Hurray! I can finally scratch “getting humiliated by a national law journal” off of my bucket list. Oh, wait, it wasn’t on there to begin with. Nonetheless, it happened. I hope sharing the experience will enlighten my fellow authors and advocates about dealing with the press. In short, the “journalist” opened with a partial truth, framing both me and an issue very near and dear to my heart as narcissistic. Comments on the site underscore the effectiveness of this approach.
Smashwords, Scribd & the ABA Journal
The national law journal in question is the ABA Journal, the official publication of the American Bar Association. No, I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not an individual plaintiff in any law suits. How then, you may wonder, did a blind author of a young adult fantasy novel get involved with the Bar?
It all stemmed from my decision to publish The Heart of Applebutter Hill on Smashwords, the eBook aggregator that distributes books in a myriad of electronic formats to a growing list of venues including Nook, Apple, Sony and Baker & Taylor Blio. I was so proud when my book was accepted for Smashwords’ Expanded Distribution program. I had properly formatted my book to “Meatgrinder” specifications without sight and using a screen reader. It was a mind-numbing learning process and a testament to the fact that accessibility can and does work.
A Word on Accessibility
The inability to interact with our growing digital world is the major access issue facing people who have print disabilities such as blindness, low vision and physical disabilities which prevent them from using a mouse. The universe of 1s and 0s holds out great hope for leveling the playing field, so that people like myself with print disabilities can compete with our able-bodied and sighted peers.
Screen readers (aka text-to-speech programs), which convert text to synthetic speech, refreshable Braille, which converts text to Braille, screen magnification and voice activation programs enable people with print disabilities to independently use computers, create, format, edit documents, send and receive emails and surf the web.
The stumbling block, which is having devastating effects on blind students, job applicants, employees, parents and customers, results from a significant number of software programs, devices and websites that do not conform to the standards necessary to enable adaptive technology to interact with them. There are regulations governing such things and many resources for web designers who are not sure about how to make their sites accessible. The technology is here, so why isn’t it being used?
Digital Accessibility: a Second-Rate Remedy
Unlike building codes for brick and mortar buildings which require elevators, wheelchair ramps and accessible restrooms in order to be physically accessible, however, there is no review process for digital accessibility. The laws governing digital access are complaint-driven. When a person with a disability encounters discrimination or access issues, they must file a complaint.
This ensures that, when public awareness campaigns are unsuccessful in getting the attention of software and website developers, accessibility ends up being a process of retrofitting, making it more costly for the business and creating monumental delays in the lives of people who require adaptive technology. It also creates adversarial relationships between students and educators, between employees and bosses and between an already marginalized minority and the general public.
The November, 2011 issue of the First Monday Journal (University of Illinois, Chicago) features an academic study explaining the issues and recommending solutions.
“Retrofitting accessibility: The legal inequality of after-the-fact online access for persons with disabilities in the United States” by Brian Wentz, Paul T. Jaeger, and Jonathan Lazar: http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3666/3077
It warns that disability laws are creating a “separate but unequal” online environment and a “permanent underclass.”
Dashed Hopes & Lost Opportunities for Blind Authors
The problem started when Smashwords announced that they had reached a distribution agreement with a new online subscription library called Scribd. My book, along with those of other Smashwords authors would be part of the Scribd library as of April 2014, and all of us would get a free one-year membership to Scribd.
What a great thing! Authors could read each other’s work for free, network, trade book reviews and hopefully get a leg up in a business that demands an almost 24-7 commitment to marketing. Furthermore, Scribd boasts 40 million titles – Bookshare, the largest provider of accessible books for people with print disabilities just passed the 300,000 mark,. I couldn’t wait.
When I clicked to accept my complimentary membership in Scribd, however, I soon learned that the platform is totally inaccessible. I wrote and got the typical assurances that the company cared about blind authors and readers. Nothing was ever done – unless closing my customer service inquiry without resolving it counts.
National Federation of the Blind Sues Scribd Online Library
I moved on. Then, in July, I received a press release from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) announcing that they had filed a complaint against Scribd on behalf of a blind mother under Title 3 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I wrote to Disability Rights Advocates (Berkeley, California), one of the law firms handling the case.
I wanted them to know that there were blind authors out there who had been locked out of a benefit available to other authors because of the site’s inaccessibility. I explained that this impeded our ability to pursue our careers and put us in a one-down position vis-à-vis our sighted peers.
Fantasy Author’s 1st National Photo Shoot is for the ABA Journal
In the fall, Disability Rights Advocates asked me if I would talk to Wendy N. Davis, a writer for the ABA Journal, who was working on an article on web accessibility and the Scribd case. I was interviewed by her via phone for well over an hour.
In December, just when I had forgotten the whole thing, I received an email from Jeff Wojtaszek, a Philadelphia-area commercial portrait photographer, about setting up a photo shoot for the ABA Journal. My first photo shoot for a national publication! I was over the moon.
On a cold, snowy day, my husband followed the camera crew and me around our rural Pennsylvania property with his own camera. The pictures he took were my basis for a local press release which led to articles in the Wyoming County Press Examiner, the Wyalusing Rocket Courier and one on Endless Mountains Life Styles – “Meshoppen Area Woman Speaks on Behalf of Writers With Vision Impairments” by Rick Hiduk: http://www.endlessmtnlifestyles.com/?p=2969
Then, the ABA Journal article, “People with disabilities want the Internet to be more accessible” was published: http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/people_with_disabilities_want_the_internet_to_be_more_accessible
ABA Journal Trivializes Blind Author’s Problems with Scribd
Imagine my horror when I realized Davis had portrayed my concerns with Scribd’s inaccessibility as merely a problem of not being able to read my own book there. Who cares if I can read my own book on the internet? I wrote the book. I have other options for reading it.
In addition to failing to mention my own lost opportunity for professional networking and advancement, Ms. Davis neglected to clarify that I am not the individual plaintiff in the legal action. That would be Heidi Viens, a blind parent from Colchester, Vermont. Based on Davis’s article, the NFB looks like they file ADA complaints based on the most trivial of problems.
Authors & the Press
I’ve dealt with the press for over 40 years. I did my own PR when pursuing my career as a singer-songwriter, and I do my own PR now as a novelist. I wrote for online magazines as a journalist for over five years covering a variety of issues including Braille literacy, web accessibility, nature, folk music and chocolate. As a volunteer publicist for the NFB, I’ve placed articles in publications across the country about exceptional blind people and the issues they face.
I’m well-aware that reporters don’t always get every fact exactly right, and interpretations vary greatly. But, even when the Philadelphia Inquirer interpreted my invitation to perform for a Presidential committee as an invitation to the White House itself, I never criticized them. My habit is to thank the media, a habit that I have just broken in honor of Ms. Davis’s shoddy reporting.
In fairness, she is a reasonably good writer and did assemble a decent selection of sources and perspectives on the issue. But, she led with me, and allowed either her own opinions or poor note-taking and recollection skills to couch an issue vital – especially to younger blind people – in terms of mediocrity and selfishness.
Coming to Terms
Whether I can forgive this is not the issue. I simply can’t remain silent about it. After reading the comments – some of which were very negative – I wrote my own comment clarifying some of the misleading and missing information in the article. I was so furious that I ended up having to write a second comment to clarify a couple of things I had said. The initial feeling of humiliation, anger and frustration was nothing short of toxic.
On the bright side (a perspective which took a full week to even surface), I was, after all, successful in getting the mainstream press in my local area to cover the issue of digital access. My belief is that the battle must be engaged there, where the public can learn about and grapple with the reality.
Also, a wise friend reminded me that anonymous comments on the internet have a reputation for vitriol. More importantly, Ms. Davis, for all of her flaws, did not succumb to the common habit of portraying blind people as amazing bastions of inspiration.
Dealing with the press and the public is not for the squeamish. Negative press is inevitable, and – for most people – hurt feelings are as well. My only advice is to do what you know to be right and plough through the unpleasantness as best you can. It will pass. The truth, as they say, “will out.”