The Mosen Explosion and Advocacy Tactics
Blind Confidential readers know that Jonathon Mosen takes a lot of teasing in the articles posted here. As he serves as one of the world’s leading commentators on issues regarding blindness his celebrity as an activist, journalist, product manager, talk show host and, most recently, love song webcaster, has caused our community to accept Jonathon as one of its leaders, a role in which he serves well. So, my cynical world view, exaggerated in the Gonz Blinko persona, enjoys satirizing Jonathon and his work but, personally, I hold him in high regard and have done so for many years. Jonathon is also a terrific sport as he will let the teasing go on without making the sort of ad hominem statements that I and others can fall into from time to time.
I don’t read Jonathon’s blog, The Mosen Explosion (link above) on a regular basis. He often writes about his personal life in a very honest and extraordinarily tender manner and I sometimes feel a bit like a voyeur when reading his items. I do make sure to check into Jonathon’s work when Leon Gilbert and our friends at Blind News pick up one of his stories as their editorial filter works nicely to remove stories like those by Gonz on this blog and only reprints Jonathon’s writings when they are of consequence to the community. BC and Mosen Explosion fans who want to read everything can visit our respective pages every day or sign up for our RSS feeds if they enjoy the whole tamale.
Yesterday, Jonathon posted an excellent item entitled, “Axioms on Advocacy to Blindness Service providers,” which you can read in full at the Mosen Explosion web site at the link above. Coincidentally, Blind News also republished an article called, “Sensitivity, insight needed in encounters with the blind,” from the California based, Thousand Oaks Acorn. I found both items interesting especially in juxtaposition with each other as Jonathon’s piece comes from a writer who lives with blindness on “our side of the fence” and the second item takes the position of a sightie wondering how to deal with the rare encounters they might have with a living blink.
The two articles start with the same topic, the size of the blind population, but have distinctly different thoughts on the matter. The Thousand Oaks article begins, “Blindness affects one in every 30 Americans, meaning that chances are you're going to encounter someone who has impaired vision.” Meanwhile, Jonathon asserts, “Blind people are an extremely low incidence population. Most people can go
through life without ever having spoken to a blind person.” I don’t doubt the veracity of either statement but wonder why the sighted author assumes that everyone will encounter a blink and that the blind writer assumes otherwise. If, indeed, one in thirty Americans are effected by “blindness” this would set the population of blinks in the US at around 10 million people. This roughly equals the populations of metropolitan New York or Los Angeles and I think we can agree that most Americans will encounter a New Yorker or Southern Californian at some point in their lives. If, however, we separate the groups of those who fall under the legal definition of blindness into various constituent groups, one will find that those who fit the categories of “profoundly” or “totally” vision impaired represent roughly 1.5 million Americans or one in two hundred people, a number that one is less likely to encounter. Thus, both articles are correct in their numerical content but remain entirely contradictory.
The two articles, after their opening statistics, really don’t have much in common as the newspaper item describes a number of bullet points about how a sightie should interact with us blinks, a list provided to them by an organization of blind veterans and Jonathon discusses advocacy tactics and how he thinks we should approach issues surrounding blindness.
I think someone should reprint the list of bullet items in the Thousand Oaks article on index cards and distribute them to blind people so we can politely hand them to ignorant sighted people. The list includes items like “waitress invisibility” that we discussed here a few articles ago which drew a very interesting comment from one of the women who read this blog that I had never previously considered on the combined problems that might face one who has a disability and struggles with stereotypes surrounding gender. It also lists a bunch of items that seem obvious to blinks but, like, “Blind people are not mentally deficient, uneducated or deaf. That means they can understand adult explanations at a normal volume,” this statement is of course true but I know some very slow witted blinks for whom I must alter my vocabulary from “adult” to something more akin to the way I address my 6 year old nephew. So, as is the case for sighties, perhaps this should be rephrased, “blind people are no stupider than the rest of you yahoos so don’t treat us like your cousin Bubba who still needs to remove his pants to play blackjack.”
Another very true statement in the Thousand Oaks article, “Don't leave a door ajar, which could be dangerous; the door should either be fully open or fully closed,” falls into the category of things I wish my sighted wife, to whom I have been married for 18 years, 11 months and 20 days, would learn. Along with doors, I think someone should expand this statement to include drawers, especially those at the height of my testicles, shin high objects with hard pointed corners should not be moved around one’s house and, for all of our sake, please trim your hedges that lean out over sidewalks so, when dressed for summer, I don’t get a ton of scrapes and scratches when my cane goes beneath your foliage. For the rest of the list, click on the link above.
Jonathon’s article describes how we blinks, as a community and as individuals should address big topics like advocacy for our rights, relationships between agencies that serve our community and how we should approach the ignorant sighted world in order to attain the greatest efficacy. I cannot do Jonathon’s thorough analysis justice in this article so I urge everyone to read it on their own. I will, however, make a few comments on some of Mosen’s statements as I think they are very important and should be discussed broadly throughout our community.
“When we come across a web site that is inaccessible to us, or some other service designed for the general public that we cannot access, I think the first appropriate reaction is to assume ignorance, and to educate. This can be extremely time consuming, not to mention wearying and even a bit soul destroying after a while, but it's one of the burdens, challenges, and I would even suggest responsibilities of being blind. Eventually, we have a range of measures open to us, from legal action all the way through to the very effective and well worded Google Word Verification petition organized by Darrell Shandro,” states Jonathon near the top of his article.
I mostly agree with this statement and I have a stock letter on the computers I use for web browsing that I alter slightly and send to people with web sites that perform poorly versus the WAI guidelines (I will put this letter someplace for others to download and use if they like). I also agree that this process can be “soul destroying after a while,” which tends to cause me to range into anger and to take the sledgehammer approach that Jonathon decries. In the little back and forth between Matt May and I a few articles ago, I could feel the soul destruction in Matt’s comments, in my response thereto and in the comments left by Ian from Dolphin. Including Jonathon, we’ve all fought the “document accessibility” battles for a long time and, as the RNIB published recently; fewer than 10% of all English language web sites conform to web accessibility standards or guidelines. I have probably sent out my little form letter over a thousand times, it even includes an offer to help a site’s author with accessibility testing and to help find volunteers to beta test there work. Less than 50 web authors have responded to my letters and even fewer have taken the steps to actually make their sites usable by a moderately strong AT user.
The document accessibility battles go beyond web content and include PDF, Flash (on or off the web), Microsoft Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and, most recently, ODF has joined the long list of items where accessibility remains in the hands of a largely ignorant population of authors. I love writing, whether expository, like this article in which I want to deliver my thoughts on a matter or creatively, like the Gonz Blinko articles, in which I want to have fun and explore writing techniques used by other authors. I, however, find the task of writing about document accessibility almost exhausting. I agree with Jonathon’s assertion that it is my duty as a member of our community to continue sending my letters to the untrained masses and to try to spread the word as politely as possible but, where I disagree with the soft approach and believe the sledgehammer is the right tool, is among organizations, businesses, agencies, etc. who really should know better.
Jonathon suggests that organizations that serve people with vision impairments should be held to a higher standard. I agree but also think that the collection of corporations who should reach a higher standard for accessibility is broader than advocates and blindness membership organizations. For one, if a single WAI guideline is skipped on any web site published by an AT company that expects to sell products to blind people, they should pay hell for it. I’ll add that any AT vendor who does not provide all materials within their organization in an accessible format to their employees, when possible, should also pay the price of public exposure as, if such companies suggest that their products work with accessible document formats at other work places, they should certainly rise to the standard of the software or device they sell to others.
Next, I will include all companies who have a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) somewhere on their web site. If the company knows it needs a VPAT to meet 508 guidelines and profit by accepting our tax dollars as payment for their products, they cannot fall into the same bin as a truly uneducated web developer who has no clue about standards and guidelines. These companies, which include everyone from Microsoft to Red Hat, from Adobe to Apple, from IBM to Sun Microsystems and many, many more have VPAT sections on their web sites but, also, will have portions of their web presences that do not conform to the guidelines and, even if “usable” with a screen reader, are noisy and sometimes difficult to navigate. The companies I mention here all have a fully accessible portion of their web site, usually the part that discusses their accessibility efforts, their VPAT documents and other disability related information. After that, these sites can seem fairly random where accessibility is concerned, all have numerous unlabeled graphics and some use really poorly crafted and, therefore, inaccessible Flash or QuickTime presentations.
Finally, all government funded web sites should follow the guidelines to the letter. My tax dollars pay some portion of the cost of developing these web sites and I expect “equal treatment under the law.” No one would accept a “whites only” sign on a government building so a “sighties only” web site is equally unacceptable.
Another statement Jonathon makes which I agree with mostly is, ” Any truly rights conscious blind person who wants to achieve constructive change will ultimately find themselves drawn to a consumer organization.” I feel strongly that power in numbers will prove more successful than a random collection of lone gunmen and that we “shall hang together or definitely hang separately,” but, as in the incident Jonathon cites about google, it took our friend Mr. Chandro to take the individual initiative to organize a petition which has shown tremendous success. Google today has an advertisement running for blind professionals to join their team in the US and has added roughly 20 blinks to their staff in Hydro bad to ensure accessibility worldwide. If Darrell hadn’t stepped up, would any of the consumer organizations have done so?
“Time and energy has to be spent fighting fires with the very people
the provider of services is there to serve. Often, this can be incredibly soul destroying for the people working at such agencies,” writes Jonathon. To this I agree whole heartedly. I will add that such counter productive bickering and assaults on one agency by those who favor another might be the greatest hinderance to progress on issues regarding disability we face today. Even if we disagree with a particular agency or organizations specific approach to a problem, we should agree in a civil manner that we share the fundamental goals of said organization and not waste our time fighting among ourselves. There are too few of us to expect that we be both effective without cooperation. Sectarianism is how the man keeps minorities down and, believe it or not, we blinks be minorities. If “the man” can keep poor blacks fighting with poor whites with poor Latinos with poor people from whatever culture, all with populations and wealth far beyond the 1.5 million profoundly or totally vision impaired people, how can we, as a specific class of the citizenry expect to succeed without some kind of unification movement?
In what I think may be the single most powerful statement I’ve read from people around the blindness world lately, Mosen adds, “Blind
People must not be afraid. They must have sufficient respect for their own place in society to not fear advocacy for quality service lest the service be taken away or there be some other reprisals. They must not be considered whiners for insisting on the creation of a society that facilitates their ability to participate in that society to the best of their ability, unimpeded by unnecessary barriers. They must feel empowered to insist on services being provided in the manner that best meets their needs.” I thought a bit about Malcolm when I read this and wondered if we might start calling Jonathon, Mosen X?
Jonathon concludes by describing the back room process used by NLS and some consumer organizations to handle the WebBraille controversy this past week. Once again, I agree with Mosen’s assertion that this level of dialogue, which to succeed had to be handled discreetly and in which NLS issued a daily statement for public consumption was done very well. WebBraille is back online and we blinks have access to this excellent service once again.
I would like to disagree slightly with the entire premise behind taking WebBraille offline though. As I have read US copyright law as it applies to people with vision and other impairments that prevent them from reading textual material it says, in my amateur opinion, that copyright law does not apply when providing materials in a format that makes them accessible to people like us. I do not remember reading a clause in this part of the law that suggests that a publisher of materials for people with “print impairments” is also responsible for protecting the copyright of the author. There is a fundamental question here; does the clause that says that copyright law does not apply to materials prepared for people with vision impairments have primacy over whether or not a library or other content service must also protect the copyright of the author or original publisher?
I would also like to know which publishers or government agency chose to target WebBraille as a powerful entity in the battle over intellectual property rights? Only a few weeks ago, President Hu, the leader of the most populace dictatorship in the history of humanity enjoyed fancy wine and fine foods at Bill Gates’ house, spoke to an audience of our best and brightest students at Yale University and then sat with the President of the United States in a position of respect at the white house. China is home to the largest collection of businesses that, without intending to provide books to those with print impairments under the exception in US copyright law, make their entire income by copying and reselling unauthorized electronic editions of books, music, movies, software, video games and anything else that one can duplicate. Any book with the remote possibility of commercial success can typically be found in an electronic format somewhere on the Internet within 24 hours of its initial publication in the US or Europe.
Why crack down on WebBraille but only wag a finger at big bad China?
What threat does WebBraille present that publishers fear so greatly that isn’t much worse elsewhere?
I don’t have the answers, just the questions today. I suggest that everyone read Jonathon’s piece as it is a great reminder of good advocacy and organizational fundamentals. While I sometimes fall into the sledgehammer, “take no prisoners” approach to change, I agree that, in general, a more diplomatic approach will be more effective.
I’ve written about product labels a few times in BC. The other day, I realized that some voluntary restrictions accepted by the music industry makes finding a product confusing for sighted people as well as us blinks. My wife and I went into a consumer electronics store so I could purchase the CD, “Disturbing the Peace,” by the rapper Ludacris. I like rap and make no apologies for including it in the wide array of musical styles I have in my collection. I think that rappers, far more so than rockers ever did, study the English language and, in many cases, use linguistic constructs like simile, metaphor, rhyme, meter and vocabulary in manners far more like a poet than a lyricist and they provide the “folk poetry” of our times. A lot of rap is crap, a lot of all popular music is crap, in fact, most music composed since a caveman found it pleasing to pound out a rhythm on a stump, is crap but the best of the artist in any of the styles over the millennia have produced treasures.
Some people don’t care about the language and find rap annoying. Some people hate punk rock, others find it difficult to find value in heavy metal, some scream when they hear opera and others can’t stand bluegrass. I like most forms and, where it comes to the poetry of our times, look to the rappers as some of them write incredible things.
Ok, discussion of the artistic value of my recent purchase aside, we learned to our annoyance, that the unedited versions of music is sold with a warning label telling us it is for adults only and the highly edited version has no label that says it was dumbed down for white suburban moms who, a generation ago, blasted out Sex Pistols recordings but punk came from white people and, somehow, is less scary than profanity from urban Americans. Thus, we bought the wrong (edited) version of the CD. Why don’t they label the censored versions for the aid of the sighted people? Why does an Eminem CD need to have a “clean” version and an uncensored one but rock acts with similar themes don’t? What about the famous “Give me an F!” cheer from Country Joe on the legendary Woodstock recordings, does it fall beneath the censors label as it has some kind of historic value? When Arlo sang about sneaking past the customs man with a load of drugs and falling off of Big Sur on his motorcycle and squishing a police man, no one put a warning label on his CD so why did the public practically crucify Ice Tea for similar statements?