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.