Web Accessibility, Personal vs Corporate Responsibility, & Avoiding Anti-Black Activism
Web accessibility is imperative in our modern society. However, in trying to make a more inclusive internet, we can fall into the trap of creating new issues for other marginalized communities if we place the burden primarily on individuals instead of the tech corporations who can-and should- be doing so much more.
Courtney: Hello everyone, and welcome back to the podcast. My name is Courtney, and I am a Disabled woman. I’m here with my spouse, Royce, who is a web developer who has a special emphasis on accessibility.
Courtney: Now, I specify this because these two experiences are going to play a huge role in what we are discussing today. And that is: Accessibility.
We have spoken a bit about disability in the past, specifically as it pertains to disability discrimination in the Asexual community, as well as the broader LGBT community. And if you haven’t listened to those yet, I definitely recommend bookmarking those for later, because that’s just going to further deepen your understanding of some of these underlying issues. But the theme for today is going to be on a much wider scale than just our community, because we are going to tackle some very, very, big topics that apply to all communities.
Courtney: And that is going to be starting with Web Accessibility. If you are listening to this podcast then you are no doubt an Internet user. We all live and exist on the internet, so web accessibility is something that, I think, every one of us should have at least a little bit of understanding about. And there is always room to continue learning in this regard, but we want to take the concept of web accessibility even further and we want to discuss personal responsibility vs. corporate (or company) responsibility.
Courtney: This can seem like a very fine line to walk and it’s something that we really need to discuss. I don’t see enough people in accessibility activism discussing this particular component of responsibility, but it is vital to address, because if we place too much of an emphasis on personal responsibility and tell every single person that they are obligated to do absolutely everything in their power, 100% of the time, to be as accessible and as inclusive as possible… we are going to begin to throw up barriers to personal expression and content creation. And any time barriers are put in place, it is always, always going to be the most marginalized members of our society who are boxed out of the conversation first.
Courtney: And that is gonna bring us to the third overarching theme of today, which is going to be avoiding further discrimination, including anti-blackness, in accessibility activism. These are all topics that are very important to us in our work and, as I said, it is important for all communities to keep these things in mind.
Courtney: But the reason why we are talking about it today, now, at this point in time is because, unfortunately, conversation around accessibility activism have led to a bit of tension and a divide within our Asexuality community online as of late.
Courtney: We have no intention of flaming anyone, naming names, it’s not a single individual, this is really a systemic issue. And a lot of people don’t know how to navigate it, nobody wants to be ableist, nobody wants to be racist, but how do we advocate for these different marginalized groups in a way that is not throwing one another under the bus and causing further harm?
Courtney: So, let’s get into it, shall we? So let’s start with general web accessibility. Royce this is definitely your area of expertise even more so than it is mine, where do you think we should start with this subject?
Royce: That’s a good question, because methods of making things more accessible are as wide range and varied as disabilities are. I think a lot of the discourse that we have experienced lately has been on Twitter, and Twitter being a very large platform I think we can start there. And because of that, most of the conversation is going to revolve around things like screen readers, and alt text, and other things like that.
Royce: But keep in mind that there are a wide variety of other things to consider when thinking about accessibility which could include making things accessible for people with low vision, or some sort of vision impairment, like color blindness, instead of no-vision or blindness. There are also things like, people who are sensitive to motion, whether that’s from a sort of seizure response to certain light and signals or just general distractibility in terms of something like ADHD, taking away from important content, making it harder to focus.
Courtney: Things that require an overabundance of executive dysfunction. [sic]
Royce: Right, there are also reading disorders like dyslexia or various cognitive impairments or differences in education where sometimes making something more accessible means writing your content in a way that can be more easily understood.
Courtney: Which is something I really do want to emphasize, there is no such thing as “universal” [laughs] inclusivity, when it comes to accessibility because there are some instances where people might have competing access needs.
Royce: Right, there are people with low vision who might need high contrast material in front of them, and then there are people who have contrast sensitivities where too high a contrast material could hurt their eyes.
Courtney: Absolutely, so I do think it is good for people to continue learning, but when we are talking about individuals, you, who is perhaps a casual Twitter user, it is good to learn about more disabilities and accessibility and it is good to try your very best but it is vitally important to remember that there is no such thing as a 100%, and all we can do is continually strive to do better. So I do think this is important context for our listeners as well, but Royce you are colorblind.
Royce: Yes I have Deuteranomaly, I don’t know if that’s how it’s pronounced, but it is the most common form of red-green colorblindness. If, I believe 8 to 10 percent of all men are– have some form of colorblindness, and I believe somewhere around 6 to 8 percent have the kind that I have, so it’s the majority of colorblind people, and I almost always see it misunderstood, over-exaggerated, under-exaggerated, just never quite spoken about correctly when discussed.
Courtney: I think the same could be said for all manner of disabilities and access needs. I see a lot of people who are very well intentioned – do not get me wrong, they are trying to do better and they are trying to help others to do better, but there’s so many experiences that are so buried, and especially in recent conversations online in our community specifically revolving around things like screen reader usage, it seems abundantly clear that a lot of people engaging in these conversations don’t really have a basic understanding of the topics they’re trying to be better about.
Royce: They have never turned on the screen reader themselves.
Courtney: They have never turned on the screen reader themselves. I’m not saying that every single person needs to experience using the screen reader…
Royce: But if you’re going to make suggestions, it definitely helps.
Courtney: It does help but the– this– This is why it’s something to be said for – you know – following and learning from a diversity of people if you… don’t really know what the day-to-day life of, for example, a Blind person is like, follow some Blind people online, follow people who have visual impairments, it is always a good thing to learn about other experiences and diversify your understanding.
Royce: And to speak to diversity a little bit here, I am going to be referring to people who use screen readers as screen reader users and not Blind people, because while most users of screen readers are Blind, there are a variety of other disabilities that could cause someone to use a screen reader, such as other forms of low vision that aren’t complete blindness, cognitive deficiencies, like motor skills sort of disabilities, and a variety of other things.
Courtney: Absolutely. So, there absolutely are a few little adjustments that everyday Internet users can make that will lead to their content being more wildly accessible. One of the easiest simplest thing is to get into the habit of thinking about Alt Text because any time you posted a photo online, or for that matter a gif, there are gonna be a certain percentage of screen reader users who will have no idea what you just posted, unless you go out of your way to type in an alt text description for people who use those devices.
Courtney: And that can especially be an issue if, for example, you’re posting an info graphic that actually has words and statistics or important information in general. There are people who might be losing out on that context. Luckily, for alt text it doesn’t usually take a lot of extra time, it does take time to get into the habit of doing this every time you post a picture if you aren’t used to it because, if you are on Twitter or Instagram, you do have to click the button that allows to add alt text, you have to type in your description.
Courtney: But once you are into the habit of doing that, it can be really quite speedy and just a part of your social media posting routine. And that is a little thing that we, as individuals, can do to make the broader Internet a little more accessible.
Courtney: For Twitter users in particular, I can even recommend going onto Twitter and search for “alt text reminder”. There is a bot account that will actually send you a message if you posted a picture without alt text, to just sort of give you that little reminder, and if you ever do forget to actually add that alt text, you can always comment your image description as a backup plan.
Courtney: But gifs… Gifs are an interesting one, because you can also alt text the gifs, in the same way you do photos, because gifs just become so ubiquitous to online conversations, there are entire tweets that are just a reaction, or just a single sentence on a gif and no additional text put in by the users. So there are whole conversations that can happen that are primarily in gif format, so it’s a very, very important part of just online culture in general, right now.
So if there isn’t any sort of alt text on those gifs there is a huge component of online conversation that not everyone is going to be able to access.
Courtney: But this might be a good point to start introducing the concept of personal vs. business responsibility. Because the way I see it, when you go onto Twitter and you want to respond to someone with a gif, you click the gif box and they have some examples for you. Some example subjects you can search for the reaction for the mood, what-have-you, you have to respond to, and there is already a database in place. Twitter in particular does pull from Giphy there are already gifs there, it is not as tough every individual Twitter user is making their own gif every time they are posting one, and so that has me thinking: why don’t these gifs already have alt text if there’s already a database of them?
Royce: Right, in terms of effort, impact and chance of omission, common content like that should be made accessible at the source, because you can’t rely on every individual doing that themselves, and even if you could, it is much more efficient for everyone’s time to have one person write that correctly, and then have everyone else be able to pull from that, without having to redo that work.
Courtney: Yeah, absolutely, because then you also start getting into varying degrees of literacy, there is a high percentage of adults who are illiterate than maybe you realize, and that is not an insult, it is not a bad thing, but in order to create a good alt text description there needs to be a certain level of literacy including grammar and when it comes to gifs as well. Gifs can be memes in their own right, they can mean things that only internet users in certain social circles will understand… so there could also be a lot of context that is being lost if it’s removed from its original context.
Royce: And in terms of responsibility it is clear that putting all the responsibility on the end user, on the person sharing these gifs isn’t realistic, it is unsustainable. But when it comes to corporate responsibility or platform responsibility, it’s somewhat shared, because, in this case Giphy I believe does have the ability to have metadata like alt text tied to the gifs that are uploaded to its site, but it’s probably not strictly enforced or moderated, and I don’t know that all the various systems that tie into Giphy and actually use their images… I don’t know that information is carried through or not.
Courtney: Right, so someone puts alt text on Giphy, but someone of Twitter shares that gif, we don’t know if Twitter is also carrying over the alt text.
Royce: Particularly if they tried to override it, if they tried adding their own alt text.
Courtney: Right, exactly. So, those are all things that make this more complicated when you take a step back and try to look at the big picture, because enforcement as well is a big part of it. Because right now I would be surprised if everyone listening to this even knows about alt text, there are a lot of people who do not know what alt text is or how to add it on their own content, but how much better would it be if that was just part of the posting process. You upload a photo and it asks for your alt text.
Royce: Which now that you mention it we should probably pause for a second. The reason why it’s called alt text is because it was originally meant to be an alternative to the image if it failed to load in the first place, today it is used as an accessibility measure, but when writing alt text you could think: “If this image wasn’t here, or if I was describing this to someone across the room who could not see it, how would I describe it to them?”
Courtney: That is a good way to think about it, because I have absolutely heard people say “Okay, I know I should be using alt text on my photos, but I don’t know what to write, what is important what should I say how descriptive should it be?” And it all kind of depends. If it’s an info-graphic and the point is the words, and the numbers, and the statistics, then emphasize that. If it’s a selfie of yourself, then what do you want to emphasize? It is literally you! You don’t always need to get so incredibly lush and descriptive with every single color shape and pattern, you know, maybe unless it’s actually an abstract piece of art or the artwork is the point.
Courtney: So there’s really no just one way to do alt text, but I mean, while we are on gifs and you know, Giphy, alt text doesn’t transfer over to things. How much more accessible would memes be if there was a way to carry over alt text on memes? ’Cause memes take on a whole life on their own too, even if you have the alt text you might still not know exactly what the joke is… or the purpose is. Because some of them get very, very meta and a lot of them are very visually focused.
Courtney: So,do there need to be things better in place for alt text? Absolutely. I think there should be a prompt every time you add a new photo a new piece of media; I think it should be more common knowledge in that sense just part of the posting process. But with Internet culture, so many things being shared around and extrapolated on, there are absolutely things that the platforms themselves can do a better job of.
Courtney: But with alt text being a big component of accessibility for blind of visually impaired folks, let’s talk about accessibility needs of Deaf or Hard Of Hearing people. Because as much as I really really hate to say it, some aspects of that can be even more difficult than the alt text solutions. And I’ll give you an example form us.
Courtney: Here with our podcast, being very tuned into access needs, when we started our podcast we wanted to do everything right. I especially did not want our content to not be inclusive of as many people as we possibly could and for something auditory, like a podcast, a big big important access need is something like a transcript. And while we are working on transcriptions, and as of the time of recording this we have probably 4 episodes that already are completed, and have transcripts published on our website, it is taking more time than the actual podcast itself and it is because it can be a very lengthy time consuming process. I hate that it is that way, but that is the fact of the matter. And therein lays a big concern about personal vs. corporate responsibility, so let’s talk a bit about that now!
Royce: But before we do that, let’s talk a little bit about how this podcast is made. What goes into it and what sort of time constraints we are talking about, cause I think that could help provide more context. We are generally able to sit down and record an episode without a ton of prep, sometimes we do have some research beforehand but it isn’t extensive
Courtney: Well yeah, cause these are subjects that we have been interested in and often discussing for as long as we’ve been married in some cases.
Royce: And that is kind of the point. We wouldn’t be able to do this with the same frequency or consistency if this was any harder to do than it already is. Because we have lives outside of this podcast, we don’t get paid to do this, and there is a certain amount of time that goes into it.
Courtney: We have got 9$ on Ko-fi
Royce: Yes, which with that dreaded coffee inflation is… what? Maybe, maybe two cups?
Courtney: [laughs] Depends on how fancy the coffee is. I know that 9$ will not quite get me– will not get me my vegan garbage fruit latte boba tea, which is my favorite drink right now. It is honeydew, and vegan milk, and tea, and bobbles, and it is life changing. It is 9.50$ so that is a ’some times’ treat.
Royce: So, our process! First of all we self host everything. Part of that is because I like to have projects and it’s something different than my work, but our website is self-hosted, the podcast episodes are self-hosted. And this, one, gives us full control of everything so we are not on a platform that may or may not have accessible features, it also rids us of any monthly membership fees and infrastructure costs, these sort of things, and because this is essentially a volunteer project we wanted to keep these costs low.
Royce: But after we finish recording, our average episode is about an hour in length, that’s probably a hour and half of recorded audio, that needs to be cut down. I do the editing, it usually takes some multiple of the time of the actual podcast. I’ve been getting quicker at it but it’s still probably two to three times the length of the podcast.
Royce: So let’s say we sit down and record for an hour, I edit for three hours we have a one hour long project. Within that episode, it needs to be saved out into the appropriate audio files, put in the right place, the website needs to be updated, the YouTube video needs to be rendered, and that is our production process. Now to add a transcript on top of that, the easiest place for us to start is to take the YouTube auto generated subtitles from the YouTube video. But YouTube automated subtitles is a single hour long sentence with no capitals, no punctuation, and the occasional spelling errors. And it’s a lot; it’s a lot to edit that.
Courtney: It’s a LOT [extended word]. It’s so much. Well, and also, I should say, because not every podcast cross-posts their episodes to YouTube, and we don’t even do the thing that some podcasts do where you are seeing our faces and seeing the two of us sitting at the table talking, it’s just the audio. But the reason why, the primary reason, we decided to do that in the first place, was that we knew that between the two of us, it was not going to be possible for us to get immediate transcripts out right when the episodes dropped, it was just not going to be in the cards for us, even though we are Aces. [laughs]
Courtney: So, we decided that this is not ideal because it’s gonna mess up some words, its not going to be a perfect transcript, but at least if we put it up on YouTube we would have those auto generated subtitles and that is something… that’s a little bit better than nothing and that was sort of our compromise for getting started. But I was horrified a few weeks after starting our episodes, when a kindly Twitter user informed me that our latest episode had Russian subtitles... [exasperated] Why did they have Russian subtitles??
Royce: Yeah I have no idea how that happened, and the thing is YouTube doesn’t have the ability for you to say “Hey, generate me English subtitles. Hey, generate me- generate me a transcript in this language.” Google can do that, Google has tools that are hidden in a not very easy user interface, but they have them. Obviously, Google owns YouTube, so they have this technology they could easily work into their interface and provide YouTube creators with better transcription tools but they haven’t.
Courtney: … but they don’t...
Royce: But what I ended up doing was using Google cloud speech-to-text thing, product, service… the thing that I was just mentioning, which is more robust than what YouTube is, has more options, it produces a slightly different output. What came out of the Google cloud transcription service was different than what we get out of every YouTube video.
Royce: But neither of them are easy to use. Neither of them are very approachable and they still require a lot of manual work.
Courtney: So the takeaway from that is: tech companies just do better. Just… just, just do better! Because truthfully, when it comes to transcripts, I know there are activists out there who say “…you, if you’re putting out content, you are obligated to put out subtitles, to put out transcripts.” And I get why they say that, because access is important, but it does sort of diminish the actual work that does need to be put into this, that could be lessened tremendously if the tech companies cared about accessibility in the same way that some of these individuals do.
Royce: There’s also just something to adding a barrier of entry. You have chronic joint problems, you can’t sit and type all day, that’s one reason why you’re recording audio instead of writing articles.
Courtney: Well, and because with my professional work at the time, a big component of that is actually doing very intricate artwork and restoring very delicate antiques and that requires a lot of finger dexterity, which I cannot do every day because some times my joins are so inflamed and I just cant do it. So if I have a good day where my hand and fingers are doing okay, it needs to go to that work, because that is my business, that is my profession. If I do sit and type for an entire day, I am almost certain to not be able to actually do my work the next day, which is a shame.
Courtney: But I also, on a more, psychological level, I can’t listen to the sound of my own voice, I bristle when I hear myself talk. I mean, it’s- It’s ridiculous. If I’m in the same room and Royce just accidentally, like, hits the play button on one our podcast and I hear myself talking, I just go “Auugh shut it off! Turn it off fast!” and yeah, it really aggravates other things that I have, such as OCD which also feeds into my Dermatillomania where, if my OCD is really set on edge, I will just scratch all of my skin off until I am one giant scab. And so things like that… It is just not going to happen for me personally to sit and transcribe our own podcast.
Courtney: The time on the other end, you know, Royce is doing the editing, Royce has built the website and Royce also works. Royce’s not self-employed, like I am, which is good because that’s how we get our insurance and more consistent money, so for anyone to say “Oh, it wont’ take that long to transcribe” or “You have to transcribe if you’re going to do this!” One, it’s not true that it doesn’t take that long, it is not true; and it can be dismissive of other things at play that are preventing people from doing that.
Royce: Both in terms of disability and economic status.
Courtney: Yes, absolutely, because the people who are going to have just hours and hours and hours to dedicate to a passion project are the ones who don’t need to be working during those hours for a paycheck and that is just a fact of the matter.
Courtney: So that’s what we mean when we say more barriers are going to shut out the more marginalized members before anyone else. Because you’re going to get other people with disabilities who might throw in the towel, and say “Well, people are telling me if I can’t make this more accessible I shouldn’t do it at all, so I guess I’m not going to do it at all.” That’s also going to affect poor people, and just other marginalized demographics in general.
Courtney: So that’s something that I think we really, really need to keep in mind when we’re doing our activism, because in the online conversation the disability activism is overwhelmingly focused on the individual. “You need to do alt text, you need to transcribe this, you shouldn’t be putting out this content if it’s not accessible.” Which therefore means if you aren’t subtitling your videos manually that means you’re ableist. Which also dismisses a bit of the fact that some people just don’t know how to do any of this.
Courtney: Or even that alt text exists. I wish our education system taught more people about a wider variety of experiences, because I don’t like that this is how it is, but that’s– again, something is easier addressed if we look at the system and not put the onus on every single individual to, not only know all of this, but have the capability and desire to do all of this.
Royce: And let’s talk through how the system works.
Courtney: Yeah so, the system. Let’s talk through this in the form of an example. So lets say we are on Twitter and the conversation is emojis. Emojis for better of worse, whether you like it or not, are a part of culture, it is online culture, it is an extension of language, and I don’t think people have really internalized that yet…? ’Cause emojis are still new in the grand scheme of history...
Royce: Most of us can remember a pre-emoji world.
Courtney: Emoticons, yes! We were there for the emoticons!
Royce: Many of us can remember a pre-emoticon world.
Courtney: A pre-emoticon world! Ah, there goes Royce making us sound old on the Internet again, [ironically] thanks Royce.
Royce: By most of us I was trying to refer to the median human alive today.
Courtney: The average human is older than emojis, yeah.
And I think just in general, people look down on things on the Internet. People kind of still think of the Internet as this very, like, not real? Theoretical? Place?
Royce: As a broader comment, I think people tend to look down on anything that is new that they aren’t directly involved in.
Courtney: Also that, cause anyone who is like “Oh, emojis are silly and frivolous.” Anyone who is really condescending about them, probably doesn’t really get them, and if that’s the case, if you’re one of those people then I wanna say: a. they are probably not for you, and that’s fine; and b. why are you looking down on something just cause you think it’s silly? Like, being silly it’s great! I love being silly! Like, let people have silliness! But they have really become a language on their own; it’s a new means of communications that is evolving before our eyes.
Royce: It is and to some degree it’s filling in the gap that was created when we went form speaking to each other in person and having vocal cues and body language cues, and going to pure text and being able to add something back into the text that is more than that.
Courtney: Yeah! It’s inserting non-verbal communication into text-based language. So it’s also- if someone is using an emoji that is a form of personal expression. And I want to preempt this conversation with that fact, because no matter how your own personal emoji usage works, it is still important. It doesn’t have to be to you, but to the Internet and society on the whole it is.
Courtney: So a very sort of recent trend, that if any of you are on Twitter you’d certainly remember, there was a week where every single tweet on the timeline was just a wall of red flags [laughs] just, just a wall of red flags.
Courtney: And that became a meme itself. The red flags were not just red flags anymore; it was a new visual cue to convey a tone of an otherwise short one off statement. But, as was rightly pointed out by a lot of people at the time, that is hell for screen reader users! Because the screen reader is going to read each and every one of those emojis as, maybe, not even what was originally intended.
Courtney: I have seen examples said “It doesn’t even say red flag on my screen reader, it just says triangle flag!” So, then you have a wall of fifty of them, so the screen reader says triangle flag, triangle flag, triangle flag, triangle flag, and yeah. That is horribly annoying! And that, that makes those tweets not accessible to those screen reader users.
Courtney: So there were some people that were trying to say “No, instead of making a wall of red flags just use one of them” or “Instead of using a ton of emojis, add a big picture of a red flag and use an alt text to convey that this is a red flag”. Those are all fine examples, fine suggestions, but by the time a meme takes off and a new mode of communication is popular and trending…? The meme is gonna keep soaring, more and more people are going to keep doing it, and very, very minuscule percentage of people are going to both learn that it’s not accessible and care enough to change the way they’re using those emojis.
Courtney: And the reason I think this is, it’s not just because we’re talking about emojis, it’s because you’re trying to change culture. [laughs] You’re rebelling against the fast-paced nature of the Internet that relies heavily on memes, and sort of shared inside jokes, to continue a conversation with a certain tone.
Courtney: And if you’re trying to change culture, good luck! [laughs] that’s a huge undertaking. And while fighting for more accessibility is, at its core, a noble goal, if part of that activisms involves really, literally, trying to change culture, you must thread very lightly and you must first understand that culture before you can change it. Probably also helps if you’re a part of that culture yourself, just as a general rule, emojis or not. Because when you’re changing culture, what cultures are going to be the biggest targets? It’s going to be the marginalized cultures.
Courtney: One example of this is the clapping hands emojis. I’m not talking about using just one clap [claps hands], I’m not talking about trying to convey applause by using maybe [claps three times] three claps in a row. I’m talking about the tweets – I’m sure you’ve probably seen them – that uses the clapping emoji in between every word.
Courtney: This may be news to some of you who are listening if you are not Black or in some other ways attuned to Black culture, but that comes from Black Twitter. That is more than just a single emoji, in fact it was created by and for Black Women and it was essentially an online extension of a dialect. It has been used to convey a very specific tone and speech pattern and method of using claps to supplement and emphasize your point, that has very specific ties to AAVE, African American Vernacular English.
Courtney: Due to the nature of the Internet, and the fact that memes get shared far and wide, they sometimes do get removed from their original context, there are a lot of white people out there who have started to use it also. It has watered down the meaning, it is in its own right a form of cultural appropriation when you are using it without knowing the context, being a part of that culture, etcetera, etcetera.
Courtney: But now lets say we have a white accessibility activist who is rallying hard against the clapping emoji and saying “You cannot speak this way, because it is not accessible on screen readers, it is annoying to hear, it’s hard to understand on screen readers!” While the point was to try to make things more accessible, you are now tone policing. You are dictating how someone else speaks and self-expresses, and often times it is a white person doing this to Black people, or at least to a broader trend that was developed in Black culture.
Courtney: So perhaps you can start to see the problem with that now.
Courtney: And that is why our last overarching, theme is avoiding anti-blackness in accessibility activism, because activism even if it began with good intentions, can quickly turn anti-black twofold, at least, there may be other examples I’m not even thinking of at this moment.
Courtney: But there is the policing of the language that is cultural and does have a racial component, but then there’s also placing the burden on individuals. If you’re saying “It is your job to make all of your tweets and all of your emojis accessible,” and it is every single person on this planet job to do that, then that opens the floodgates for people to use that as a means to target – sometimes going too far to even harass – other people to change their own internet usage.
Courtney: And any time you put something on an individual, any time you put things on the individuals, it’s the most marginalized people who are going to suffer. Because, who is actually going to get the most targeted harassment online? In this or any other situation. I’d say Black women, Trans women, Black Trans women. It’s going to be those people who are going to get targets and harassed and tone policed to death before it’s the white men.
Courtney: So when we talk about racism in activism and in our small communities, it is not always something as overt as hurling slurs. It is not usually something that is super easy and obvious to see to the average, casual, participant in these conversations. It’s the deeper systemic issues that have brought us to this point.
Courtney: So what do we do about that? I’d argue that these issues, while important, are far too big for the individuals to have the onus on us as internet users. I’d argue that the responsibility should be shifted to the corporations and the tech companies.
Royce: So yeah, that’s basically what I want to try walking through here now. How do you actually affect positive change? How do you actually make things more accessible? And how do you do that without just converting one form of ignorant bigotry into another form of ignorant bigotry?
Royce: And to talk through that you need to understand a little bit about how this all works: how does something go from one person’s keyboard to another person’s speaker being read aloud by a screen reader?
Royce: And I think there are four levels of play here.
There’s the user, the content creator, there’s the person actually typing out that tweet, the person expressing themself. They have a certain control of what they are doing. They are doing the words, they are choosing the images, they are potentially adding alt text and all that. But a user is very limited in how much they can affect, how far reaching their actions go. One user providing alt text under images in a sea of, I don’t know… what does Twitter have… 30-some million active users? Is very small. It’s very little impact. And that requires a level of expertise that most people are just never going to have.
Royce: Now, that user is creating content on a platform. Right now we are talking about Twitter, but Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, every app you ever open, is potentially a platform for content that people are adding to. The same goes for all of them.
Royce: Underneath the platforms are the systems that are at play. Twitter can be seen through a browser or an app. The story is kind of the same either way, the browsers or the operating systems sort of play middle man to sort of take what platforms like Twitter create, and provide an accessibility layer that screen readers can read aloud.
Royce: And the fourth and last level in this system is the screen readers themselves, now there are multiple kinds of screen readers. They interpret things differently and they are often paired with different systems. They are paired with different devices. If you’re using an Android phone you’re probably using TalkBack, if you’re on iOS phone or a Mac is VoiceOver, on Windows it could be JAWS or NVDA or something else entirely. And all these screen readers work differently.
Royce: So how– whose responsibility is it at the end of the day? Who could affect the most change? And it sort of ends up being split between the companies that own and produce screen readers, some of which are their own company, some of which are the enormous companies we are all aware of – like Google, Apple, and Microsoft – and the platforms themselves.
Royce: So in the instance of the tweets where the clap emoji is essentially used as a more explicit, prominent, form of punctuation, as a word separator, Twitter can do a better job of creating that tweet.
Royce: Now, Twitter is already preprocessing everyone’s tweets, they are actually taking the emoji that you typed in on the keyboard and converting it to an image and specifically changing the markup. Mostly for a sort of brand identity thing, so that everyone’s emojis look the same. During that process, they could be making every tweet that has ever been posted and will ever be posted in the future more accessible, if they just made their markup more accessible.
Courtney: And they have the ability to do that.
Royce: And they have the ability to do that! On the other side of things, screen readers could read emojis better. Again it varies, every screen reader is a little bit different, but some of them use the technical name for the emojis, some of them may read the clapping hands emojis as “clapping hands emojis” and not what a sighted user would read that tweet aloud to be.
Royce: So in some cases there are situations where the screen readers themselves don’t understand the dialect that is being spoken and need to be updated to keep up with the language.
Courtney: Exactly! The heart of the matter is we need to treat emojis as the extension of language that they are, and not just a silly little picture, because I wouldn’t even trust a white developer to look at the clapping hands emoji and know the best way to convert that to a screen reader.
Courtney: I would want them to consult Black folks. I would like them to work together and say: “What is the meaning, what is the cultural importance here, what is being conveyed visually? And how do we take that same feeling, vibe, style, and convert it to a screen reader?” And you need to hire diverse people to be able to do that also, these companies do.
Royce: Right. And companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, all the multibillion-dollar software companies, they have the budget to do this, they have the budget to hire and consult people of a variety of different backgrounds and expertise.
Courtney: Of course they do!
Royce: …they just don’t have the social pressure to actually do it.
Courtney: Of course they don’t! Because right now the social pressure is on the individuals
Royce: But that’s sort of the point of the cost per value explanation here. Is… an individual person can take a lot of their own time to learn, and can try to change something, but again you are one person in a sea of millions – if not billions – posting online.
Royce: Whereas, if Twitter fixed their markup for their tweets? Every tweet on the entire platform historically, and in the future, would be fixed. That is an exceptionally more profound change than an individual changing their own behavior, and it allows culture to remain the same. It actually expressed that culture better to more people.
Royce: Same thing with the screen readers developers implementing better features to help handle these situations. That is all digital text, period. Everywhere. Being interpreted in a more human friendly manner. And the same thing goes with the red flag emoji thing, the wall of red flags. Because telling users: “Hey, you need to create an image of a bunch of red flags and post that in alt text”, those are additional steps and that’s creating a barrier of entry, both of in terms of individuals technical literacy, to know how to do that, there is accessibility literacy to know the meaning behind that, and their time.
Courtney: Yeah all of those.
Royce: … whereas a simple look-ahead feature either in Twitter, who was already preprocessing your tweets, or in screen readers, to identify there are fifty red flags in a row and read that as “fifty red flags” instead of “triangle flag, triangle flag, triangle flag…” is a much better solution.
Courtney: Yeah! And, I think if people know that these are possible, maybe we can start to shift the narrative to trying to put pressure on these companies to do better. Because I mean, before I met and married you I knew NOTHING about the Internet, software… I was not very tech savvy. I’m still not, compared to you, compared to a lot of other people, but I am learning, and I know what can be done now. Because if you don’t know the basics, which I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t, you aren’t going to know if it’s possible or not.
Courtney: In fact, during recent conversations online I would see people kind of… just speculating about how screen readers do work, and it seemed that some of these people thought that it was literally reading the screen…? Like, if there was a word on the screen it was just going to read it off in the exactly the same way we were seeing, except for the emojis which was just going to be the name of the emoji…
Courtney: … is not quite right.
Royce: Which, sort of…? One of these tweets was claiming that screen readers are a lot more simple that they actually are, and that’s not true. And if you don’t believe me, NVDA is one of the biggest screen readers on Windows and it is open source so you can go over to GitHub and look at their source code. And I did that, out of curiosity, before we recorded this. And the entire project is around a hundred thousands lines of code. It’s quite a bit, it’s quite a bit of… it’s quite a large project.
Courtney: It’s big!
Royce: …most of that is in Python, a little bit of it is in C and C++, and that’s not including dependences and add-ons and other things like that. But what it does is basically hook into all of these accessibility layers that are provided by things like web browsers or operating systems, and it pulls text out of that and then it finds a way to translate that text in a way that is meaningful for a speech synthesizer. And that does mean looking at existing dictionaries, mapping known symbols to texts, whether that is things like an asterisk or an exclamation point–
Royce: … or an emoji. There is also special handling for things like acronyms, so screen readers have language dictionaries of all the languages that they support and they’re trying to turn that text into spoken language in the most reasonable way that they can.
Courtney: So there’s already a lot going on, and there could be more that’s going on [laughs]
Courtney: And yeah I mean to use again the red flag emoji, there’re things that are going to change… and evolve.. and it’s going to have to happen even faster because that is the way Internet communication is going. It evolves rapidly.
Courtney: So no doubt, even if fixes are made… even if the companies do crack down and do better about these things, then of course there are gonna be some things that might pop up and surprise them “Oh, I didn’t expect people to start using words and images and emojis in this way! But now everyone’s doing it.” There’s going to need to be some level of monitoring and understanding the culture to be able to react to those things.
Courtney: And companies, such as Twitter, have the ability to do that. I mean, when something is trending, for long enough they will write a little blurb about what… why that thing is trending, so they have someone who is monitoring that situation in order to write that blurb.
Courtney: In fact, I... and people were saying this for a year, half as a joke half not, but- [sighs] Betty White died recently, rest her soul… oh our queen Betty White... But before she died, she was obviously quite elderly and everyone was horribly afraid of the day when Betty White died. So occasionally, when Betty White would be trending, everyone on Twitter would collectively have a heart attack because they thought she died and then everyone would be tweeting “Hey Twitter, you have to give us a warning when Betty White is trending, you have to tell us that she’s okay or else we’re gonna panic.”
Courtney: And I actually did see Twitter do that at one point! And the funny thing is, I don’t know they were doing this longer than that or not, but it was only like a month before she actually died, I saw that she was trending and Twitter had a little flag that was like “Don’t worry Betty White is okay! People are jut celebrating her!”
Courtney: So Twitter has people that are watching and understanding what’s happening on Twitter. So they just need more of those people, diverse people, Disabled people, and they need to keep Disabled people in mind as well, in order to… keep up with the evolving nature of online communication.
Royce: Speaking of recent relevant cultural phenomena. Everyone at Wordle and tell them to change their Twitter post link to actually share an image instead of the series of emoji that–
Courtney: YES [extended word]... Wordle… that’s a big one right now.
Royce: But the emoji blocks that show what your guesses were, are a bunch of noise to screen readers. If that share feature was instead an image post with a little bit autogenerated alt text, that’s an instant accessibility improvement for everyone that is using that site, which apparently right now is everyone.
Courtney: Well and that’s the thing too, I mean right now my Twitter timeline it’s just filled with those little blocks. And since I also follow a lot of Disabled people, a lot of accessibility activists, I’m also seeing just like for every five Wordle emoji blocks I see there’s one person who’s like “Hey guys, please don’t share your Wordle like that cause screen readers can’t understand it.” And you’ll see five more Wordle blocks and then there’ll be someone saying “Hey, maybe instead of sharing your blocks, just share the words and just tell us what..” [laughs] like “I had a yellow square on the first and fifth” and then you’ll see ten more Wordle blocks… [laughs]
Courtney: And so that just… shows how you can try to change individual people’s behaviors, but the Internet is gonna keep going and it’s going to keep growing when something catches on, it’s like a wildfire, it’s like one person to put out a wildfire of culture.
Royce: Right. And in terms of impact, if all of this energy trying to tweet at, or dm other Twitter users, was just spent trying to contact the developer of Wordle, changing how that posts is not that big of a deal.
Courtney: And Wordle even has a colorblind function, so the developer of Wordle had some level of accessibility in mind. Maybe they are already working on it, I don’t know. I don’t know Wordle, I assume that’s Mr. Wordle. I don’t know Mr. Wordle. Maybe Ms. Wordle. Mx. World. [laughs] “Mx World” is fun to say, we’ll go with that one.
Courtney: But yeah, so… and a lot of time and energy goes into activism too, so this is not to say – you know – activists are bad when they are trying to do things on a smaller scale, because that’s not the case, as long as they aren’t harassing people, as long as they aren’t doing other racial and cultural harm, you know in the wake of their disability activism…
Courtney: It’s just that I know how finite time and energy can be, and if instead of trying to keep this as personal project to change individuals if we could come together and work together and organize and go after the source…? It would be still a very large undertaking, but the result would be far more impactful and wide reaching.
Courtney: And this is important to keep in mind too, as just, intersectionality in all areas of activism. I know with MY work, disability and asexuality has been a very strong emphasis, because I am both of those things and I have seen how those two communities are often at war with one another
Courtney: And I think almost any one Disabled Ace who has participated in these communities can attest to the fact that the disability community is often heavily desexualized, they are often rallying to say “We are sexual people, we do have sex.”
And the Asexual community is so often medicalized and told “This isn’t a real orientation, there’s just something wrong with you.” And they treat the orientation as if it is some sort of disability that… a lot of Asexual people aren’t too keen to learn about the Disabled experience, they’d rather distance themselves form it and say “We are not Disabled, we don’t want people to get this impression cause they already have it.”
Courtney: And while it’s fine if those are your only two marginalized identities, if you’re going to commit to activism and trying to change this world for good, it’s important to learn about other experiences and other intersections, because those aren’t the only two things that can complicated one another.
Courtney: And it’s super important to learn how to help another group of people, and educate others about a group of people, without throwing another marginalized identity under the bus. Which I often fear has been the case with accessibility activism going way too far in the wrong direction and becoming racist, because just like I said earlier on, any time you put the burden on the individuals for any social issue, it will always be the most marginalized people who are thrown under the bus first.
Courtney: And I mean, let’s– let’s even think of… non-internet comparisons. So, this has happened to Disabled people all the time too by the way. Let’s take the plastic straw example.
Courtney: So Disabled folks have been screaming for years about how there are some people who need plastic straws. No, metal straws are not going to work for everybody. Some people just need plastic straws. But in this… sort of era of neo-liberal activism where we are placing the burden on individuals, it’s always the individuals, the individuals…
Courtney: People who are concerned about plastic waste, pollution, climate change, will sort of take that extra step if they go too hard in the direction of “this is on the individuals.” They can start shaming individual people for using plastic straws. “You should not use plastic straws, you personally are harming the environment if you do!”
Courtney: Well, it’s Disabled people who need that plastic straw who are going to suffer from that line of thinking, when really, even if every person in the world – Disabled or not – stopped using plastic straws tomorrow, we’d still have massive corporations who are contributing so much more waste and… contributing to climate change on a much grander scale.
Courtney: And yes, and although I do consider this work that we are doing on the podcast to be one branch of our activism, to be a volunteer project and by nature of the fact that we’re putting out a weekly podcast on all of these podcast platforms, it’s a very small scale, but in some way we are allowing ourselves to become public figures.
Courtney: The Internet can also make that really, really, muddy on social media. Because on social media it can seem like anybody is a public figure, if they are loud enough or have enough followers. And I’ve also seen, sort of the argument of, you know, if you’re putting public content out then you need to have it accessible.
Courtney: Not everyone is trying to make their words public or popular, some people use Twitter as basically a little diary or place to just post things they like, and that can unfortunately get muddy and that’s just sort of the parasocial nature of the internet as well. Which, the internet is new enough that we really don’t know how to navigate that yet, we know that it can be an issue but… it can blur the lines of who is an acceptable target.
Courtney: Because, if you see someone as a big important activist, and a huge member of this community, you might go at them as hard as you might go at a corporation, but it’s still might be someone who is just middle class or lower who’s just trying to do a little extra good with their free time. You know? Not everybody is a professional activist, even if they are trying to put good out there.
Courtney: So that’s also something to be a little mindful of. Because, after all…
To find another physical example: do businesses and public places need to be wheelchair accessible? Yes, 100%, absolutely they do. But I live in the Midwestern United States, and I rarely see a private residence… a house… a home, that is wheelchair accessible. And you wouldn’t be knocking on individual doors telling individual people “Make your house accessible.” But the Internet blurs those lines, ’cause if you see it, it’s public in some way, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people have sort of invited that scrutiny.
Courtney: Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it is acceptable to politely bring something to someone’s attention, or politely request that they start using alt text for an example. But if your idea of activism is to go after individuals and be relentless, and tell them to change the way they’re speaking, tell them to subtitle their content, tell them to use alt text and comment on every single post that they ever make until they do it, or block you…? That just becomes harassment.
Courtney: And quite honestly, with this podcast, I mean, we talked about how our auto-subtitles on YouTube is the interim, something to have that isn’t nothing, while we work out transcripts… transcripts are very, very hard too, because like we pointed out we don’t get paid to do this, so we don’t have the expendable money to hire someone to make public transcripts, and early on someone recommended to us “well, why– why don’t you… uh get some volunteer transcribers?” and unfortunately with the state of the world that also made me very, very uncomfortable, because that person themselves– themself, was not volunteering to transcribe for us, they were telling us to go find other volunteers.
Courtney: And not only are we still new, we are still new and we are still small, but I also feel very uncomfortable asking people to volunteer what could end up being a lot of their time, unpaid, because I really believe that people should be paid for their time. But I’m also not making money when I’m doing this, so I don’t have the money to give you, but I don’t want to ask you to volunteer, so it’s a big moral quandary… [laughs] it really is. And there’s no perfect way to navigate that.
Courtney: And I think, I – even last month – almost had… almost had a panic attack, because I realized it had been about three months since we started our podcast and we didn’t have transcripts yet and now we had so many backlog episodes that it was gonna take a lot of time to get those. And now it doesn’t feel we’ll ever catch up and how are we going to do this… and I felt so bad for any Deaf/Hard Of Hearing member of the community, anyone who maybe just prefers to read over listening, or any other people who’d just benefit from having our words put into text…
Courtney: I felt so bad that we were letting those people down, that I did almost have a panic attack, cause I personally could not fix that and I wanted to. And I didn’t know the best way to do it… So…
Courtney: And then there’s a little voice in the back of my head that said “You know, you are this accessibility activist and someone is going to come for you not having these transcripts yet…” And I have seen accessibility reminders get out of hand and cross the line into harassment.
Courtney: And I have been harassed for other disability related reasons in this community, just because I am a Disabled woman and I shared my experience as a Disabled Asexual person. and I didn’t want to go back to that type of harassment. So… there…
Courtney: I’m not gonna lie there was a week or so where I almost said “Maybe we can’t do this anymore,” because I cant handle this pressure of this accessibility and if that’s happening to me, who knows quite a lot about accessibility and cares quite a lot about accessibility, I can only imagine that… it’s happening to a lot of other people.
Courtney: And I do genuinely believe that most people are trying their best. Especially in communities like this, Queer communities, Disabled communities… I really believe that most people are doing their best, but we can NEVER expect everyone to do everything. It is not realistic. We were lucky enough that I was having a videocall with very close personal friends when, as I was sharing these concerns that I had, and they actually volunteered to start working on it for us. So, wonderful friends, wonderful allies to the Asexual community.
Courtney: I was a little more comfortable offering that… taking that assistance, because I wasn’t just blindingly soliciting online like someone suggested I do. But at the end of all of it, do I just wish that speech to text technologies were a lot better than they currently are? 100%!
Courtney: Do you know… I don’t want any of you listening to this to take away that I am at all lax about certain areas of accessibility, this is purely when we were discussing the personal responsibility vs. the responsibility of businesses to do better. Because nine out of ten times, the businesses can do better, and should. Maybe ten out ten times… I don’t know, is there a single time it’s better for the individual than corporation…?
Royce: …it’s 9.9 out of 10…
Courtney: 9.9 out of 10 times…
Royce: There… actually, let’s just round up and call it 10, because–
Royce: Because in–
Courtney: Ten, asterisk… [laughs]
Royce: Because in every situation where a person should be choosing to do something different, the platform should just not let you do the thing that is problematic.
Courtney: Mh-mm. Fair point. ’Cause this is not me saying we can all relax and not worry about accessibility, because no. That’s not the case. And believe you me, if I am on an accessibility board… if I am advising on accessibility… If I am working with an organization or business…? I will fight like hell to make everything as accessible as possible. I will get feisty. I will get scrappy… If you have a budget and or an entire team of volunteers? We are taking the extra time [laughs] do not get me wrong.
Courtney: So I guess the big takeaway here is: keep learning, keep educating yourself, always put pressure on the businesses before you put pressure on the individuals, commit to being anti-racist, learn about the other cultures that you are not a part of, and call out any discriminatory or harassing behaviors that come under the pretense of neo-liberal activism.
Courtney: And on that note, I think that this is about all we have to say on the subject for today, I definitely hope you learned something. I hope you found this to be highly illuminating, and we’ll see you all next time. Good Bye.