John’s Nice Idea
Long standing accessibility advocate John Foliot often refers to people working in the accessibility world as members of the Tribe – itinerant, dispersed and yet connected with some commonality of purpose. John has a very positive outlook and it is one that I admire; he advocates finding solutions rather than pointing out problems, being a fireman taking action to prevent fires rather than a policeman arresting villains…
I admire all of this and subscribe wholeheartedly to this approach.
But it is not reflective of the reality in which we currently live and work.
What we actually have is a load of different tribes
Rather than harmony we have tribal warfare.
I recently attended a meeting of the eAccessibility forum at the Department for Culture Media And Sport (DCMS). It was intended as an opportunity to contribute to future legislation and policy to further digital inclusion for people with disabilities.
The session to explore the challenges and opportunities for accessibility presented by the rapidly changing technology landscape and to share ideas and potential solutions quickly fell apart.
One of the keynote speakers was harangued for being too personal despite advocating a broad brush pan disability approach. She was advocating a rational, realistic and inclusive approach to the issues at hand.
The first person to stand up and criticise professed to have broadly the same aims as the speaker but attacked all the same only to get a smattering of applause.
For nearly two hours most of what I saw was people pushing their own personal agendas, complaining about this or that failing. Bemoaning that access was not 100% perfect. Wilfully misunderstanding and dismissing or ignoring each other.
It was like listening to a room full of broken records. The voices of the rational and reasonable (yes there were some there) drowned out in the clamouring.
What happened to the concept of doing things for the greater good?
Or contributing for the benefit of all?
There was a fundamental lack of respect in the room which saddened me. Not from everyone but from enough to make the meeting unworkable as a useful forum.
Instead of thinking about the digital landscape in 5, 10 and 20 years time and what benefit we might bring to all people were fixated with their pet topics or asking for the impossible.
The one good idea of the whole event was tax breaks for accessibility.
This has some potential as a carrot to encourage businesses to do more. We have the legislative sticks but businesses always look at the bottom line and incentives can and do make a difference.
He Who Shouts Loudest
After the event I sat mulling things over as to why people had behaved in such a way. It occurred to me that this behaviour was not natural but had been adopted and learned.
Advocates from disability groups had seen people have a measure of success by being vocal and forceful. So they assumed that this was the most effective approach to break down the barricades.
What this approach fails to recognise is that the war is over.
There may still be a lot to do but there is legislation in place and we were sitting in a government building being consulted and this is how people behaved…
It is no wonder legislators and companies shy away from us if we behave like terrorists. Even the IRA recognised that the best way forward was to negotiate and compromise. Now one of their former number is the Second Minister in Northern Ireland. They may not have everything they want yet and they may never but working peacefully and collaboratively has achieved more than all of the bombing.
What works for one group of users may not for another, the needs of businesses to pay their owners and staff and governments to run their countries mean that there will be no accessibility promised land.
100% accessibility of 100% of the web and Media for 100% of all the disability groups is a pipe dream but…
We can still make things a lot better
This is why we need to lay down the megaphones we use as weapons and start thinking about a pragmatic inclusive approach to technology and accessibility. Think about what the challenges are for business and align with them to achieve far more for a wider group of people than ever before.