an embarrasing moment

Yesterday I had an embarrasing moment with a blind person. Not one of those fumbling sitcom embarrasing moments, but something much closer to home. This particular blind person was a student at my university and upon finding that I was involved in the web, they asked for my help.

In short, this person needs to re-enrol, but they have forgotten their password. However, they can’t access the password reset because of SSL problems, can’t access the student portal because it requires javascript. Quite apart from that, they can’t access the LMS or the electronic resources search (supersearch[!]) and even the new online handbook presents an obstacle. They asked if I could fix the problems, “quickly please”… of course, I was unable to do anything.

Imagine we were part of a sporting team checking into a hotel, but our pile of baggage blocked the way of a person in a wheelchair. Would you move a bag? or would you make excuses why the bag could not be moved?… “oh, it’s too big, too heavy, too old and the handles are broken, the company says that’s where we have to put our bags”… are any of these excuses adequate? I think not.

OK, we don’t get to see the face of the people we block when we build an inaccessible website, but the people are just as real and our actions are just as rude and arrogant.

Continuing the analogy… just because people can see and people can walk, doesn’t mean our baggage isn’t an obstacle. Even quite able people are inconvenienced, having to walk around or step over obstacles.

Accessible websites are not just for disabled people. I don’t consider myself disabled, but my eyesight isn’t what it used to be and my hearing is not that great either, I get a sore wrist sometimes from too much mouse work and I have the temerity to use a mac. So, I like accessible sites because: I can enlarge the text easily, I can navigate using the keyboard, and I don’t get told I have the wrong browser. It’s good for everyone. Sure, I can step over the bags, but it makes me cranky that someone could be so rude and inconsiderate.

So, what now? I know we’re not about to chuck out our LMS, Library search tool and Student Portal, but I’m over it with excuses about why we need to implement these arcane, user hostile systems when they cause inconvenience and annoyance to so many people. In March this year, Australia was one of the first signatories to a new UN convention on human rights, which deals specifically with equal access to information and will sharpen the teeth of the Disability Discrimination Act and help focus the efforts of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. At the workshop I was attending yesterday it was noted that the organisations which were most serious about accessibility were those whose arses had been subject to the blowtorch of legal threats. Is it going to take that before we finally get the message?

Did you know that the DDA has a clause to the effect that a person who permits a breach to take place is liable. Potentially, if you fail to tell your client/manager that the method/tool being used will cause a problem, then you are personally liable. If that client/manager then continues with implementation of the inaccessible interface, they are personally liable. This clause is as yet untested, but things are warming up and it may not be long before a court is ruling on it. Are you comfortable with that?