A Plea for Civility in the Online Blind Community

They say confession is good for the soul, so I’ll start with a confession. I’m usually a decisive kind of guy, but I confess that I abandoned writing this post a few times. I’m enjoying a fairly peaceful online life right now, and I’d like to keep it that way. But if you’re reading this post, it means I decided to publish. And I would have published it because there’s something in the back of my mind that says if I say nothing, I’ve been derelict in my duty to speak out at best, complicit in the behaviour I deplore through my lack of action at worst.

This is a subject I’ve thought about raising on a few occasions, but I feel compelled to do it now because of a blog post that was written about an assistive technology company and its blind CEO. I’m not going to link to it, because I know enough about the law to know that the post could well be libellous. I also need to be as non-specific about the subject matter in the post in question as possible, because since Mosen Consulting started, I’ve not blogged about the Windows screen reading industry. Even if I think I can separate my own opinions as a consumer from some of the work I do, I’ve been around long enough to know that it’s often perception that matters, not reality.

So I’d like to make the following points as matters of general principle.

The blind community is a tiny minority. We face rampant unemployment. We’re frequently discriminated against. Our heads can get tired from bashing them repeatedly against a brick wall when services aren’t accessible and our needs are ignored. Many of us struggle financially. For all that, as I say on the home page of this sight, there’s never been a better time to be blind, and much of the progress we’ve made has been due to determined, capable, gifted blind people.

Leaders in any minority will emerge who try to make a difference. The blind community has such leaders in advocacy, business, technology, blindness services, social tools and many other fields. Leaders, be they blind or sighted in whatever endeavours they pursue, put themselves out there. They take risks. Sometimes they’ll enjoy great success, and sometimes they’ll screw up. Many people in business, the arts and politics have hit low points, but they’ve bounced back, because there’s something inside them that treats failure as a challenge, not as a final judgement. Resilience is a fundamental leadership quality.

When people put themselves out there in that way, they get noticed. People elect them, buy from them, work for them, and or trust them. Because they’re human, they’ll get it wrong sometimes. And when they get it wrong, they should be held to account. If we’re affected by a decision they’ve taken, we’re absolutely entitled to criticise that decision and point out what we perceive to be its negative consequences. But because we’re all human, there’ll be those among us who resent the success of others, and feel the need to attack them to bring them down a peg or two.

Maybe you’re saying, “sure sure, but none of this is blindness-specific”, and you’d be right. Visit any mainstream blog, and there’s no shortage of posts full of venom. As for the comments, well, comments on many blogs make one wonder about the future of the human race. People sit behind keyboards, often hiding behind an alias, and spew the most vile personal vitriol, apparently without any thought for the fact that a real human being just like them is the subject of it. So no, this isn’t just a blind thing.

But the fact that civility seems to be disappearing rapidly from social discourse at large isn’t a reason for us not to examine our conduct in the online blind community. I believe we don’t have the luxury of bitterness and ranker, because of the common challenges we face.

There’s also the matter of scale. When you’re part of a minority, the bigger fish seem bigger, because the pond is smaller. Today, I’ve been listening to music on Spotify, then switched to Pandora for a while. Last night, I caught an audio-described movie on Netflix, and I called my ISP about seeing if they could give me a better deal. I don’t know the name of a single employee of any of these companies off the top of my head, even the CEos. Yet when it comes to blindness-specific companies, I’m familiar with a number of names in all of them. Traditionally, we’ve enjoyed, and I think now expect, much closer, more personal interaction between senior people in the blindness technology industry than is typical of other businesses we interact with. We feel like we know many of them, and many of them have been around for, like, ever. They’re personalities of sorts, big fish in a very small pond.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying people in our community should be immune from criticism, nor am I saying we should passively be grateful for everything we have. I don’t think gratitude and constructive criticism are mutually exclusive at all. I’m grateful every day for all the assistive technology I use, but that doesn’t mean I think the products are perfect, nor does it mean I’ll refrain from making public comment about how I’d like to see them improved. We’re consumers too. If we genuinely don’t believe a product is meeting our needs or that we’re not getting value for money, we should point that out, hopefully in a clear manner and in a way that’s designed to encourage.

If we’re concerned about personnel changes, service quality, a changing direction, a business model, then as a customer or potential customer, we have a vested interest in the matter. If we feel the need to take our business elsewhere, express concern in some public forum about what’s happening or both, fair enough. But I’d urge people to give some thought to the motive behind the criticism. Are you criticising to argue for people to join you in abandoning a product or service? Are you criticising in the hope that something will change, in which case a constructive, private approach may yield more cooperation and ultimately the result you want? Or are you out to hurt someone personally, to join an e-Mob, the equivalent of seeing someone already face-down on the street being kicked by a bunch of people, so you decide it looks like fun and join in?

Making an issue out of people’s personal lives, be it their children, their marital status, their religion or lack thereof or whatever it might be should have no place in our discourse. We run the real risk of discouraging good people from being bold and trying new things if they see that this is what happens. Retweeting such blog posts circulates them more, and to some extent, not calling people on this behaviour is the equivalent of someone walking past while they see someone being attacked or bullied.

I know this first-hand, having been the victim of a few inappropriate attacks over the years that went far beyond well-reasoned disagreement with a decision I took. In those cases, some people joined in, despite not even seeking both sides of the story, and I guess because there’s a tendency to be cynical about decision-makers or leaders. Most people just didn’t comment at all, probably shrugging their shoulders at more blind drama. But a few brave people stood up, said “enough is enough”, and often got attacked in return. They risked being attacked out of a sense of decency and fair play. No matter how desensitised one tries to be, no matter how thick a skin one grows over the years, you’d have to be a robot not to feel some pain from deeply personal attacks that have everything to do with wounding the individual and nothing to do with points of policy. Everyone feels. Everyone hurts. Why deliberately inflict hurt, rather than focus on the issues?

I still remember with gratitude those people who stood up for me, and now I’m doing the same for someone else. Will you? If people go well beyond policy and descend to innuendo and personal things that have nothing to do with the subject matter, I hope you might tell the person concerned that they’ve crossed a line.

Because in the end, regardless of status or fancy title, we’re all blind battlers, trying to change perceptions and beat the odds. We’re all the better for those who put themselves out there. We may not always agree with them, their decisions or their methods. We may choose not to vote for them or support their product, but we can at least disagree without being disagreeable. We can play the ball, not the person. We can respect them for getting out there and giving it a go. Let’s be informed, engaged and constructively critical consumers, but let’s also keep it out of the gutter, and call out people who cross that line between the professional and the personal.

12 Comments on “A Plea for Civility in the Online Blind Community

  1. Jonathan, great post as always, really glad you decided to come forward. When I read the post in question, I kept thinking that no, this really can’t get worse, this really really can’t, and of course it did. Hopefully people will read your commentary on the subject and at the very least, this thing won’t gain any more traction than it already has.

  2. Jonathon,
    Totally agree with your well thought comments—I especially agree regarding the annonymity factor which seems to make individuals feel he/she has the right to post unacceptable vicious or false, personally derogatory comments without regard!!!
    Thanks for standing up!!!

  3. I agree with you wholeheartedly Jonathan, at least on this specific topic. πŸ˜› I’ve read, participated in, and moderated quite a few comment threads, and while this stuff happens in other communities to a point, I see this a lot more in the blind community, at least when it comes to the personal attacks. Maybe it’s a problem of scale, coupled with the fact that everybody pretty much knows everybody else. But we’re not helping ourselves by eating our own, nor, for that matter, are we helping ourselves by some of the other related complaining we do, especially when this stuff is all public now because the internet never forgets.

  4. Hello Jonathan,
    I agree with you with reference to civility understanding the Long-term consequences of harsh criticism. whatever one does with his/her personal life is to be left out of public scrutiny. With reference to anyone taking risks, be they blind or cited, said risktaker should have thick enough skin to take the good with the bad. Maybe the best way to handle that process should have been in house, however I can’t believe there is not a sliver of truth within that blogpost. I believe consumers of the referenced services within that company should’ve at least been warned & given opportunity to take their business elsewhere. you have to admit, even within the ranks of social media, there are more followers within our blind community than there are true leaders. The same followers, are in more cases than not very passive.
    As hard as we try to discourage such behavior, there are still those who believe they have to be spoonfed what is right and wrong. I’m certainly one who is glad to see one with in our own community succeed. However I also know there are those whose personalities will not allow them to handle success constructively. There are times one loses his way within the jungle of success. most successful people don’t get there on their own. They have a team working beside them or under them in capacities favorable to their talents. The team who worked with the company in question more than likely built it into something said CEO was either not prepared for, or felt he was losing control of; maybe simply couldn’t handle it. I hope there have been lessons learned on all sides. If that company survives, I hope it will be a little more transparent. as you so eloquently stated, we are a minority in a big pond. There are those who see people who complain about service as ungrateful. Our community within itself is a microcosm of the way the business world works. Do you feel sorry for the CEO of RadioShack? The company mentioned within your referenced blog post is not RadioShack, yet maybe it has in a painful way failed to evolve in its thinking along with understanding how fast paced the communication world we live in operates. I think there are those within our community who feel as if they’re being told to bend over and take it by one of their own comrades. I’m certainly not jealous of success. I congratulate success. However as a consumer, blind or cited I won’t tolerate the way I’ve been treated as one who had come to depend on the quality said company had come to be known for only to watch with one swing of the ax the CEO completely destroy & undermine the integrity and reputation his company had built.

    • Hi Pam, I think there’s a difference between criticism of professional decisions taken and personal attacks. That was really the point of my post.
      Regarding Radioshack, I can’t say it hasn’t happened, but I’ve personally not seen any references to the personal life of the CEO in anything I’ve read. If people think RadioShack has lost its way, or it’s been poorly run, that’s all fair game.
      My point in the post really is to say that if we disagree with the way a company is being run or specific decisions that have been taken, that criticism can be offered in a steadfast yet appropriate way. In my view, bringing subject matter that has nothing to do with business matters crosses a line.

      • jealousy or spite. I meant what I said in my original post. I would not want to see one of our comrades go down in flames; however if it happened, one could only imagine it would have been due to his own missteps. Hi Jonathan,
        I wholeheartedly agree with separating one’s personal life from one’s business intentions.
        I always enjoy reading your well thought out posts. I think you and I agree on many fronts in this case. It may just be approached in different ways. I don’t know the person well enough to make a judgment as to whether he posted that blog out ofjealousy or spite.

  5. I agree with the sentiment Jonathan, the community might find it interesting to hear that at least this half-way follower of things in the blindness news missed what has obviously gone on for some time now. I did read Freedom Scientific getting a pretty good pounding, but I guess I can say I’m not unhappy to have missed the really rough stuff. We all should pull together; as you say and given your perspective, there are many good things attending blindness at the moment. However, we live in a world that I feel is plagued by conservatism, a sink or swim policy attitude, let alone high unemployment, poverty, solutions not easy to see coming. Still have you noticed our comedy lately? Havde you noticed the nastiness of political speech. Maybe we are witnessing side effects of internet universality, something we all could have predicted; maybe people are living lives of quiet desperation where meanness is seen as entertainment, hell the news is easily characterized as being made up of lists of misery, suffering, disasters, let alone man’s inhumanity to man and woman. Yours is a clear voice Jonathan. Keep it coming.

  6. Great post Jonathan! I would also remind everyone to brush their teeth and wash their hands before and after every meal πŸ™‚
    Cleanliness is friendliness! We want to impress the sighted world, not embarrass ourselves!

    With warm regards


    Jesus loves you!

  7. Agree with Daisy. She’s such a sweet woman.

    I have a request however. This article should really have “senility” replacing “civility.” It would better reflect your post altogether. I have half a mind to tell my aunt, a psychiatrist, of your condition. You seem like you need help.

    Warm and healing regards,

    Christ wishes all the best for your recovery! Be safe!

  8. Totally agree, Jonathan. I am all for constructive criticism, and advocacy when it it is for the purpose of improving things, or righting a wrong. However, when commentary and criticism cross the line into personal attacks, this only leads to divisiveness and serves no good purpose. Thanks for eloquently standing up for considered thought and professionalism. In this age of instant communication through blogs and social networking, it is too easy to hurt people and spread misinformation. I think that if someone wants to vent, they should take some time to really think about the effects that their posts may have on other people.