Just Like Everyone Else
Grief, Inclusion, and Substack
Note: To hear Sy read this article, listen to today’s episode of Shake the Dust.
Every day, I use a website for work that is a complete mess. The site boasts many features that are unusable. The way it presents data is often impossible to read. I click on links whose purposes are indecipherable just to figure out what they do, and some do nothing. I find workarounds, but I never know when the site will update and I’ll have to spend an unknown amount of time inventing a new way to get my work done. It feels like perpetual beta testing, except I’m the consumer, and things will probably never improve.
The site is the one we’re using to publish this piece, Substack, the product of a popular tech start-up. Most people don’t have the same experience with Substack that I do though. The difference is I’m working with a screen reader, the type of software many blind, dyslexic, and other people who have trouble reading print use to interact with computers non-visually. Effectively, screen readers alter the way we browse and use the functions on a computer so that everything is keyboard-based. They convey the information on the display to us via computer-synthesized speech or Braille so that we never need to see a screen. Software engineers and web developers can always create apps and websites in ways that permit screen readers to access them, but many don’t know how or don’t want to spend the resources (though the resources can be quite minimal). So I often end up in situations where I just make do with what I have. I’ve asked Substack’s tech support whether the company has any plans to remedy the problems, but they said they can’t speak to that.
As an aside, you might reasonably ask why we at KTF use Substack if it’s this challenging for me. And don’t we want all our content to be as accessible as possible for disabled consumers? The answer is that the screen reader experience on the customer side of Substack is passable, and some of the platform’s competitors are true accessibility nightmares. Plus, there are lots of other features and conveniences on Substack that work very well with what KTF does.
Of course, Substack would never have survived this long if its sighted users had anywhere near the experience that I do. No one would have taken them seriously or invested money in their company. But disability exclusion is casual and routine—something not worth consideration, if one even has the knowledge to understand that exclusion is happening (I didn’t write that explanation of screen readers for nothing).
The business minded will point out that screen reader users are a small fraction of Substack’s potential customer base, and have less than the average purchasing power to boot. So the investment in accessibility would likely not be profitable. It doesn’t survive the cost-benefit analysis.
Cynical, but accurate. Discrimination is often efficient. This is one of the reasons we have had to pass laws making it illegal. Sure, your desegregated lunch counter might lose its wealthier white patrons, but you have to serve Black people anyway. The inefficiency should be less important than people participating equally in society.
And with disability in particular, the inefficiency is never catastrophic. Legally (in the US at least—I don’t know about other countries), disability discrimination claims entail a cost-resource analysis. This is different from a cost-benefit analysis. The relevant question is whether the business can in fact afford to provide the accommodation that eliminates the discrimination. Over time, as more companies accommodate different abilities, there is innovation in how those accommodations happen, making them cheaper and easier to implement.
But the visceral, human side of all this policy chatter is what really matters to me. Because the psychological consequences of exclusion are deep and almost imperceptibly subtle. And note, I’m talking about exclusion now, in the broad sense. Not the type of discrimination, intentional or otherwise, which has a known solution. I mean the totality of all the ways that disabled people have to live differently.
The forms of exclusion that seem like they can’t change amplify my emotions around those that can, but don’t. Imagine, for instance, a parent teaching their kid how to drive. A sibling, who is blind, sits in the back. There is nothing remarkable or surprising about this scene. It is still exclusion though. Yes, blind people can’t drive. But the obviousness—the cavalier, justifiable normalcy of the statement “Blind people can’t drive” is the point. I can’t. I just can’t. It’s a fact. Driving is an integral part of life, and I can’t drive. No one will think twice about it. I shouldn’t either. If I mention it, people will become awkward or confused, not knowing how to react.
The unrelenting, predictable ordinariness of a million different exclusions like this can become a diseased root from which too many thoughts and actions grow. And then coping mechanisms abound. I am adept at turning embarrassment, anger, and sadness into apathy, humor, and deflection. It is all too easy to convince others that I don’t mind them going off and doing that thing I can’t do. Really, I have more than enough to keep myself entertained; you go ahead. But these mechanisms are facades that crumble the moment I find myself participating in a new everyday activity.
One weekend in 2012, I bought an iPhone 4s. It was my first iPhone. A couple years earlier, Apple had taken the then-unprecedented step of adding an innovative new kind of screen reader to its touchscreen phone, and I was finally giving it a go. It seemed great, but just how revolutionary it was snuck up on me. I downloaded the New York Times app, opened it up on my usual Monday morning commute, and went down into the subway station. I started flicking through articles and listening to them in my headphones. On the train, I looked up at one point and saw the glow coming from all the other phones. That’s when it hit me: I was reading the news on the subway, just like everyone else.
When I was a kid and saw adults reading a newspaper in the morning, before smartphones, before people were really reading news online, it was another one of those things: I can’t. I just can’t. Then, all of a sudden, standing there on that subway, I could. I choked up.
The feeling I had in that moment is hard to describe. The closest thing is relief, but it’s complex. It’s a relief from the burden of not being able to do something most people can. It’s also a respite from the ever-present grief over being persistently forgotten and ignored. The attention, the time and care taken coding and crafting inclusion into hardware or an app are a declaration of value. They mean that meeting my needs is important to someone. In a way it’s an act of love, or justice, or both.
Right now, there’s no law clearly stating Substack can’t do what it’s doing. Somebody might eventually sue them. They might settle. They might fix everything. It happens from time to time. But man do I wish they would take the time now. It may not be profitable, aligned with their growth strategy, or a goal for this quarter. It would, however, be an undeniably good thing to do. And I would love to make my morning coffee, sit down at my computer, and know that I can simply start working, just like everyone else.