Who Reads the Internet

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In the year 2000 I was just a young fox cub back in college working on staff for my college newspaper. It was a paper distributed bi-weekly on paper (you know, because this was a long time ago) to kiosks and bulletin boards and waste baskets all across campus. For the most part I hated it, but it was a required duty for all Communication majors.

My dislike stemmed mostly from the fact that I was already extremely busy as a full-time student with a real job, and I wasn’t looking for more work as an unpaid journalist. There was also my general distaste for doing hard-nosed reporting on that funny smell in the teacher’s lounge or digging into the hard-luck back-story of the poor Swedish immigrant who rose through the ranks to become Dean of Admissions. I couldn’t imagine wasting my life on anything less important. (No offense to the Swedish…or the moldy cheese stuck behind the fridge in the teacher’s lounge.)

So, for the sake of my own sanity, I proposed to our senior editor and faculty advisor that we add an Op-Ed piece to our paper where I would write bi-weekly editorials on the current goings on in the world around us. Somehow they bought it, and I had purchased the freedom to write pretty much whatever I wanted without having to do any real journalistic work. It was brilliant! (Yes. That’s what we’re calling it. Brilliant.)

So for the rest of the semester I wrote about stuff I thought was interesting, adding in my own opinions and thoughts. The pieces were mostly relevant, often embarking on satire, and dare I say humorous on occasion.

But my most famous piece was an extremely hard-hitting expose questioning the relevance of Braille being used at the drive-thru ATM’s at my local bank1. I mean, how many blind people drove through there anyway? And I went all out. There were references to scuff marks on the curbs to support the possible existence of blind drivers, and perhaps one or two over-the-line remarks about the capabilities of seeing-eye-dogs in this day and age. (One bark for turn left, two barks for turn right. You get the idea.)

The editor loved it and actually ran it. Our faculty advisor had reservations, but generally practiced teaching by allowing us to experience our own stupidity.

The paper was issued that Thursday. On Monday I got a call from the faculty advisor explaining that I would need to issue a public apology in the next issue. She had received an irate phone call from a student at our school who read my article; a blind student…who read my article in the newspaper.

I was dumbfounded. Not that someone would take issue with my spirited writing, but how on earth could a blind person pick up a copy of our paper and read it? My tiny fox brain just couldn’t connect the dots. (Full confession? My first thought was “I have got to get one of these incredible dogs!”)

It turns out our newspaper articles were also published on a section of our school’s website; a section I didn’t even know existed. And it turns out computers and even the early Web included affordances for screen-reader technology that allowed blind users to access and explore the Internet, and even read our school newspaper articles. This was the first time I had ever heard of screen-reader technology, and I was both embarrassed and intrigued.

The advisor gave me the name and phone number of the student and I called that afternoon and gave my personal apology. I was sincerely apologetic for being insensitive, and for being so out of touch with the real capabilities being offered to the blind. I was also sincerely interested in the technology and how it worked.

After accepting my apology, the student on the phone was more than happy to explain how he had been able to use computers and browse the Internet for years, specifically on Mac computers which had excellent accessibility features built in. It wasn’t a perfect experience, but it was very capable, and I even got to hear his screen reader program read my article over the phone. Hearing my very ignorant words spoken back to me by a machine was truly a surreal moment.

In the next issue of the paper I published my apology and shared my experience learning about screen readers and the importance of accessibility in technology.

That also happened to be the end of my newspaper career. The semester was over and my days of writing over-the-top opinion pieces came to a rather inglorious but poignant end. I had no idea then that my career building the web was just getting started, and I was bringing with me a lesson I will certainly never forget.

Fox Tip: Ignorance is a brutal teacher. Learn quickly.

Fox Tip 2: Know thy user. Over a decade later, I’m not sure we fully get the importance of building for accessibility.

1 It turns out the drive-thru ATM’s have Braille simply because the ATM manufacturers don’t build separate machines for the walk-up vs. drive-thru machines. And now you know.

photo credit: redspotted via photopin cc

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