What is ‘Access On-Demand’? Explaining disabled people’s constant catch-up

I write this just weeks after Twitter rolled out its new audio tweets feature without much consideration for the Deaf and hard of hearing community. These users – myself included – rightly complained, it was revealed that there was “no formal team” for accessibility at the social media company and Twitter Support repeated our mantra that “accessibility should not be an afterthought” in their apology.

Yet, disabled people are still waiting. A tool available to non-disabled, hearing individuals still remains frustratingly out of reach for us, as we wait for Twitter to work, however quickly, to make audio tweets accessible to deaf and disabled users.

In that time, the conversation continues. Discussions split between those who can use a service, and those who cannot.

To extend this outwards into other areas, this also occurs with the frankly shocking situation regarding subtitled cinema screenings. I wrote a piece for Metro.co.uk last year explaining why the plea from directors of the Avengers films to not “spoil the Endgame” was somewhat meaningless when it would end up taking several days – if not, weeks – of avoiding spoilers for me to watch a captioned version of the movie and join the conversation.

Or perhaps we can use the recent campaign called #WhereIsTheInterpreter? Led by Deaf presenter Lynn Stewart-Taylor, the initiative called out the UK Government’s failure to provide an in-person British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter for its daily coronavirus briefings. Deaf charities stepped up to the plate, providing access as soon as they could once the conference had taken place. It was never their responsibility or duty in the first place, of course, and it could all have been avoided if the Prime Minister introduced a BSL interpreter in the first place. Now, campaigners are filing legal challenges over the issue.

As always, it is always a game of catch-up, and never basic equality or inclusion.

Prompted by the conversations around Twitter and BSL interpreters – and so as to not step on the toes of any academics – I asked online if any research had been done into this phenomenon. Namely, had a term been coined to describe this aforementioned delay?

Granted, a tweet to around 2,800 followers can only go so far, but this – alongside several Google searches – didn’t offer up many results. The “discrimination gap” was used in some instances, though it wasn’t used in this specific context. Tech teams had written blog posts about bridging the so-called “accessibility gap”, but wouldn’t go into much detail as to what exactly that meant.

So, keen to give a term to such a specific concept, and heavily inspired by Stella Young’s creation of the phrase ‘inspiration porn’ to perfectly describe sensationalised portrayals of disability, I thought the phrase “access on-demand” would suffice, until I learn that a catch-all term for this already existed.

Its usage works in two senses: the waiting game which I’ve already discussed in detail, as well as the suggestion that some service providers may well forget to make things accessible, only to see the outcry from disabled people as ‘proof of demand’. Accessibility is an expectation, not a demand. Neither of these are okay.

To use ‘on-demand’ is particularly appropriate when considering its reference to digital media, an area in which accessibility remains incredibly poor. Netflix is still facing complaints over the quality of its captions on Queer Eye, several theatre shows have moved online without subtitles and news outlets only caption the first three seconds or so of their news clips on social media before lazily asking viewers to ‘tap for sound’.

If you’re unable to access a programme at the time of launch, then you can watch it whenever and wherever on-demand – except this form of catch-up is far more discriminatory.

The second sense relates to a ‘demand’ for access, as mentioned previously. It is often something which appears at the end of the rollout or axing of a service. In a tweet commenting on YouTube’s plans to deprecate its closed captioning feature, I set out this procedure in depth.

“Poor promotion leads to poor usage, and companies use that to justify getting rid of it,” I write, “until communities speak out and then that’s seen as ‘demand’ for access.”

I conclude the post with a reminder: “Access is expected, not demanded.”

“Poor promotion leads to poor usage, and companies use that to justify getting rid of it, until communities speak out and then that’s seen as ‘demand’ for access. Access is expected, not demanded.”

With that being said, I should stress that “access on-demand”, much like Young’s ‘inspiration porn’, isn’t a good thing. You should not aspire to sensationalise the struggles of disabled people, nor should you launch now, and worry about inclusion later.

The needs of deaf and disabled people must – and should – always be considered from the outset, and that surely is the best way to eliminate “access on-demand” from the start.


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