How to handle an accessibility fail.

Accessibility fails happen. A lot. Usually not out of malice, but rather out of simple ignorance and societal ableism. You might not know that your perfume makes me cough until my head and ribs ache and then cough some more. Until a few months ago, I didn’t know that certain sounds can trigger epilepsy. Most people don’t realize that a lively debate completely overwhelms my cousin (and me on a bad day) into nonverbal land. And so on, and so forth.

Access needs aren’t always pretty, or simple, or necessarily obvious. Sometimes access needs conflict (like if someone needs their cat as a service animal and I need to share the space – I need cat dander free air, but they need their service animal. How do you resolve it? I’m not really sure… I guess a compromise solution of teleconferencing to either me or the other person would work, perhaps, but I digress). Sometimes access needs are difficult to anticipate (like, for example, if someone is on an extremely rare medical diet). For whatever reason, sometimes access is messy. I get that. I get that, because access is messy sometimes, accessibility fails are pretty much inevitable, even if people have the best of intentions. Which, when I’m not immediately upset about a situation, I do recognize is often (though not always) the case.

So, because accessibility fails happen, it’s a good idea to have a rule of thumb for how to sort them out. Expecting people to be perfect is unreasonable. But I can – and do – expect a good-faith effort to avoid the common accessibility pitfalls and to rectify any accessibility fail brought to an organization’s attention.

I’ve talked about a shitstorm involving an accessibility fail before, I’ve talked about the importance of self-accommodation before, and I’ve talked about how financial barriers to diagnosis can result in being unable to access accommodations to ensure full accessibility. This current post is actually inspired by two situations going on: One is the treatment Neurodivergent K received at Autreat when they had an epilepsy accessibility fail, and the other is the treatment commenter Stella received on Chris Rodda’s blog (original content no longer available, but caches of all comments may be found here. Tl;dr version: blogger posts ableist comic to blog at the expense of Blind people, gets taken to task, shitstorm ensues, during shitstorm, commenter notes that the comic was itself inaccessible to the visually impaired as there was no alt-text, and blogger literally tells her, “screw you!” in so many words).

I might post on how to anticipate accessibility needs later (currently, it’s not what I’m in the mood to write about, so if/when I am in the mood to write about it, I’ll pingback/link appropriately). But right now, I want to talk about what to do, and what not to do, when an accessibility fail arises.

Ideally, you should avoid an accessibility fail before it happens, but if you don’t, the exchange between you and the person bringing it to your attention (who will probably be a person with a disability, considering that most people who know how to spot accessibility fails are the people affected by them), should go something like this:

Person: [content] isn’t accessible to (me / people with [disability]) because [reason]. Can you [provide accommodation]?
You: [apology]. I’ll (do that/ask someone with the know-how to teach me how and provide it) ASAP. I’ll let you know as soon as I have it. *goes and does so*
You: It’s fixed now. Is that better?
Person: (Yes, thanks/No, it needs [modification].)
You: (You’re welcome. / *does modification, repeat lines 3-end until Person says it’s accessible*)

So, that’s what to do. Fairly simple in principle, more difficult in practice because egos and learning curves. In addition, you should keep in mind the following:

  1. The person whose accessibility needs were unsatisfied is justified in being upset over an accessibility fail.
  2. If the person is curt or angry with you, you should still do your best to meet their needs.
  3. This may require you to swallow your pride if an accessibility fail happens on your watch.
  4. Remember that, however frustrated or hurt you are by the person’s anger, they’re dealing with this very often. Some deal with fails of this sort on an every-day, several times a day basis. Imagine if your basic needs weren’t met and were in fact ignored that regularly. Imagine your frustration with that situation. That’s what the person with a disability is currently going through. If their upset seems like an over-reaction to you, that’s only because you’re seeing this fail as an isolated incident, and not as an ongoing and chronic pattern of people ignoring their needs.
  5. A little apology goes a long way. If you make an accessibility fail, the second-best way to make sure the other person knows that you actually do give a darn about their access needs, is to give a sincere and real apology for your failure.
  6. The best way to make sure the person knows that you give a damn about their access needs is to set up a plan so it doesn’t happen again under your watch. If you make policy, structural, or rules changes to your event or organization for a person’s access needs, that shows you actually do give a damn about this accessibility stuff, far far better than any defensive posturing (see #2 on the What Not To Do list below for more on that).

And here is what you should not do, under any circumstances:

  1. Hold accessibility hostage to the person being nice/humble/apologetic enough for you. That’s all kinds of screwed up. You’re allowed to feel hurt if someone get’s angry with you for something you perceive as not your fault. It’s not okay to use that hurt as an excuse to compound your wrong by refusing to right it.
  2. Get defensive. “But I take care of accessibility in situations X, Y and Z!” means nothing to the fact that in this situation, you failed.
  3. Complain about people expecting “special treatment.” Equal access isn’t special treatment, it’s a human right.
  4. Guilt the person over their access needs. That a gluten-free meal might be more expensive doesn’t mean that a person with celiac can magically not get sick if they eat a sandwich on wheat bread. Someone should not be shamed, humiliated, or guilted for having needs.
  5. Take the person’s anger with the situation personally. As stated in #4 of the previous list, they’re not just angry at you, in particular. They’re angry at the fact that society as a whole routinely ignores their needs, and you are just the latest manifestation of the overall pattern.
  6. This one should go without saying, but it’s happened to me a significant number of times so apparently it doesn’t: Don’t curse at, berate, threaten violence or engage in violence against the person whose access needs were violated. The sole exception to this is if they become violent towards you. Self-defense is okay. Physical or emotional abuse intended to put that damn [ableist slur] back in their place is not under any circumstances.

When dealing with accessibility fails for my access needs, I find that the rule is: I complain, person gets defensive, I point out my need, person gets angry and refuses to accommodate, I still can’t access the thing / or if I can, I have to put up with significant and serious negative consequences (shutdown, meltdown, asthma attack, etc) later. In other words, that I can access it doesn’t mean I should or that I’m not putting myself in danger by doing so. Given the many and sundry accounts of similar access fails with similar responses available online through a bit of Googling, and given that the #EverydayAbleism hashtag and account on Twitter are things that exist, I know I’m not the only person this is the rule rather than the exception for.

If you give a shit about accessibility, and if you really believe that stuff about people with disabilities actually being people, you want to strive to be the exception to the rule. You want to strive to be the person who turns a shitty situation into a good experience for the person whose access needs were violated. You want to be head and shoulders above everyone else, not sometimes, not when it’s convenient, but every time. Not because you get cookies or praise or gratitude for it (though you may, they aren’t and shouldn’t be guarantees – see #1 of my what not to do list) but because it’s the right thing to do.

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