We Forgot to Invite You – The Cruelty of Exclusion Through Thoughtlessness

A few years ago, I had a series of nightmares in which I was forgotten. One involved a group of my best friends getting together and going on my favourite radio show, and I heard the broadcast. They thought it would be a great treat for me, but I was deeply distressed that they never thought to invite me to participate in the show itself.

This is a feeling I encounter on a pretty regular basis. I get left out of the things I most want to be involved in because someone – or a whole series of someones – never thought to include me in the activity. Most usually, this is through genuine ignorance or forgetfulness, but that can feel more personally hurtful than explicit prejudice.

This is most often encountered via technology and new media. The scramble to optimise content for smart-phones has left non-visual learners and visually impaired people out of the picture from first principles. What I mean by that is that newer technological interfaces are deeply based on visual interactions. This is in contrast to traditional operating systems which are based on structured text. Text and code are much more open to non-visual representation.

I don’t have a smart-phone. I used to have an amazing mobile phone on the Symbian operating system which was one of the best accessibility aids I’ve ever used. It is irreperably broken now (it’s the motherboard that’s gone!), and I feel like I’ve been left ten years behind the rest of the world. I can no longer get a smart-phone type device without a touch-screen.

There are applications which purport to make touch-screen phones usable by the blind and visually impaired, but I can’t see the value in them. Sending a text message on a touch-screen phone would be like asking a life-long touch-typist (which I also am) to type documents using a point-and-click on-screen keyboard. Now, I know people who have written books using a foot-controlled pointer to pick out words letter-by-letter, but that was thirty years ago. For me, the sensible way to send a text is using the old numeric keypad. It’s galling to be asked to slow down my technological interactions by such a significant factor for the sake of sighted users getting to their information a wee bit quicker.

As my dear friend Felicity Ford put it, the exclusion of non-visual technology users from the smart-tech revolution is equivalent to a shiny new public building going up with flights of steps everywhere. Maybe they will put a ramp in, or maybe wheelies will have to find the servant’s entrance, ring a bell, wait for the back door to be unlocked and negotiate ten minutes of corridors and tiny lifts just to get into the public foyer. And by the time you get into the foyer, you discover that the people you wanted to meet up with have gone out to the smoking area, which is down a fire-escape. You’re left hanging out the door shouting down to your friends. Not the most inclusive feeling in the world.

I encounter both these forms of thoughtless exclusion at least once a day. The one that made me cry most recently was when I was told about a major public meeting discussing the exclusion of women in Irish theatre. I was told about the Dublin-based meeting the day before, and my first concern was that I can’t really travel across the country with less than 24 hours notice. I wouldn’t be able to arrange P.A. time to pack a bag, the train journey would be exhausting and painful, I probably couldn’t book an accessible hotel-room in Dublin less than a week in advance… it’s just not feasible unless I want to be out of commission for a week.

The promotion for this meeting and the associated campaign was largely done via Twitter. I don’t use Twitter. It’s centred around smart-phone users continuously scanning a huge volume of text to pick out relevant details. Any time I’ve encountered tweets over e-mail or other websites, I can’t make any sense of the constant abbreviations, hash-tags, usernames or links to pictures or articles. So I just don’t bother.

When I looked up the associated blog for this campaign, the first thing I discovered was that the tickets for the meeting were already sold out. However, there was a message saying they would try to set up live-streaming for the event, and that there would be tweets sent out over the course of the meeting.

The morning of the meeting, I checked my e-mail and the website to see if there was a link for streaming. There wasn’t. The website said to visit their Twitter feed for links to streaming. I tried going onto Twitter using a web browser, and was utterly overwhelmed by the volume of text, with no clear way of finding the one piece of information I was looking for. Lucky for me, I was on Skype with the wonderful Felix, and even before I asked her, she found the link to the stream.

That link brought me to yet another social media site, but it said I needed Flash to run the streaming (which I already have installed) and suggested using Chrome instead. I don’t know how to use Chrome with JAWS, so I exited Firefox and opened the link with Internet Explorer. There, the page said to try Firefox or Chrome, so I could guess where this chain was leading. It became clear from the streaming site that it was set up to run via smart-phones. The meeting had already been on for half an hour at that point, so I gave up and started to cry.

That was a morning’s work to get nowhere. Five years ago, I would have had it easier. For one thing, web accessibility was all the rage. We had the W3 accessibility guidelines, and companies like Google and Microsoft were busy building in screen-reader features to websites and applications. Then, tablets and smartphones became the huge money-spinner. The sighted world has leapt ahead in terms of communication, information access and entertainment, while non-visual learners find themselves left even further behind than we were in 2010. Assistive technology has come on in leaps and bounds since then, but all the development has had to focus on compensating for an increasingly visual world.

So I repeatedly encounter the feeling that my friends, or potential friends, are throwing these great parties. Some of these parties are upstairs with no lift access. Most of the time, they just forget to invite me.

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THE NEW (or maybe not-so-new) APARTHEID

I first met Kiwi Katie about four years ago, when I was still using my legs and she had just started using a wheelchair.  The Citizens’ Information Board was conducting research into the housing needs of people with disabilities, and this was their final focus group: one which actually included a few people with disabilities.

Katie caught my eye – or more accurately, my ear – as another articulate, young and motivated person with disabilities.  It was something of a relief not to be the only person talking in the room.

We finally got a smoke break, and Katie and I got to talking.  At some point in the conversation, she described the experience of using a wheelchair as “apartheid”.  I was shocked.  It’s a very loaded term, especially for those of us who witnessed the release of Nelson Mandela with joy.

But Katie went on: “I can’t go in the front door – I’m sent around to the servants’ entrance.  Our toilets are segregated.  I can’t use the mainstream bus service.  I can’t get onto a college campus or into an employer’s business premises.”  And I saw, to my horror, that she was right.

 

The parallels between the experiences of people with disabilities and people living in an ethnically segregated regime were deliciously demonstrated for me in an unexpected form.  “Better Off Ted” is one of those rare, witty, intelligent, satirical US sit-coms – and yes, it got cancelled after only 2 series.  The “sit” of this particular “com” is a department of a massive and sinister multinational corporation, “Veridian Dynamics”, and the characters work in research and development and product testing – from cow-free beef (“the meat-blob”) to weaponised pumpkins via glow-in-the-dark squirrels.


*** SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! ALERT! THERE’S A SPOILER COMING! ***

 

In one episode, “Racial Sensitivity”, one of our scientist buddies finds things in the lab mysteriously turning themselves off and on.  He tries to activate the motion sensors which control the lighting, then the doors, the toilets, drinking fountains, the lift… all to no avail.  The heroic Ted (his boss) goes to find out from Veronica (Ted’s boss) what’s going on.

The answer turns out to be that the company has upgraded all the systems in the building from being motion activated to being light activated; specifically, light reflected off human skin.  This means “it doesn’t see black people”, which Veronica is told by her superiors is a positive thing, since it sees Asians, Hispanics and Jews.

Rather than reverting to the old system, the company starts to install “Manual Drinking Fountains: For Black Employees Only”and the like.  Our scientist buddy at the centre of this says; “Thank God we don’t have a company bus”.

Their next attempt is to employ a bunch of minimum-waged white guys to follow every black employee around to “activate stuff” for them.  But Human Resources is concerned that this is discriminatory recruitment practice, so they’ll need to hire another black guy to follow the white guy who’s following the black employee, then the second black employee will need another white guy to follow him, and so on ad infinitum.  The case is finally made to the company bosses that they simply didn’t have the parking to employ every human being on the planet by 2012, and the old motion detectors are reinstalled.

 

The experiences of the black characters in this episode finding themselves unable to open doors, turn on the lights or use the lift are instantly recognisable to a lot of people with disabilities.  It even follows the parallel “solutions” of installing separate facilities for us, or of employing “normal” people to bridge that gap for us.  When the central character in these events (Lem) decides he’s had enough of this segregation, he says to his colleague, Phil: “I still have my dignity! Now will you please come with me so I can use the toilet!”  Sound familiar, fellow mutants?

 

This may be quite a convoluted way of making a point, but I think it’s a good exercise in context, perspective and humour.  It is valid to describe the supports and services and basic amenities available to people with disabilities as “apartheid”, and it is also valid that this is schocking.  So it should be.  I have no idea whether the writers of “Better Off Ted” had any thought in their head about disability rights issues, but they have nonetheless created a challenging, effective and funny picture of what it takes for person with disabilities to do those “simple” things that others take for granted, be it using a toilet or walking through the front door.