Opinion: Accessibility and Accountability

Against a red background, a person with short black and a black shirt and pants scratches their head as they look at a sheet of paper they are holding. A white dialog box shows the viewer what is on the paper. Three emoticons from left to right are frowny, smiley, and neutral. Each face has an empty red checkbox beneath it. Source: http://www.digital-web.com/articles/accountability_of_accessibility_and_usability/

It would seem to be straightforward enough, wouldn’t it? Accessibility and accountability.

But for all the people I’ve come across who agree that these are positive words, that they should be implemented, that these are important to practice and internalize if ever we are to have an equitable society—a fair number of those people and organizations and groups and institutions actually are neither accessible nor accountable.

So many people think accessibility is important, but they also believe that making things (places, events, content, etc.) accessible is not their job.

A black and white line drawing of four men in a boat. The boat is tilting precariously as the stern is flooding and sinking, two men desperate bailing with buckets. The other two men are lounging in the bow, watching them. The man on the right says, “Sure glad the hole isn’t at our end.” Source.

A prominent example is MIT and Harvard, who were sued for inaccessibility of online content. They reached settlements just recently. This is a victory, as opposed to the University of California, Berkeley, who decided that instead of providing accessibility so everyone would benefit from the thousands of hours of content, they would delete them all so only current, nondisabled students would benefit.

Other public successes include suing Netflix for lack of closed captioning, and suing Scribd for refusing to make their web and mobile platforms accessible for blind users.

Perhaps more pertinent to this platform, Gimlet Media is being sued due to their refusal to provide transcripts for their podcasts. You can read up on the case here. One would assume that a platform whose mission statement includes the phrase “aims to help listeners better understand the world and each other” would be aware of accessibility issues.

When it comes to accessibility and building infrastructure, buildings, websites, whatever, it’s cheaper to keep accessibility in mind during the construction process than to be sued and have to retrofit your building/website later, don’t you think?

But those are large organizations with tons of money. What is the relationship between the individual and accountability? Are individual creators, sharers, and organizers responsible for ensuring accessibility?

Let me be clear: yes, it is your job as an individual to ensure accessibility.

If ever we are going to have an equitable society, everyone has to do their part.

The default should be accessibility.

If you’re an event organizer, are you prepared to positively answer:

  • a wheelchair user who reaches out asking if there is disabled parking near the event location?
  • a deaf person who reaches out requesting an ASL interpreter or captioning?
  • an epileptic person who reaches out asking if there will be any flashing lights?
  • a person with chronic pain who reaches out needing to know if there will be chairs available?
  • a parent asking if there will be stroller-accessible pathways and baby-changing stations?

If you’ve just opened a new restaurant, you need to look long and hard at what you have:

  • Is there a van-accessible parking space?
  • Can a wheelchair user get in and out?
  • Do you have Braille menus available?
  • Can a child reach the bathroom sink to wash their hands after using the potty without an adult having to lift them?
  • Is there a baby changing station in both the women’s and the men’s restrooms?
  • Will you or your employee(s) be able to take a deaf or nonverbal individual’s written and/or gestured order without that deer-in-headlights look?

If you’re a content creator:

  • do your images have alt text or visual descriptions?
  • do your videos have captions, visual descriptions, and transcripts?
  • do your podcasts or lyrics or poems have transcripts, with names or initials to indicate who is speaking/singing?
  • do your blogs use hyperlinks instead of just posting the links/website addresses?

Accessibility is not an afterthought.

3 by 4 icons. Row 1, left to right: a black question mark inside a red circle; against a purple square, a hunched person walks with a cane; against a yellow square, a wheelchair user; against a green square, an eye with a line through it. Row 2, left to right: against a green square, a person walking with a probing cane; against a blue square, an ear with a line through it; against a gray square, a pair of sunglasses; against an orange square, a hand touching Braille. Row 3, left to right: against a blue square, hands in the ASL sign for interpreter; against a green square, a service dog in vest and handle; against a purple square, a diapered baby; against a gray square, a pregnant person. Source.

A lot of times accessibility is focused on ensuring equity for disabled people, but know that many of these actually benefit nondisabled people as well. For example, having a bathroom sink and tables low enough for a wheelchair user to use comfortably also supports children’s independence; having captions for a video benefits not only deaf people, but encourages literacy in children and improves comprehension for language learners, as well as benefits people who like to eat chips at 3 AM while watching YouTube.

What exactly do I mean by accessibility? The Americans with Disabilities Act?

No, because the ADA has proven itself again and again to fail where people need it most. Studies have shown that the ADA is nowhere near effective at ensuring accessibility for disabled people, and personal experiences as told by disabled people reveal many negative attitudes towards the ADA.

Whether the ADA enforces its own laws depends largely on how the enforcer (i.e., the institution being asked to provide accommodations) defines the word “effective.” Often, it means the “cheapest way to give the disabled person just enough information or participation that we can pretend it is true equality.” Oh, for example, the school has another student in the class takes subpar—often nonsensical—notes for a deaf student instead of hiring an interpreter.

In my own experience, multiple organizations and events have claimed “undue burden” under the ADA and gotten away with refusing me interpreters and captioners—as well as denying me a refund after I had already paid to attend. One example that really grinds my gears is the Conference of College Teachers of English (CCTE), where in Spring 2019 I presented a paper entitled “How and Why Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students Struggle in Schools.” I had requested an interpreter months in advance, and arranged to miss classes, paid for my flights, hotel, and the conference fees, only for about three weeks before the date they responded that they could not afford to accommodate me. And of course I still had to attend (no refunds!) and struggled the entire time.

That’s a pretty typical experience for Deaf people. And I can’t sue them under the ADA because the ADA allows organizations and events to not be able to afford accessibility.

So, what do I mean by accessibility?

Accessibility means considering other people and other perspectives, and implementing practices that would ensure they have equal access and participation.

That’s it.

And since so many things are online now, with so many free and cheap tools available, there’s really no reason that each person can’t make things accessible. There’s even a comprehensive guideline where you can find information and resources to make sure you’re being accessible. Check it out here. And, of course, there’s always Google.

Now we come to that word: accountability.

It means understanding that it is your responsibility to make your content, events, and organizations accessible, and that when it is not accessible, acknowledging that you have failed.

That’s about as far as it goes for many people.

When I call someone out for not captioning their videos, I often get an apology and an excuse (“Oh, I just didn’t have enough time during all this quarantine to typey-type some words…”). And then they go on to create more content, more events, with no accessibility. Check out this video by Daniel Durant: “No Captions? No More Excuses!”

Acknowledging that there is a need for accessibility and that you have failed to provide any is not accountability. That’s recognizing the incompleteness of your project and refusing to fulfill it.

The word “excuses” inside a red prohibited symbol. Source.

Accountability means recognizing the need for accessibility, acknowledging one’s failures, and then working towards success.

You didn’t caption your video? It’s not done. Go back and caption it. That’s taking accountability.

You don’t have Braille menus? You opened your restaurant ahead of schedule. Better order some now! That’s taking accountability.

You don’t know if there will be flashing lights in the video you’re showing? You weren’t prepared. Watch the video through in its entirety and take notes of any potentially problematic scenes. That’s taking accountability.

You shared an image or screenshot on Facebook without typing out some alt text? Go back and edit the post and add that information. That’s taking accountability.

My point is: everyone needs to be held accountable when it comes to accessibility. We’re all living in the same world, but we’re all experiencing it in vastly different perspectives. It only makes sense to ensure everyone can access those perspectives.

-Leigh Ann

Published by modcasters

We’re a group of graduate students studying English Literature and Language on a mission to discuss literature, provide access to those on the deafness and/or blindness spectrum, and rock mustachios.

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