Words that exclude

At work, one of my teams uses a web page, a "dashboard", to coordinate activities for each release. When we start to work on a new release, a (specific) member of the group creates a new dashboard for that release. This dashboard is mostly populated by tables of features, bugs, and other tasks. Each table has several relevant columns, like title, priority, who it's assigned to, and status.

We've been doing this for a while and the dashboards keep growing, so before doing the current one we had a conversation about what we do and don't want. We identified some sections we could get rid of, and I also brought up that the two-column format we were using does not play well with font zoom (which is also obvious in meetings) and could we make it one column? No one objected to that, and the dashboard person published the new one.

A week later he quietly switched it to two columns. Not only that, but the tables were wider and in both columns now so it even more did not fit for me. I said words to the effect of "hey, what happened to the single column we had?", and he said he didn't agree to that and he prefers two columns. When I reminded him that this is an accessibility issue and not a mere preference for me, he said something that's far too common: "oh, you can just..." -- in this case, "oh, you can just make your own copy with one column". He dismissed my need with a "solution" that let him keep his preference without having to make any changes himself.

Yeah. That is not a solution.

I responded that the team resource needs to be accessible to everybody and I was not going to maintain my own copy (and have to track changes to the other one). I also explained to him that as someone with a visual disability I already have to either work around or give up using quite a few resources that are designed for people with perfect vision, that's really tiring, and I should not have to face such stumbling blocks at work from my team. He made a second copy "for people who want this version". A more enlightened approach would have been to fix the "standard" version and then, if he wanted, "just" make his own, but I wasn't going to push that.

That happens a lot, and I don't just mean to me. When someone who isn't part of the default majority finally gets any sort of accommodation, we count is as a victory and don't push for the correct, inclusive change, the one that says "you are equal to me" instead of "I will accommodate you". We know that if we push for what's truly right, we run the risk of being marginalized even more, of being labeled as "whiny" or "needy", of not having the support of our peers and superiors. (And sometimes people do cast preferences as needs and get whiny, muddying those waters for the rest of us.) Thoughtful, informed allies matter, and we don't always have them -- not that people have ill intention but rather that this, too, is a thing that has to be learned.

It's a thing I've had to learn in areas that don't directly affect me. I assume we're all still learning. I cringe some when thinking about an SCA event I ran about 30 years ago and how the site wasn't completely wheelchair-accessible but there were "only" three steps at the front door and we could "just help so-and-so into the hall", right? Yeah, I cluelessly said that, not realizing how many barriers so-and-so faced every day, how this one more thing was one more obstacle. I hope I've gotten a little less clueless around the mobility-impaired, and I'm sure I'm still missing some important clues (there and elsewhere).

I mentioned that I already have to work around or abandon a lot of things because of vision. Let me give you two examples. First, web sites -- there are lots of bad patterns there (I think the UX people call them "dark patterns"). Font zoom is usually the first thing I reach for, but often it's more complicated -- poor contrast (whoever thought light gray text on white backgrounds was a good idea?), layouts that don't work after you zoom a couple notches, that sort of thing. Each time I encounter this I have to ask myself: is this web site really necessary? If it is, I have to invest in writing custom styling and sometimes go begging people to write userscripts to fix these problems, and often those styles and scripts are fragile. ("But can't you just learn web programming/JavaScript/jQuery?" That's not a small thing.)

I've got a ton of these kinds of modifications for Stack Exchange; the site is1 important enough to me that I don't want to walk away, but good heavens, accessibility is not their strong suit, and they have sometimes been pretty uncaring about that. I had to basically throw a fit to get a fix for something that prevented me from moderating, and then it was a fellow moderator, not an SE employee, who helped me out with a script. (They might be getting better about stuff like this; jury's still out.2 They did fix another moderation barrier; I had an actual meeting with the product manager about it.)

Here's an example from the physical world. Back before I kept kosher, I went to fast-food places fairly often. These are the kinds of places that post the menu behind the counter. Paper copies of the menu? Why would we need that? Any time I went to such a place, I had to decide whether to ask somebody to read me parts of the menu -- was I willing to both inconvenience someone and embarrass myself? -- or just order blind ("they have cheeseburgers here, right?") and possibly miss out on something I would have liked more but didn't know about. My friends probably thought I ordered the same thing almost every time because I particularly liked it or was in a rut; no, it was because I had learned from past visits something that each restaurant had, so I just went with that most of the time. Nowadays I have fewer choices in restaurants but there are still menu-behind-the-counter places sometimes. Do you know how liberating smartphones are? Now I can take a picture of the menu and use that to order -- not an option that was available in my student days!

People "self-accommodate" by opting out, like I used to with fast food, all the time. The wheelchair user might decide it's too hard to visit that store, city park, or friend's house. The hearing-challenged person learns to fake the less-important conversations to conserve the "could you repeat that?"s for things that matter more. The person who can't afford that restaurant but who doesn't want to be ostracized orders a side salad and a glass of water and tells people "I'm not very hungry". The person whose gender doesn't match outward appearances learns to hold it instead of using restrooms in certain places. The religious-minority student has to decide what to do about the mandatory Christmas pageant. And all the while, people are saying "but can't you just..." -- mouth the words, use the "right" (for the speaker) restroom, commute on a bike to save the cost of the bus pass so you can go to restaurants, learn to read lips, shop online.

I do think it's incumbent on those of us with limitations to do our share of the work. The world doesn't owe me paper menus at the counter if I can take a picture. Web sites don't owe me bigger fonts if I can zoom without breaking the site. But when we've done what we reasonably can do and we still face barriers, we need to be able to get our needs met without a fuss. And those of us in the default majority (as most of us are about something) need that to be second nature, not an "oh sigh, I guess, if you insist, but next time we go with my preference..." sort of thing. I don't know how we learn to do that, but one ingredient in the solution is awareness.

A couple weeks later we used that dashboard in a meeting (distributed team), and the person driving the display pulled up the two-column one. As usual I asked for some zoom, which broke the view, and then I said "let's use the one-column one" (which I had proactively linked to from the agenda page). The same person who had edited the dashboard said "can't you just pull it up on your end?". As a matter of fact, I couldn't. But it shouldn't have even been a question.

  1. At the time of this writing. I later left Stack Exchange. ↩︎

  2. Nope. That product manager and ally later left. ↩︎