fact that you’re not actively working to combat climate change or broadening access to technology in the poorest countries of the world? You’re failing in so many ways, we all are, and eventually you can just come to terms with accessibility being one of them but you can never simply come out and say it.
That’s a massive problem, because it obligates everyone to offering some degree of lip service to the topic but it rarely translates into genuine action. That creates a false impression of progress even as it disincentivises people from making a big effort. It’s a natural desire amongst enthusiasts to celebrate the positives, but in the process I think what we often do is distort perspective.
Even if you accomplish great things with accessibility, the public reacts less positively than if you did something useless but flashy. Elon Musk with his dumb submarines gets more attention with a thoughtless tweet than an entire research field can generate through sustained good work. Google adopting a new doodle will get more press coverage than a company meeting its legally mandated accessibility obligations. Nobody gets rewards for doing the thing they had to do. If you’ve got limited hours in the day and you want a maximum return on your investment of time, you’re better served by getting a lot of appreciative eyes on your efforts rather than making an important but incremental improvement to the accessibility of your services.
Accessibility is fundamental, essential, belt-and-braces work and people rarely get excited by that kind of thing. You only miss your plumbing when it comes time to take a shower – you rarely spend your time getting worked up about it otherwise. Its value is mostly keenly demonstrated by the risk of its absence. A bit like being part of the European Union. You only miss it when it’s about to be taken away.
Accessibility has few of the moments that get people talking. It happens on occasion, but not enough for it to be a reward proportionate with the work required of its advocates. There aren’t a lot of times when people say, ‘Shit we get to do this don’t we!’. Instead, you get people saying ‘Shit, we have to do this don’t we?’. It’s the door-to-door evangelism of user facing work and that’s a hard road to walk. It’s ringing the doorbell of people who are pretending they aren’t home, yelling through their letterbox when we hear movement from inside.
‘HELLO, DO YOU HAVE A FEW MOMENTS TO TALK ABOUT OUR LORD ACCESSIBILITY?’
And so much of that is a problem we caused.
Accessibility is such a rich, important and fascinating topic and yet look what our primarily outputs are. They’re guidelines. They’re checklists. They’re proscriptive list of dos and don’ts – powerful and useful tools but far from something to get your metaphorical plums pumping. They’re drier than a cracker sandwich. There are incredibly cool things happening with regards to accessibility but somehow that doesn’t define the field in the minds of people. People think of stodgy documentation and endless lists of often contradictory advice. They don’t think about prosthetic limbs designed with reference to the lithe grace of hunting cats. They think about wheelchairs. They don’t think about bionic eyes linking to brain implants. They think about walking sticks. They think about decrepitude rather than exceeding human capacity. Accessibility is linked to the fact of disability, rather than also reflecting its true nature – a way of permitting extraordinary performance in challenging circumstances. It’s both of those things at the same time, but that’s not our reputation. I mean, check out this ‘accessibility word cloud’ I found:
It’s so uninspiring it makes me want to cry.
It’s as if someone said ‘A manned mission to Mars’ and the first thought everyone had was of the spreadsheets needed to ensure an appropriate balance of macronutrients in a closed ecological system. That’s the nuts and bolts of the work but it’s not the soul. There’s no sense of romance in the accessibility work we do, and its absence has an impact across the board. When people say ‘a mission to Mars’, the head says ‘we’ll need a gantt chart’ but the heart says ‘arcologies and spaceships and our first tentative step to the stars and beyond’.
Part of the problem too is that we are too quick to let our coolest tricks escape to outside the ‘brand’. Predictive text was originally an accessibility tool, but hardly anyone knows that any more. ‘Talking books for the blind’ used to be an odd thing that your library made available but now everyone loves audiobooks and their origin is forgotten. You can send a text message to your car now and have it read out the contents – text to speech was a technology designed originally for visually impaired people to access information on computers. Our coolest accessibility accomplishments get rebranded as conveniences for the abled because in the end good accessibility is for everyone. People have short memories though. They forget where things come from.
Is that why it’s so hard to get people excited about this stuff?
Perhaps it’s the low-grade sense that accessibility work is a charitable exercise. Perhaps it’s too much like ‘good work’ to be ‘fun work’. Occasionally when I write guest articles or the like for people I’m asked to provide photos. ‘Some disabled people playing games would be great’ is something I hear a lot. And that’s a positive image – someone in a wheelchair looking happy. But it’s also a kind of inspiration porn that’s made more insidious by just how wholesome it seems to be. ‘Isn’t that marvelous’, people say, and then they forget about it.
Does the sexiness of an endeavour require naughtiness? Does it need a bad boy / bad girl vibe? Does it need to feel dangerous? Risky? Irresponsible? Is that why we get excited about making a glorified nuclear missile and firing it off into a comet? Is that why data science, with all its attendant acceleration of the looming apocalypse, is currently getting so much love and attention? Do we need to look at block-chains? Peer to peer decentralisation? Are we just not stuffing our psychological SEO with enough buzzwords? Would people care about accessibility if we were burning up a planet to make it work?
Is it because disability makes people feel uncomfortable?
Or again does it come back to that hidden implication that ‘We care more about people than you do’ and that’s off-putting? Is accessibility too much like the obsession of the happy-clappy camp counselor who mistakes earnest enthusiasm for persuasive rhetoric?
I hope it’s not that, because often it’s not even true. It’s something I occasionally encounter in this work I do – that people think I’m a ‘good guy’ because I am so deeply invested in this topic. The truth is, I’m in it for the puzzle. I like this stuff because it’s hard-core. That’s how it was sold to me when I was a skeptic. Every challenging thing becomes more challenging still if it also has to be designed to route around human fallibility. Sure it would be difficult to design a terawatt space laser capable of melting a hole through God. Imagine designing a terawatt space laser that you can still work when you’ve got an entire angelic choir singing a world-ending requiem into your gibbering brain. Or more relevantly – if it’s difficult to design a good game, and we all know it is – it’s more difficult to design a good game that everyone can play.
That’s accessibility. It looks at how you accomplish the incredible and then sniffs before saying ‘Fine, but let’s really test how good you are’.
Mike Crabb believes that at least some of the answer to this problem is to focus on hyper-ability – on accessibility support that enhances our capacities beyond what natural human ability permits. Technologies that permit astonishing acts of speed reading, for example. Techniques that offer access to sensory streams outside the norm. Geordi LaForge is a good template for that – a blind man who, through assistive technology, saw more than anyone else. The popular inspiration perhaps should be in superhero films rather than Oscar-bait movies about disability. Perhaps the template for accessibility work should be drawn from the blueprints in Iron Man.
But even with that, I’m skeptical. Look at the Paralympics – ‘here’s a guy with a blade foot and he runs faster than a cheetah’. ‘Here’s someone dunking a basketball while in their space-age aluminium wheelchair’. And yet, the audience for shows like this is dramatically lower than their equivalents. Often the societal response is ‘That’s inspirational, but what’s on the other channel?’. If sheer acts of phenomenal human accomplishment aren’t sexy enough, what is?
Is it weird I keep saying the word ‘sexy’ here? Is that part of the problem? I mean, as a society we have no problem in labelling all other kinds of things as sexy. Why not this? Is it an uncomfortable juxtaposition?
Maybe it’s the issue I alluded to above – perhaps it needs more of a sense of broad based applicability. Perhaps it’s a job of relating the outputs of accessibility work to everyone, but again that happens all the time and as it becomes ubiquitous it also becomes invisible. Who thinks about a curb cut any-more? The beeping noise that indicates pedestrians can cross a road was originally so the blind knew it was safe. Now it’s a reminder to look up from your phone long enough to avoid killing yourself in traffic. As it becomes part of the daily tapestry of life, it ceases to be accessibility and sinks into the much less differentiated category of ‘good user design’. We can’t simultaneously be universal and distinctively branded because then our work blends into the background.
Our brand then isn’t popularly associated with our greatest accomplishments and so the eyes glaze over when we start talking. We can preach to the choir. We can evangelise and get a few converts, and occasionally those converts are in positions of real authority. We don’t have the kind of ‘soft power’ as a discipline that does our recruitment for us. We’re missionaries for a very unfashionable religion. Our accomplishments are primarily driven from the top down – we work through papal legates, not gospel churches.
That creates a pressure on us, and one we’re often not well equipped to deal with. On a day to day basis I am still confronted by people coming right out and saying that they don’t see why they should be concerned about people with disabilities playing games. ‘It doesn’t affect me’, they say, and refuse to believe all the ways in which it does. ‘I don’t benefit from it’, they say, and refuse to accept all the ways it has. ‘That?’, they say. ‘That’s just good design’. I don’t know under those circumstances how to make people understand that they’re just sometimes expected to care about things.
Increasingly I’m not even sure I can convince myself of that outside of those causes with which I already associate. After all, there are others with pressing social, moral and ethical concerns that I’ve managed to make my peace with ignoring because that’s just more convenient. I knew that had happened when someone told me about the male baby chicks that get minced or gassed at birth because they’re less profitable than egg-laying hens. I just shrugged and said ‘Well, I still need eggs’. I just don’t have any spare capacity to add a new thing to care about, sorry. The world sucks wall to wall and I’ve made a degree of peace with that. We all have, and it just so happens a cause that is very important to me is one in which many people have chosen to not be interested.
I don’t think the solution though lies in hectoring the disinterested. It’s not enough to say ‘We’ve got a problem – we need to make more people care’. I mean, we do but they don’t. That’s our problem, not theirs, and were the ones that need to solve it. How do we inspire people to care about accessibility? How do we make them care without needing this constant badgering that goes along with the job? How do we stop being that militant vegan, and become the cool party-goer to whom everyone wants to be talking?
We’ve got an image problem. So how do we fix it?
That’s not a rhetorical question. I’d love to know what you think – please leave a comment below!
All the images in the body of this post BTW are what google images provides as its first photo links when you search for ‘accessibility’. They’re essentially a way of getting a memetic snapshot of the concept.