If the title makes you wonder what this post has to do on a vegan blog, stay with me, I’ll finally get to this.
A side effect of my work as a web accessibility consultant is that I get to meet a lot of people with some kind of disability. In fact, I know so many people with disabilities that I don’t really think about disabilities anymore. Just like I don’t think about my five diopters contact lenses and that I’d bump into a tree without them.
When I say disability, you’re probably thinking of a blind person or someone in a wheelchair. This is understandable because there are obvious clues: wheelchair, white cane, guide dog … got it, here comes a disabled person.
But a lot of disabilities are less visible, or even invisible. How can you tell if someone’s hard-of-hearing, is mentally challenged, or has a color blindness? The answer is, you can’t. You will find it out though when you talk to them while they’re not looking at you, when you use complicated words rather than simple ones, or when you show them a presentation with a pie chart in red and green. And depending on the situation, this can be a very embarrassing moment.
We often hear the term “people with special needs” to refer to people with a disability. I don’t like this term, because it implies an extra effort. In website projects, what the client hears is: “This is going to cost you extra.” and to try and save some money, more often than not, they’re saying things like: “Blind people won’t visit our online shop anyway, because we’re only selling TV sets and blind people don’t buy TV sets.”
Even after seven years in this business I still cringe in those moments. Of course blind people buy TVs, and they even say they’re watching TV even though they don’t actually see. That’s why we have audio descriptions. And my job is to explain to the clients that their mental concept of “target groups” needs to be reconsidered.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, once said: “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
I could write a whole book on the many ways the internet enables people with disabilities to do things easily that they would have a hard time doing in real life. HTML – the underlying code, the language – with which websites are built, is accessible by default. But then the designers and marketing experts come and break it by designing for target groups that exclude people.
This is a huge issue for the individual person, but also for our society as a whole. Let’s broaden our definition of disability a little further. As people age, many of them develop one kind of disability or another. Think dementia, Parkinson’s, cataract and so on. All of a sudden someone may have problems using a mouse or a touchpad to operate their computer because their hands are shaking. And the website they’re trying to use and have used for years isn’t keyboard accessible. Bad luck, huh?
And I have news for you: You too are going to age and chances are that your physical and mental condition will not be the same that they are today. Now imagine life without your favorite social network, without your maps app, without Wikipedia and all the other essential stuff you’ve come to love and use over the years. All gone, because someone somewhere in a marketing department or a fancy web design studio didn’t think of you as their target group. Would you consider yourself a person with special needs? Probably not. You just want to carry on with your life just like you used to and other people are actively breaking it for you. You are not disabled, you are being disabled.
And here comes the twist, and I’m aware that it sounds like a bit of a stretch, but please bear with me, I promise it will all make sense in the end.
As a vegan, I run into similar issues. I’m considered a person with a special need. Those who know me know that I’m always out and about, visiting conferences, traveling and, as a result, eating out a lot. I did this before I went vegan, and I’m still doing it now. And wow, does it make a difference! Let me give you an example:
Last night, at a dinner after a web symposium I was attending, there was this salad in front of me. I love salad, but this particular salad had cheese crumbles on it. Everyone had the same , and it was already there before we entered the dining room. I should add that I was registered as vegan with a special diet, but the info somehow didn’t make it to the kitchen. So I asked the waiter if he could replace my salad with a plain one without the cheese. Of course, this wasn’t a problem.
But not only did an otherwise perfect salad probably go to waste, no, I got everyone’s attention due to my “special needs”. This is something I don’t really enjoy. And, since I now knew the catering service hadn’t thought of vegans when planning the dinner, I also had to inquire about the main course and dessert. The waiter didn’t know what was in the food, so he went to the kitchen to ask, returned with an ingredients list that I double checked, and so on. You can imagine that it kind of ruined the moment for everyone at the table, including myself. I thought that this is what it must be like to go to a restaurant with your friends and having to use the back door because the front door isn’t wheelchair accessible. It’s just not a smooth experience.
This experience sparked the idea to this post. The irony is that the event I was attending was the 20th anniversary of the W3C, the consortium that develops standards to ensure that the web remains accessible to all. The W3C was founded and is led by none other than the above quoted Sir Tim Berners-Lee who had been giving a talk just one hour before.
You may think that going vegan is a choice, while a disability is not, and that I should just deal with it. But going vegan for ethical reasons is not a choice. Once you made up your mind about animal agriculture and its horrible practices you’re no longer choosing vegan. Vegan chooses you.
I’m an optimist and I firmly believe that I will live to see humankind abandon animal abuse just like we abandoned slavery. I believe that a vegan world is possible, but the time isn’t here yet. I also believe that an accessible world is possible and that I will live to see it. But that time also isn’t here yet. So, what to do to improve everyone’s experience in the meantime? How do we avoid the embarrassing moments where we find out that we haven’t considered someone’s “special needs”?
My suggestion is, let’s agree on a moral baseline.
Make sure a person notices you before you start talking to them. Use simple words to explain your ideas, so everyone can understand you. Choose colors that everyone can tell apart. If your restaurant has a step at the front door, build a ramp. And while you’re doing it, don’t even think about disabilities. Do it because it’s polite, common sense and the baseline that works for everyone. People who can walk won’t even notice there’s a ramp, and I have never heard anyone insist that a pie chart has to have certain colors.
Likewise, make your meals accessible. Have a basic salad for everyone and serve cheese on the side. Cook a healthy entree with lots of veggies and let people choose to top it with meat or tofu.
Whenever you cook something, whenever you build something, whenever you say something or show something, do it in a way that it is accessible for everyone. Choose the defaults wisely and you won’t have to put any extra effort into including everyone.
That way we can all enjoy our precious time together.
Thanks for listening.