Accessibility problems – sometimes people just don’t know what they’re doing wrong

Wednesday had been a long day. I was still sitting at my laptop quite late having a spring-clean of Twitter, and I came across a tweet from a company that sells books. But I couldn’t read the tweet. The text said that it contained some advice, but the advice was a picture of text.

Usually I just scroll on past inaccessible tweets and Facebook posts. If my friends want to share pictures with no text, it’s up to them. If I care enough about it, I might try to work it out by the comments, or I’ll ask, but I don’t expect everyone to remember me all of the time. Yes, it would be great if we lived in a fully accessible world, but I’m not going to be that friend that keeps reminding everyone about how I couldn’t understand that joke or information that they posted because it was a picture. I insist on more cooperation in the group that I run, but what people do on their own wall is their business.

I set the bar a bit higher for companies though, especially if they’re companies where I spend my money.

So I pointed out that blind people using screenreaders wouldn’t be able to read the advice in the tweet. This was particularly unhelpful as a company promoting literacy was making it impossible for some followers to read their content – because they used a picture instead of actual words!

Within minutes I had a positive reply. I was told what the tweet said, thanked for my input, and told they’d bear it in mind in future. Quick win!

I don’t expect people to stop using memes and pictures, but a text alternative would be nice if it’s larger companies. To be fair, the automatic AI image description facility on Facebook can convert some of these pictures to text that’s read out by the screenreader, but it doesn’t work with all of them. I haven’t seen this in action on Twitter, so can’t comment.

But anyway, the point is that it got me thinking about wider online accessibility issues.

I am an advocate for accessibility. I want to make the online world a better and more accessible place. Inconsiderate and let’s be fair, sometimes downright sloppy web design frustrates me, particularly when it’s big companies that have the resources to do better.

But sometimes, people just don’t know what they did was wrong or how it can negatively impact on an end-user.

I’m not saying that ignorance is an excuse, though I do tend to go a lot easier on smaller companies than the large multi-national businesses with more resources to invest in accessibility training.

I might have to deal with 10 different accessibility issues in one day. Some are just trivial, like the inaccessible tweet, whereas others are more of a hassle, like the website that I can’t use because buttons aren’t labelled, menu items that can only be selected with a mouse, articles where I can’t read the page because of some stupid video that plays automatically, or my newest bugbear – the privacy/cookie policy statements that can only be clicked away using a mouse.

Sometimes I get help from a sighted person. Sometimes I say screw it and get the information elsewhere or avoid buying from that particular site. Sometimes I flag the inaccessibility issue, although I don’t do this as often as I probably should. You have to choose your battles. I have a business and a home to run, my studies, and some free time would be nice too!

But the point is it can all build up. That’s our perspective as people dealing with the inaccessibility. The other side is the person who only learned for the first time today that they as a social media manager were doing something unhelpful.

When I worked in London, there were times when tourists and other commuters drove me crazy. Not watching where they were going, bopping my dog on the head with their bags, making her job harder, letting dogs run free and bother us, stopping suddenly on the stairs to take a call, chatting and standing in the way, expecting us to go in the road. I know I told a few people exactly what I thought of their thoughtless or stupid behaviour, when the real problem was that they were the 10th person to do that to me that day, which wasn’t really their fault. My anger was justified, but the intensity probably wasn’t.

And I think this is where I’m getting to with accessibility. Yes, it’s annoying when things don’t work, or companies prevent us from using their products and services. Yes, it would be so much easier if we lived in a world where we didn’t have to do extra work to educate and work so hard to make things better. But maybe the company just hadn’t considered the implications of not having a fully accessible site or social media content.

I went to mainstream school – that’s a discussion for another day – but I think one of the really valuable lessons I took from that was the life experience of being surrounded by people who had never met another blind person before. That’s my normal. I believe if you’re educated in an environment where everything is accessible and everyone knows about blindness, access technology etc, it can be a harsh reality when you leave that world and come back into mainstream society, where that’s not how things work.

Sometimes companies do make the decision that implementing good practice is not worth the hassle or cost. Yes, that should be challenged, especially if those same companies want disabled people as customers, or if we have no choice but to interact with them in order to fulfil some legal obligation or access a service.

One of the things that is guaranteed to wind me up is sites that were inaccessible, had a make-over to “improve the user experience” and then became totally inaccessible to me.

But a lot of the time, there are just people doing their best to do their jobs, not trying to be difficult or even aware of what they’re doing wrong. I think we as accessibility advocates shouldn’t forget that.

I know people who have asked about the accessibility of their website/blog/YouTube channel/app as a result of meeting me and finding out how I access information online. This is a positive thing. They want to learn and change, and maybe don’t know how to at first.

Part of the reason for doing my IT degree now is to equip myself with the knowledge to make a better-informed contribution to this conversation and develop my accessibility consultancy service.

Meanwhile, the “us” and “them” mentality that I see in some circles bothers me. The “us” being the people who need accessibility and “them” being all the others in the big bad world out there, making things hard for us. But that’s a problem, because some of “them” are my friends. Just moving to the town where I live now has brought me into contact with a number of people who can influence the accessibility of their own companies or companies that they work for, and that’s a positive thing. It’s even got me a freelance contract!

On a side-note, this is another reason why I believe mainstream education is so important. All the children in my class were exposed to someone using access technology to do pretty much everything that they did, if sometimes in a different way. Hopefully they’ve gone on to be adults, employers, and colleagues who are still aware of those things. Seriously! We live in a world where people are sometimes surprised that I can even use a phone or a laptop – we have a long way to go in terms of promoting all the positive stories in terms of the world of possibilities that access technology can open up.

Especially when I had a guide dog and had numerous access refusals, I got a bit of a reputation for strongly-worded letters. I was good at them, and usually got results.

It can become entrenched if a company really doesn’t want to listen or improve. I’ve had emails that basically say “sorry you can’t use our website, but we don’t have any plans to change it.” Yeah thanks for that. I’m glad that you value my custom so much!

but that first contact you make with a company – that could be someone who genuinely didn’t know better. I don’t always get it right, especially if I’m having a bad day and it’s just one more hurdle to jump, but I think it’s important that we don’t forget that. I’m a teacher. I work in education. Anything I do in terms of accessibility awareness is an extension of that. Some people don’t care or want to learn, but many do if we give them a chance and some specific advice about what could be better. You might be positively surprised!

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