Rosa Parks Is Not Done Teaching Us
What if I told you that Rosa Parks was just making a fuss about sitting at the front of the bus? Didn't the bus take her where she wanted to go anyway? Couldn't black kids walk to school when the school bus wasn't available to them? They all made it, right? So why did Rosa parks still become a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement? The answer is simple, because it is not enough just to get there. It is also important that we should not be discriminated against based on anything, we should have equal rights in a democracy.
Fifty-five years later, believe it or not, we are dealing with the same thing. Instead of African-Americans, we are discriminating against people with disabilities. Namely, there is no such legislation that would require web sites to be accessible equally to all people, including those with disabilities. One out of six people in the United States in average is cut off from lots of information because the designers did not put any effort into making it accessible to all. Fifty-five years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, we still have hidden discrimination in our society, because we lack the understanding of what people's needs are. We believe in the existence of equality so much that we fail to reevaluate our situation and neglect to see that something is going wrong, or if anything is getting out of hand.
You could say that it is incorrect, because of the Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act that requires to make information accessible to people with disabilities. It only applies to the Federal Government, and to those states which adopted an accessibility legislation. In the private sector, which creates most of the web sites we use on a daily basis, there is no such regulation. Nobody is required to make a private web site accessible to people with disabilities by law.
Let's see what the problem is. There are many many web sites which are not accessible to people with disabilities. There are people who use a screen reader, there are people who can't use their hands, others are using a voice recognition system, some have to deal with all of the above, and the combinations and possibilities are endless.
When information publicly appears on the internet, all people, including the ones mentioned above, have the right to access this information. In reality, if they are not able to use their existing technology to do so, this information is not available to them.
Just a couple of examples: if a video is posted which contains only visual information, it should have a spoken or textual alternative. Otherwise, it is useless to those who rely on a screen reader. If people are not able to use a mouse, it is important that a web site or web application is navigable with a keyboard. Have you ever tried to use your browser without a mouse? It is a worthwhile experience. I could list countless more examples.
So, what does this mean in reality?
In theory, the internet opened up countless opportunities to people with disabilities. There are so many things they would be able to do from home on the computer that they had to go somewhere to do before, or they could get information that wasn't available to them earlier.
Let's look at a couple of scenarios, when the internet provides this comfort, but the service is not accessible.
We can save a shopping trip by going online and ordering something from a local or national store. If the store's web site, however, is not accessible, blind people have to take public transportation, which is often non-existent, or find other means of transportation to go to a store. In the store, they have to rely on somebody's kindness to walk through the isles to find what they are looking for. Have you been in a situation when you spent hours browsing through products, because you wanted to get the most suitable one for your buck? Can you imagine a store would have an assistant who will spend this amount of time with a blind person? Do you think this assistant would tell you all about your options, or just help you get the first one? Maybe the assistant would be very helpful, but not knowing how to best help a person with a disability. I'm sure these people had to go through lots of training about discrimination before they got hired, but surely not about inclusion.
Once they find the product, if they are lucky they can order it to their house, otherwise, they have to find their transportation home which is able to transport their goods as well.
Or to stay with the shopping idea, if somebody uses a wheelchair, if the city where they live does not have a wheelchair accessible cab, it will be impossible for them to get their purchases home.
Of course, these people can get shopping done if they really want to, they can ask somebody to help. They can hire somebody to help them if nobody else is available. Or, they can purchase from another online store that is accessible, but where is this fair, when others can just go online and shop from the store of their choice, find the best discount, and select from many more similar items.
Another example is banking. If you can't see, or you can't write, and your bank does not have an accessible web site, you have to go to the bank, disclose and receive verbal information about your personal finances while people are standing behind you. Sure, you can get it done, but it is just not convenient, and then we didn't even talk about personal security.
Again, examples are countless.
Now, let's imagine for a second that I told you that people with disabilities should not have access to information. Society would be outraged, and I would be behind bars for hate speech in no time. But what happens in reality when we design a site without considering the accessibility of information? Isn't it just telling Rosa Parks to go to the back of the bus? Isn't this a hate crime?
Now, don't get me wrong, I understand that it can't happen overnight. First of all, if you are on this web site, most likely you have something to do with accessibility, and maybe you are already doing the right thing. Or you are looking for ideas to make your site more accessible. After all, you won't find much else here. But in reality, we have to acknowledge that in order to create accessible web sites, developers need a thorough education on how to do it, and this requires resources and training programs. And there is an increasing amount of it out there, but certainly not enough. Not to mention that even when the government requires a certain level of accessibility, people are often quick to cut a corner here and there hoping that they can get away with it.
The only way to ensure that this information is out there and available is by legislation. If a legislation existed to demand that all information need to be accessible, together with a timeline and a plan of action, people wouldn't think twice about it. Of course, this legislation should be enforced, too. And in this case, making something inaccessible would be such a discriminatory act as sending Rosa Parks to the back of the bus.
Let's look at a working example. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that ramps are installed to the entries of buildings, or at least that they can be entered with a wheelchair. We don't think twice about it. And of course, there are violations, but those are either due to the lack of law enforcement, or a violation of law. Those violations are punishable crimes.
Sometimes, for other things, legislation is not even necessary. Certain things happen just by the indirect enforcement of circumstances. This get's us closer to web sites. When we develop a site, we will at least test it with Internet Explorer, and write code that this browser can interpret. Why? Because as of today, it is the most popular web browser. We can certainly code it as we wish, even invent our own code, but nobody will be able to view it who only uses Internet Explorer. So, naturally, we ensure that people who use this type of technology can use and enjoy what we put together. Similarly, we should ensure that people who have Internet Explorer, or any other browsers for that matter, and they use it together with assistive technologies, are able to use and enjoy it.
But legislation is really not happening soon, it is not even in the pipelines. For that matter, Section 508, which spells out almost for ten years the criteria of coding accessible web sites is constantly violated. Some government agencies take it very seriously, but there are still so many government web sites which can hardly be called accessible. So, even such legislation does not help a hundred percent. But at least, it does exist, and if it is violated, people have a place to complain and request remediation.
So, what's the solution here? A peaceful solution would be to lobby for reasonable legislation. It has been happening. But there isn't a precedence which ever established that all information needs to be accessible.
A less peaceful solution would be to start a national uproar against people with disabilities. We could claim that they are not worthy of obtaining information non-disabled citizens enjoy. Really, they shouldn't use the computers because they can't, and they cost lots of tax Dollars to keep happy. Can you imagine what would happen? I can promise you this: a legislation, which would truly ensure access to information to all, and it would be enforced, too.
And if you wonder if my ideas just got out of hand, look at the example that I started this piece with. It was not Rosa Parks who started the sympathy towards African-Americans for allowing them to sit at the front of the bus. All she did was sitting down at the front. It was the bus driver, James Blake, who commanded her to leave her seat, and he got great press.