Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Thoughts on Physical vs. Web Accessibility

I received an email from a friend who is attending a11yMTL, a conference about web accessibility. Mimi is a graphic designer, who happens to be a wheelchair user. As she knows I grew up in Montréal and have accessibility of both physical structures and the web at heart, she shared with me some of her thoughts. I asked her if I could publish her email here because these are powerful consideration.

Strangely depressed as I wander down the St-Catherine. Every UQAM building I have passed has been inaccessible… At least, from the street, with no indication anywhere where the accessible entrance might be found, if there is one. Par for the course for the Université du Québec, I guess. Every second restaurant, or shop, is inaccessible. At the Complexe Desjardins I give up, and try a mall.

My mood has been spoiled though. My ultimate destination has been Eaton Centre, but the construction on St-Catherine had turned into an obstacle course appropriate only for elite paralympians. I consider going back, but instead I hail a taxi. The taxi driver was very nice and lightened my mood somewhat. Wandering around Eaton Centre…I have an excellent sense of direction, but here I’ve gotten lost. I have even found sections of this and the neighboring malls to be inaccessible… Stairs, no ramps or elevators, to certain shops or areas. It depresses me. I’m not at all depressed that I can’t go into THOSE shops… Just depressed that these kinds of barriers exist at all, in Canada, in Montréal, in 2010, in a modern shopping mall, shopping malls being among the most accessible places in the world.

Do the people who make these decisions have any idea how much it HURTS simply to know that there are people out there who don’t care whether you have access to all the goods and services available to everyone else? Who think you and the other thousands of wheelchair users in this city are not worth the extra few thousand dollars in a multi-million dollar investment. I allow myself to feel how I’m feeling, and reflect on my reason for being here in the first place.

I love the Internet. In many ways, it’s my life. It’s my career, it’s the way I keep in touch with far-away friends and family members, it’s a tool I use daily for making my family’s dinner, researching vacations, purchasing books, and a thousand other things.

Blind users of the Internet must feel exactly how I feel when they encounter an inaccessible website. Maybe it feels even worse.

I wonder if the Net as a whole is as inaccessible as the St-Catherine. I wonder if a blind user, or maybe a person unable to use a mouse, or anyone with any kind of disabiltiy whatsoever, has ever been made to feel this way by one of the sites that *I* have built. I have been making my sites accessible for several years now, but there are still sites I have made years ago, that are still online, that I doubt are accessible, and over which I no longer have any control.

The funny thing is, I can’t remember ever actually meeting someone who is blind. I don’t have any blind friends, or even acquaintances. That doesn’t even really matter. I know they exist, and I know what is right and what is fair. I’ve had people say to me they didn’t realize how inaccessible the world was until a family member was forced to use a wheelchair, or they had knee surgery, or whatever. But that’s no excuse. They knew we were here. If they didn’t 20 years ago, they know we’re here NOW. How can they not, with people like Chantal Petitclerc and Rick Hansen in the news, and TV coverage of the Paralympics, and just seeing more and more of us in the workplace, in universities, in their shops, in their restaurants.

Why is it that Québec so frequently congratulates itself on its modernity and tolerance? They are themselves blind… And forgetting something…

Not much to add to that. It speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

The only thing I would add is that I am always amazed that websites such as Petitclerc’s or Hansen’s are so rarely accessible. These are people with disabilities, used to barriers, yet not giving any consideration about people with other disabilities that might visit their sites. I wrote about this a while back in He Ain’t Blind But He’s Got No Vision.

Oh, and also, the Paralympics are NOT the Special Olympics.