Seeing the Cobbles

Originally Published 20230123

There's something wrong in FOSS? Must be Tuesday.

Decades ago, when I was a teenager. I was out with a friend in my home city. It was a fairly rainy day. I kept slowing down in the street and looking down at the ground when we came up to side streets. My friend asked me what I was doing.

"I'm looking at the cobbles."

My friend thought this was a weird thing to do. I had to explain it was an automatic thing I did. I scanned for the trip hazards. I'd been doing it for years. Since I was taking my first steps as a toddler.

To my friend cobbles were just cobbles. But to me, those cobbles were a risk to be assessed. Cobbles on a dry day can be fairly hazardous, but smooth cobbles on a wet day are slippery.

I grew up in a disabled household. We'd go to the shops on foot. While that family member could walk. Their balance was impaired. They didn't want to use a wheelchair. As long as they could walk, they would walk. Where we lived you couldn't escape cobbles as they were part of older roads into the town center.

We lived in fear of a bad fall. Sometimes we needed to go to the hospital.

I grew up watching my relative get frustrated with people in the street after a mild fall. Passersby would try to help my relative up. Of course, it's what people do. It's a decent thing to do. Plus my relative was cluttering up the pavement.

My relative just wanted to get their bearings and pick themselves up in their own time. Often well-meaning passersby ignored my relative's agency.

I learned to scan ahead for trip hazards, not to prevent the fall, but to prepare for after a fall.

I grew up learning empathy, and what to do in case of a fall.

My parents used to tell a story about when I was a toddler. My relative fell over the garden and was a bit winded by the fall. I took off like a rocket. As my relative lay there, they worried that their fall had scared me. As it turns out there wasn't any need to be worried. I was not frightened. I ran back dragging a pillow and tried to pop it under their head. Then I plopped down beside them and held their hand. After a while, my relative got up and we carried on doing whatever we were doing in the garden.

I learned that empathy from my other family members. It was coded into me. Since I was young, I learned from my family's example.

That automatic empathy never left years later, looking at the cobbled streets in a different place. The cobbles were granite this time, but they still had similar trip hazards.

If you've never experienced the world not being accessible. It's hard to understand how everyday things can put massive barriers to access.

What I unconsciously did as a teen, I kept doing for years after when I no longer needed to do it. I try to to exercise that empathy now in my professional life.

Many of us work in FOSS, or adjacent to these projects. When we work in public, because we believe in Free Software and the Freedom of the Commons. We have a responsibility to ensure that everyone has equal access to our code and to be able to easily interact with us. We also want to find like-minded folk who want to help us develop our code and build our community.

The more people we meet, the more we spark off each other. People from different walks of life can create great things together. Access to that space needs to be easy. When barriers exist (intentional or unintentional) in the way of potential collaborators then you lose them. Sometimes you never realize you lost them. It's a loss for any project to lose the chance to collaborate with other folks. Doesn't matter if it's from a lack of care, or you lose them from outright hostility to outsiders. It's a loss.

Last year, my project moved it's home to a new code forge. We then found a serious accessibility issue. Specifically a captcha issue. But there are other accessibility issues with that software. Web products and code forges Specifically like github, gitlab etc, have very slow processes to fix these issues. Often with hostile workflows to fix the issue.

These issues often languish for years. Often you do need to name and shame publicly. These things need to stay in the public eye on social media rather than tickets. It's a sad fact that only continuous public pressure seems to change policy. It needs to remain continuous otherwise the issue gets dropped on the floor and ignored until the next person notices the issue.

This is understandable, it's easy to forget accessibility when you don't understand why something is a blocker. You don't grok the issue when you haven't had systematic blockers for a portion of your life.

Having to document accessibility issues, saps your energy. Having to go through extra steps, saps your energy. Having to ask nicely for some help for the nth time that day, saps your energy.

You know your request will be ignored unless you leverage your community to help you, to kick up a fuss. You also know when you do that, it will also sap your communities energy.

Having to qualify in writing why you need to use the extraordinary workflow and occasionally disclose your disability, saps your energy.

That's before we get to the privacy aspect of disclosing your disability to an organization so that you can justify your request.

When you have extra steps, with conditions to get an account to access a website. It's discrimination and you are hurting the community. You make your space less welcoming. It stays less diverse. Why should folks have to go through extra hoops when you can't be arsed to put some resources aside to fix this?

So folks leave because they know you don't really care enough about them. They know that you don't feel they asked you nicely enough to care about their access. Sometimes there's a gentle version of "just fuck off then" as well.

Accessibility is hard. There's no one solution out there to fix access for everyone. You need to be adaptable and try to design for it in the first place. This is why fostering an inclusive welcoming community is important.

How can you know there are systematic barriers to your projects if you aren't listening to those who are trying to communicate those barriers to you? The only way we can is to ask people and to listen to people when they give feedback.

The real issue isn't the tech. It never was the tech. The reason why we are upset isn't about the tech. It's the lack of care by FOSS projects and some of their community supporters to recognize the issue beyond playing to the gallery.

Often projects feel that with their resources they have done enough, they do care. They can't do more just now. Just use the existing systems and workflow, and be patient. We are just being mean and ungrateful as well. Our tone isn't positive, it's not constructive.

I'm honestly not sure how else we can explain why we aren't happy.

When anyone has difficulty setting up an account for a system and has to send an email to justify why they need their account created. How much detail do you need for someone with accessibility needs to get an account? How nicely do they need to ask a site and it's community to please be welcoming and accessible to them?

With these situations, there's often a mixture in response varying from "you should be grateful for what we provide" to "what is the technical issue? How can we fix this in a technical way?".

Although sometimes you see a response, that's truly rage inducing. For me it was last year, when my own comment on an issue was used to tone police a friend. I'd carefully marshaled my anger and controlled my need to snark to try to get movement on an accessibility issue. To try to improve things. Instead my own words were used against a friend. To essentially to get them to shut up. To get that friend to not be so vocally critical of the situation.

I'm still incandescent with rage about that one.

Again these issues in FOSS for the communities aren't technical issues. It's an attitude issue and at the moment I don't think a lot of folks in FOSS or some of their supporters can see where the problem is.

The cobbles don't register.

The people in your community who actively advocate for you reflect how your community is seen by those who are outside it.

How do I see some of the projects and some folks in FOSS?

At the moment in public and in private, I'm disappointed. I'm angry. Folks I consider friends and others who I respect professionally, showed they are willing to trample on the dignity and human rights of some of my friends and family.

I know that this isn't everyone in FOSS. I know that the volunteers who do work in FOSS are good people. Good people can still harm others through carelessness. It's not that folks don't care. They don't care enough to scan the cobbles for trip hazards.

Often human empathy isn't fired up until circumstances happen to make life worse for you. Old age and life-changing events happen to everyone. When you dismiss folk's concerns and legitimate criticism. When you see the people making that criticism as professional troublemakers you don't just hurt our Human Rights.

You hurt your own Human Rights.

I'm sad that yet again, the FOSS community demonstrates its failure to see a systematic issue. This demonstrates an attitude of resistance to change because of a forthright legitimate criticism of their favorite community/project space.

We all make mistakes. We all work in spaces where the web is an inaccessible mess for folks to access. But to keep defending your project, to say that your project isn't a corp. To say "I'm in FOSS, I'm a good guy", and to keep not seeing why the accessibility workflow is an issue. Not to mention the other issues of a toxic attitude in parts of FOSS is a problem.

You don't care enough to scan the cobbles.

Well, there's a point where you go from ignorance to sheer obstinance. To not even admit to the existence of the cobbled path ahead. You can't see the hazards of the othering of outsiders who point out an inconvenient truth, about missing steps.

I feel angry and ashamed, that my initial comment was used as an example of how to ask nicely. It brings up uncomfortable memories of sexism in FOSS, with "Why can't you be like her, she's a cool girl?" "Why can't you have a nicer attitude? Like this other woman, she's cool with our behavior."

Just ignore that missing step, and carry on walking on those cobbles.

Ask us nicely and take what you are given.

That's tone policing and every time I see that sort of comment, I'm incandescent with anger about that. I don't want my own online behavior to be used as an example to try to tell other people how to beg nicely for some consideration and action.

This gives the impression that FOSS doesn't really believe in equality, especially if it's difficult to implement. Or you don't like the people asking for you to enable that equality of access.

Or perhaps you don't like the way that people ask you to respect their human rights. To give them equal access, where they can exercise their own agency and sign up for an account without having to ask for support nicely.

I think FOSS needs to spend a little less time striding ahead, patting themselves on the back about how superior and ethical they are. Pause for a moment and stop pushing for folks to leave the proprietary world. Spend a little more time scanning the horizon looking for the wet cobbles.