Accessibility: Should we complain about it, or fix it?

Victor Tsaran tweeted this morning:

Steve Faulkner replied to this strong statement and expressed a different view (read the full thread of replies on Twitter). Their exchange constitute a great discussion, I believe, and with their permission here it is, rearranged and slightly curated for a better readability. Then I add my own opinion about this question. 

The discussion

Victor: In the accessibility field we do a great deal of complaining and not enough solving. This got to change!

Steve: Self-flagellation is more of an issue. Blanket statements declaring community negativity don’t help. Protest is legitimate dissent. Many don’t know HOW to solve, or have skills to, but experience the frustration of broken software that puts barriers in their way. Feeding into dominant meme that we are a bunch of whiners, does a disservice to people who work hard to improve accessibility of software.

Victor: I am a believer in asking questions before venting the frustration. It’s just a good people skill to have regardless. Agree?

Steve: Agree, I am a believer in fixing stuff, but realise I am one of lucky few who know how, and have privilege of access to systems to do so.

Victor: I don’t know how to fix everything, but I know how to ask a question and try to understand the other side.

Steve: Sorry I get frustrated when I have spent weekend filing and responding to bugs, working on stuff like this.

Victor: You think I don’t? 🙂 [smile].

Steve: Sure, I just don’t wanna get beaten on by statement of inadequacy from significant other in accessibility field first thing on a monday morning.

At this point, both Victor and Steve agreed that it had turned into a good ‘let’s have some beer’ kind of conversation, as Victor put it.

Steve, however, had started another “branch” of the conversation by tweeting: Corporations have a responsibility to provide equality of access to the web, users have the right to expect and agitate for this.

To which Victor replied: This is true in legal arena. You know well this is not how inter-personal relationships work.

Ramón Corominas added: 1) A violates B’s right. 2) B complains. 3) A (or C) says B is negative. 4) B kindly asks for fixes. 5) GOTO 1. This is the most common situation and the reason that many people stop asking.

My opinion

It’s a continuing debate, one that turns around the notion of users’ responsibility in the current state of software accessibility. I, for one, wouldn’t mind feeling a little more pressure from users, now and then. It would certainly ease my own evangelizing efforts.

I salute Victor’s spirit, which aims at getting results, rather than spitting in the wind and hoping it will clean your neighbour’s face. That said, I believe Steve makes good points. Complaining for accessibility should not be seen as a negative attitude (although it can be perceived as such by those it targets). It’s just claiming one’s due, one’s legal and moral right. Steve further expressed it pretty clearly by replacing the “we in the accessibility field”, in Victor’s initial tweet, by “We, feminists” and “We, anti-racists”. In these fields, carelessness or negligence are no excuses, and are duly considered as violations of one’s rights. There should be no difference with accessibility. In its Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the United Nations declared that accessibility (article 9) is a fundamental right for every human being. So be it.

It can be done artfully, as demonstrated by Sina Bahram in a message to 37Signals. Sina uses, I believe, the right balance of empathy, politeness, and constructive criticism, that is likely to touch base. If this kind of message fails, then we should abandon all hope and faith in the human kind.

Of course, claiming should not prevent us from following Victor’s call, whenever we see fit. If we can do something, then let’s do it. We’ll help those for which it really matters. My only restraint is that, in my little experience, it’s a short term, local improvement. I fear that merely acting, without properly pointing at the problem you just solved, will not help raising awareness on the product owner’s side. Which is the only way, I think, to truly and deeply change attitudes towards accessibility.

To sum up, fix it if you can, and if you feel it helps, on the short term. But don’t feel bad to also complain express your needs and your rights.

There is a third way, however. I also encourage people to express positive feelings about a usability or accessibility feature. Never forget that behind code, there are hard-working human beings, who seldom get encouragement for doing good. I have observed the effect of positive feedback first-hand, and I can testify it’s 10 times more efficient than a negative remark.

So fix, complain, or praise. Whatever. But don’t shut up, that’s the worst you can do.

2 thoughts on “Accessibility: Should we complain about it, or fix it?”

  1. Fantastic blog post Olivier!

    I’ve mused quite a bit on this as I’m what you might call a “rabid” advocate for captioning accessibility. This is an area that attracts very little awareness in the wider community and it’s so frustrating when there is so much intrinsic value in captioning to everybody.

    Cheers for now, Mike Lockrey

  2. Well to come to think of it from a different perspective, if you don’t complain how will one know what to fix with the accessibility? When I say complain, I don’t mean bucket them with abuses, be as clear as possible, it takes a lot of patience but help them understand the awesomeness of accessibility.

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