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.

Web Accessibility – why bother?

So you have a working computer, an internet connection and some assistive technology.  That means you can access any webpage, right?


It can be hard to explain what “web accessibility” is all about.  I thought I might furnish you with a couple of examples and a couple of general pointers. First, the examples…

Bouncers of the Internet – No blacks, No dogs, No blindies!

I’m sure you will have come across a “captcha” – that image of warpified text that claims to sort the machines from the humans.  Maybe you’ve even had a whinge about how difficult they can be to see.  If you don’t know what I’m on about, here’s an example from a Google page:

Screenshot of a visual captcha window from Google
Google Visual Captcha

I tried to understand the audio alternative about 15 times, then started to record my effort.  Bear in mind that I use JAWS, a screen-reading program that gives me audio feedback about what’s happening on my screen.  Every time you hear the word “Enter” and a slight pause, I have tried to submit my effort.  Instead of hearing the same audio again, a new audio file loads. I will give you some kind of prize if you think you can understand the words in any of the 16 captcha samples on this audio recording:

And that’s assuming the Captcha challenge even has an audio alternative, and that the button to request the audio alternative is tagged so that JAWS can detect it. These are by no means givens.

PDF – the universal format

PDF has come to be a standard way to access all kinds of texts. Sometimes, I receive a PDF attachment to an e-mail, which is supposed to carry all the information the sender wishes to communicate with me. Often, PDFs are used online for brochures and publicity – often graphics-heavy publications. They are also the standard format for academic papers and articles.

PDFs have plenty of accessibility features… if the author of the document has bothered to use them. More often, the author is concerned with how the text looks on the page, with neither thought nor care for the underlying code that orders the text. Weird things can happen to words in the most straightforward documents, with headings read as if each letter were on a separate line.

Here’s an example of how JAWS interacted with a price list for spa treatments. See if you can figure out what any of those treatments were or how much they cost…

Universal Access to All Knowledge?

The biggest kick in the teeth has to be my attempt to continue academic work. There are digital and online resources available now that I would have given selected body parts for when I was still officially a student. At the time, which is over 10 years ago now, I even attended conferences about digital humanities specifically to make known how they would be indispensible from an access point of view.

However, the effectiveness of digitisation varies wildly. The wonderful Internet Archive project, of which I’m a huge fan, still has no accessible means (i.e. keyboard-only) of uploading content. A search result has to be navigated using “G” to find graphics, rather than marking search result headers as headings. And then there’s the quality of the digitised texts themselves…

The quality of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software seems to have progressed incredibly slowly down the years. Many OCR Engines seem to imagine that long text documents use an awful lot more random punctuation than I’ve ever come across. Exclamation marks (!) often appear instead of letters I and L, and capitalisation seems a matter of taste rather than of syntax. The word “arc” is apparently more commonly used than the word “are”… I could go on. Really. I could.

The fact is, if OCR is to have ANY value, it needs to be proof-read by a human being. Even then, JAWS will pick up the odd lower-case L that has been mistaken for an upper-case I. But just scanning a book and lobbing it up on the internet does not count as “Universal Access to All Knowledge”.

I have no desire to single out the Internet Archive as an offender. As I said, I love the project. It’s what the Internet was sent from Heaven to achieve. The most recent culprit (and I find at least one a week) for bad access I’ve run into (face-first) is Academia.edu. Never mind invisible buttons and menus that can’t easily be reached. Here’s an article I tried to read this evening. Apparently, it’s about Disability Arts. Here’s what JAWS says:

And here’s a few screen shots. I use visual themes on my PC which hurt my eyes less when I need to read the screen (at least I can still do that). The size of the text at the top of the first image should give you an idea of how big it has to be before I can read it. My mum uses similar settings, although she doesn’t use screen-reading software. So this is pretty much what she’d be faced with:

NOTE: This is NOT the fault of contributers to the site. It’s down to the programmers.

First Screenshot showing a paper on Academia.edu

Second Screen shot from a paper on Academia.edu

Third Screen shot from a paper on Academia.edu

Fourth Screen shot from a paper on Academia.edu

Fifth Screen shot from a paper on Academia.edu

That’s all I have the energy for right now. This is a big topic, and it affects me every single day of my life. No doubt, I’ll need to rant on it again soon…