Jonathan Godfrey – Blind Citizens NZ National President
Kenilworth Castle is a ruin, and even for the sighted, it is hard to see what it was like when it was in use from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Obviously, the Castle is not in New Zealand, and neither was I when the deadline for this column was approaching. I’m based at the University of Warwick for a couple of weeks, and my hosts took me and another visitor to Kenilworth and then to Stratford-upon-Avon (the supposed birthplace of Shakespeare) on Saturday. I then sat around drinking coffee all day on Sunday with my statistically and community- minded host, her husband, and a retired mathematician who I’ve only met online until now
The day out was pleasant in so many ways, and was a break from sitting around with a group of nerds doing programming. It’s been a while since I cracked 20,000 steps in a day. The ruined castle had an audio guide with descriptions of what the various areas are thought to have been used for.
Unlike my hosts, I had my own earpiece to plug into the audio guide so walking and listening was much easier for me than for them. My hosts made sure I had every sign read to me, commented on what they could see off in the distance, and answered piles of questions. We had to park plenty of questions for our return to a place where we could search the internet. They made sure I touched everything within reach and finally that the gift shop maximised its opportunity to empty my wallet. I didn’t, but the replica broadsword was really tempting; such a pity I had doubts about the size of my suitcase. The kitset trebuchet would have to do.
This attraction was extremely accessible to me. I definitely soaked up about as much information as I could manage, but it relied on the company I was keeping. Not everyone wants to read every last word on display so I was listening for any signs that my host was running out of enthusiasm. A ruin is not going to be physically accessible to all comers though. The ground is rough, the steps are worn and seriously uneven, the doorways in places were a bit shorter than me, and some of the handrails were out of reach for a shorter person. It is what it is though, and you can’t make a ruin accessible without ruining it as a ruin, and therefore as an attraction for the masses. This idea that you can’t and shouldn’t always make everything totally accessible featured a lot in discussions I was having during my UK sojourn.
So why am I here in the UK? I’m not here to be a tourist I assure you. Many of you will know that I was the first totally blind person to gain employment as a lecturer in statistics. There are plenty of other blind people using the same software as me, and some that have as much technical skill as a statistician. I was described as a “scarce resource” by the aforementioned retired mathematician during one of our conversations recently. While I might find that terminology a bit strange, the fact that I was fully funded to be here says to me that someone thinks I was the blind person they wanted. I joined a group of people who all have a common interest in improving the software we use to do our jobs.
Some attendees were self-funded, some attendees had to take time off work, and some people were pressured to participate due to the roles they have in maintaining software systems. Fortunately, I haven’t needed to take time off work to be here because these activities fit within my job description. I’ve been able to work with gurus to address the few irritations novice blind users of this software experience when they are compelled to take a course in statistics at university. It seems to me though that if I’d sat down with the same people ten years ago, we’d have found the same solutions. The understanding of accessibility and the needs of disabled people didn’t exist then, or at least not to the same extent; if this event had been held ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been invited.
Ten years ago, I was unable to meet these people though and so my ability to raise accessibility and the specific needs of blind users was limited to writing articles and email messages. I’ve attended conferences over the last ten years and spoken about the needs of blind users over and over, and it seems the message has gotten through. I even heard two people sitting at a nearby table discussing the issues with continuing to provide documents in pdf rather than using HTML, with specific reference to screen readers.
I managed to get myself over to that conversation and wondered if they wanted to know anything; the response was a firm “no” because “you’ve been telling us this stuff for over ten years Jonathan”. I took myself back to my work station, thus separating the choir from the preacher.
I came to this event with an idea that I would be needing to push for the needs of blind users of the software and the needs of all disabled people who wish to participate in this community. My greatest “wow” moment of the event was when one of the gurus told me that he wanted my help before he took his pet project much further. “Jonathan, I want this to be accessible from the start, and I need your advice please.”
This is possibly the most awesome thing a disability advocate can ever hear. Disability issues at the front of an initiative, not some after- thought.
A common problem raised itself during discussions with support staff at the University of Warwick and then with someone from a Scottish university; they know accessibility is important, but they don’t know how to deliver accessible scientific and mathematical content, and they don’t have any blind students to test solutions on (yet). Perhaps the greatest irritation for me is that the solutions have been available for such a long time yet seldom used due to a complete lack of awareness of the right tools. This is an international problem that we face in NZ too. Intriguingly though, blind students in some European countries do not suffer anywhere nearly as much as those of us in English-speaking countries because the Braille system they use is more closely integrated with the systems used to create printed science and mathematical documents. Furthermore, the eight dot Braille system used in some countries is advantageous because they do not need a distinct Braille code for displaying mathematics, and another system for making nice equations for their sighted audiences.
Whether it is a visit to a ruined castle or a meeting of programmers, you have to be there to get full benefit, and to have full impact. The same is true for much of the work done by Blind Citizens NZ at national and local levels. Sometimes we take a punt on whether the meeting will lead to successful outcomes. If you want to roll a six, you must pick up the dice. You must be prepared to roll a few ones along the way.
Sometimes though, you must look at the situation and ask if the dice are loaded against you. You won’t get a six if you only get to nudge it around a bit instead of picking it up and giving it a good shake. So, do you fight for the dice to be changed, or do you decide to walk away until someone else changes them for you?
We are fortunate that in today’s climate, as individuals and as an organisation, there are plenty of opportunities out there to choose among. We must still hold on to the principles, but we can decide where to air them. We must also discover if we are exploring a ruin or creating something new and exciting.