Accessibility Advocacy and Pragmatism

I have heard many disability awareness trainers and advocates often claim that disability surpasses race, gender, age, or socioeconomic boundaries, making it the “great equalizer.” I’m not entirely sure whether they believe their own rhetoric.

Two examples, coming within a few days of one another, brought this point home to me, making me wonder whether we’re beginning to lose sight of the larger goal behind accessibility — to make the world a better place for all disabled people:

The first was a Twitter discussion of this excellent post by @mlockrey about a new YouTube setting that allows video creators to open up the captioning process to fans. As the discussion shows, Sveta argues for a pure solution that only recognizes video creators as the “responsible” party when it comes to captioning videos — practicality be damned.

  • Forgetting that millions of videos are uploaded by YouTube participants everyday, this argument fails to take into account the creative nature of the new internet.
  • Media creators are no longer media conglomerates with hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank.
  • creators often make pennies (if anything at all), making it impossible for them to afford professional captioning services. Most creators who upload YouTube videos would clearly be covered by ADA’s undue burden exception.
  • With hundreds, if not thousands, of engaged fans participating in the creation process — it is no longer a producer/consumer relationship, having all people engaged in the caption generation process can only increase the amount of captioned content. Whether or not this experiment succeeds, if one more person can understand the need for captioned content, the entire community can claim a win.
  • Even more important, youTube should be commended for trying to find a solution to an almost unsolvable problem. it is impractical to suggest that each video uploaded to YouTube by enthusiastic fans — people who make no money from the uploaded content should be responsible for paying for captioning. If, as i suspect, youTube will be using the fan-based captioning to train the automated captioning system for future improvements, we should encourage every video creator to ensure that fans are able to edit captions. The more data we can provide to youTube’s automated system, the better it is for the future.
  • Having professionally generated captions and the fan-based systems need not be mutually exclusive. it is indeed the responsibility of large organizations — e.g., educational institutions — to have their videos professionally captioned and described. One need not take away from the other. Rather than cling to idealistic, impractical demands good accessibility practices expect that we be open to solutions other than what are ideal. This YouTube solution does, in no way, represent a compromise; it merely provides one more tool for creating captioned content.

The second example is closer to home. it straddles a very fine line between personal need for uncomplicated transportation and the idealistic demands of social-justice based advocacy:

Over the past few years, scrappy startups such as Lyft and Uber have been disrupting the transportation industry by providing a relatively inexpensive, convenient, and mostly accessible experience for all. Transportation being one of the largest barriers to successful employment among people with disabilities, the disruption of the municipal and private transportation system comes as a welcome relief. This disruption cannot be said to have benefited all people with disabilities equally; accessibility challenges have plagued these services. Lack of vehicles that can accommodate individuals using wheelchairs and the design and development of inaccessible mobile applications used by these services to hail, monitor, and pay for rides are a few instances of concerns for the disability community. While accessible mobile apps have been created and the problem remains relatively minor, one other concern for the blind community remains largely unaddressed by Uber. uber’s drivers have had a documented history of rejecting blind individuals who are accompanied by guide dogs.

As a guide dog user, my wife Sassy Outwater has been personally affected by this issue many times. As a result, she has been a vocal advocate for holding services such as Lyft and Uber to the same standard and to the same regulatory framework required by the private transportation industry. It requires that drivers be trained and be required to uphold certain standards.

A few days ago, Sassy’s ride was once again cancelled by an Uber driver after seeing that she was accompanied by a guide Dog. While it did not surprise me that certain Uber drivers still reject guide dog users, the reaction on social media from select accessibility advocates did surprise me. Arguing that Sassy should stop using Uber and boycott the service, she was attacked for continuing to use the service. The continued questions and lack of understanding, if nothing else, are disheartening to see.

Would Rosa Parks have been asked to abandon the public transportation system because she was discriminated against?

  • Despite all the problems with accessibility, Uber and Lyft remain far better solutions than the current taxi industry for accessibility. Along with having the option of calling a ride to a particular location, having an accessible payment and verification system represent a great boon.
  • Continuing to use the service, despite being rejected, allows Sassy to continue to engage both Uber and regulators.
  • Just as in the previous example, advocates maintain that only one solution should be the answer. In fact, for companies whose revenues are in the hundreds of millions of dollars range, losing a few blind people by boycott results in no large loss. That way only results in blind people being stuck with an antiquated taxi industry mired in its byzantine crud.

I realize that this post shouldn’t apply to the hundreds of people in the accessibility field, who work day in and day out,proposing solutions and implementing them, but rather to those who, through the immediacy of social media, are increasingly finding themselves at the epicenter of storms. WE find ourselves living in an age where issues upstage solutions, idealism upstages pragmatism, and volubility upstages quiet, unexaggerated practicality. it is our responsibility to advocate without succumbing to notions of a single solution to a problem.

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