“Access is love but love is complicated.” – Andy Slater, blind media artist (https://www.thisisandyslater.net/)
The above quote is one of my favorite summations of the challenge and opportunity with access and accessibility. These are common buzzwords in disability-oriented spaces, yet it can take time to pinpoint precisely what they denote, and their frequent use makes it even more challenging to understand precisely what they entail since there are several different interpretations and possibilities. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), accessibility commonly refers to ensuring that disabled individuals have the same access as anyone to all areas of their premises (https://adatile.com/a-guide-to-ada-compliance-in-california/#:~:text=Being%20ADA%20compliant%20means%20that,committing%20a%20civil%20rights%20violation). Further, writer Mia Mingus extends it to a concept of “access intimacy,” defined as “that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else ‘gets’ your access needs.” (https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/access-intimacy-the-missing-link/)
However, as a disabled artist creating new work, I view the vagueness around access and accessibility as possibilities. In my experience, access and accessibility are continuously changing with the times, technology, and overall societal needs. I seek to make artistic work grounded in the experience of disability and, therefore, love the challenge of making access aesthetically integral rather than solely an accommodation. I never want to feel like I mastered my art form or figured it all out, and access’s constant evolvement feels like I’m always experimenting in the best of ways.
Therefore, in creative work and artistic presentations, I try to be sensitive to accessibility needs overall. For example, many of my video works incorporate open captions aesthetically into the video framing and editing. Additionally, when I give artist talks, I describe the visual content of each slide and media shared. While this gesture is certainly not a holistic undertaking of accessibility in a presentation, for me, it is a step forward and often new to the audiences I am speaking with, thereby hoping to raise awareness of accessibility practices overall.
Thus, when I first began developing a website, I was excited by the prospect of AI-powered widgets that could supposedly improve digital accessibility by injecting a few lines of code on the backend. I was explicitly excited by the prospect of UserWay (https://userway.org/), a widget I had seen on a few other disability activists’ and organizations’ websites. The widget claims to “comply with ADA law and conform with WCAG 2.1 & 2.2 guidelines at every step of your web accessibility journey” and “protect your website from accessibility-related lawsuits with the world’s strongest automated solution for accessibility.” Their accessibility options include a screen reader, voice navigation, changing the contrast, changing text size, and more. At first glance, I thought it was an incredible array of choices for users to customize their website experience. And best of all, it was free.
I implemented the UserWay widget on my website for a few years and even added it to the websites of non-profits I worked for. Again, I believed it was an easy, free, and visible way of implementing digital accessibility for the website visitor and, ideally, raising awareness of digital accessibility for web users overall. However, in 2022, as I was in contact with disability collaborators in anticipation of an album release, a colleague and experienced worker in accessibility stated via email: “Some feedback on your website. I noticed you are using an accessibility overlay, and those are inaccessible and cause more issues than they solve.”
This feedback stunned me. Learning how UserWay was prohibitive rather than enabling, as it promises on its website, was incredibly frustrating. It was frustrating not because of my colleague’s comment but because it hit to the core of my values as a disabled artist. As aforementioned, I try to be as sensitive as possible to accessibility considerations, as this is foundational to my artistic practice. While my work and website are not perfect or holistic in this regard, I believed UserWay was an efficient and tangible option for digital accessibility. I, therefore, promptly removed the UserWay widget from my website and sought to slowly add image descriptions to the relevant areas, which is very little of the overall accessibility pie. However, I am still frustrated as I do not have enough bandwidth and money to commit to making my website as fully accessible as it should be. At the same time, I lost years and opportunities for doing this while believing in UserWay’s promise of a free and easy solution.
Therefore, I raise this issue because it relates to the earlier sentiment of access and accessibility as constantly changing and evolving, the need for flexibility and to remove options, even if, like me, you thought they were easy and free solutions. Since then, I have seen articles and videos detailing problems with UserWay and related widgets. Learning from such activists and writers about their faulted experiences has been humbling, such as from lawyer Haben Girma (https://youtu.be/R12Z1Sp-u4U?si=Vkv8O93oW_Pt3quK) and the A11Y Project Team (https://www.a11yproject.com/posts/should-i-use-an-accessibility-overlay/). These sentiments highlight inherent problems and assumptions about accessibility that it can be so-called “completed” with one click or a simple injection of a few lines of code on your website. Instead, it is an evolving process, an act of love, but considering how love is complicated and constantly developed, as earlier quoted by artist Andy Slater. Going forward, I look forward to highlighting potential solutions to UserWay and similar widgets that are not cost and time-prohibitive and can continue to open the digital world to users across disabilities.