Brothers, Sisters, Siblings! I come here to bring you the good news! Accessibility Specialists are not here to judge you.
Since drifting from Journalism to IT, there hasn’t been a word that makes me cringe more than“Evangelist”. It appears that I’m not the only one to feel this way.
One day, out of the blue, I got so annoyed with being referred to as “Accessibility Evangelist” that I did what many people do nowadays — I ranted on Twitter:
“ I really dislike the use of the word “Evangelist” when referring to Digital Accessibility. We aren’t trying to convert anyone to a faith. We promote sustainable practice based on testable guidelines and heuristics. We are professionals and not preachers”.
To my surprise, within a few hours, I got 60 likes and seven retweets. That might seem nothing for those with zillions of followers. But the most reaction I ever got on a tweet I had posted was about 20 likes. That doesn’t even include my updates on my new kitten Leo. While we are here, let me digress and tell you something: Leo is the cutest of all kittens. Yet, the photos I share of him hardly get any likes at all. I don’t understand how that could be. This is a mystery to me. Who wouldn’t melt by looking at his pictures? Before we continue, let me prove my point by showing another picture of him looking cute and playful:
I know that long are the good days when cute kittens dominated Social Media. Cats were the first to flee Social Media when things started getting nasty around 2016. They were just like the dolphins abandoning Earth in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy”. I’m sure somewhere, there must be a cat meme with the pun: “So long and thanks for all the phish”.
Anyway, at least 60 Accessibility practitioners also dislike being referred to as “Evangelists”. Of course, some politely disagreed and defended the term by saying that if I dislike it, then I have to oppose it for all disciplines. After all, we also have Cloud, Security, and Technology Evangelists. Accessibility deserves the same level of investment as any other technology, so I am told (Dude, I know…). Indeed, I oppose the use of the term for all disciplines. In specially, when it comes to Accessibility, attaching “Evangelist” to it makes it harder to acquire the same level of investment as other disciplines. It reinforces the aura of “a nice thing” that can be left in the backlog until a “later date” that keeps being postponed indefinitely. I value when people disagree because this leads to the opportunity for a healthy debate. It is not about being right or wrong, but about having a stop, looking around, and exploring different directions.
It is not very clear who was the first to coin the term “Technology Evangelist”, but according to Wikipedia, it all points out to Apple back in 1982, when Steve Jobs hired Mike Murray and Mike Boich. While Murray was heading the Marketing Team, Boich mission was to put together a team to “evangelize” developers. The ultimate Apple’s goal was to compete with IBM, by persuading third-party developers to create software and applications for the Macintosh platform without the incentive of more money. They used fervour and zeal to win them over. Don’t get me wrong, I love Apple. They are totally ace when it comes to Accessibility, but let’s be honest, that sounds a bit exploitative to me.
Different organizations define the role of a Technology Evangelist in different ways: from being someone who advocates for the use of a specific technology to someone tasked with transforming it into an adopted technical standard. The term caught up and spread through different disciplines, including Usability and Accessibility.
When most people hear the word “Evangelism”, the first thing that comes into their mind is a preacher. Are they wrong? Of course not. With no offence, but a bunch of privileged Silicon Valley white men can’t just change the meaning of a word for marketing reasons. That doesn’t mean that they are bad people, but Language is a living thing that thrives in truly democratic ways. Although people in power can create language rules to differentiate and distance themselves from the rest of us, they can’t just change the meaning of a word at a whim and within a few decades.
Evangelism, which comes from a Greek word meaning “giving good news” or “bringing a message from the angels”, came to mean “the act of preaching” for about 2000 years. The Oxford Dictionary defines “Evangelist” as: “a person who tries to persuade people to become Christians, especially by travelling around the country holding religious meetings or speaking on radio or television.”
For the record, I haven’t got anything against religion, despite not having any. Religion has positive aspects such as the alleged origins of the rule of law, community cohesion and the common philosophic thinking underpinning them. It can also be a valuable part of the culture. Surely things were very different when John, Matthew, Mark and Luke wrote the gospels to spread Christ words of “Love thy neighbours as you love yourself” and “Don’t judge or you will be judged”. I only object to the misuse of religion by those in power to control, mislead, divide and oppress others by contradicting the core values of faith through the threat of judgement and punishment. That includes colonization.
I also feel unease when the same techniques are used to make people work without the remuneration they deserve, or impose the adoption of products and services that might not bring the best solution for everyone. That’s why I dislike the word “Evangelist”. I think that it is not suited when referring to Digital Accessibility.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Digital Accessibility, people already expect us to preach. One negative perception might come from the fact that several cults have exploited disabled people through the performance of fake healings and pity.
As soon as people hear the word “Accessibility Evangelist” or just “Accessibility”, they think we are coming for them, to judge for their sins and condemn them all to eternity in Hell. This is not what we do or should be doing.
Nobody likes to be judged. Even the thought of it drives people miles away before we can even demonstrate the overall value and the vast benefits of Accessibility. It drives away especially those who have the power to invest on it.
It is also essential to respect the boundaries between Digital Accessibility and Disability Rights. They are two different things. Even though one supports the other, the relationship is not exclusive. Access to Information is just one item on the large and complex agenda of Disability Rights, which Digital Accessibility Practitioners must not appropriate. Doing so would fall into the ‘saviour’ behaviour of the charity model of disability. Furthermore, it would go against the sense of agency advocated by the Social Model.
I understand that not everyone might agree with me. That’s ok. Some would challenge by asking what word should we use instead. Why not just “Digital Accessibility Professional”? In the meantime, I will keep repeating: “I am not an Accessibility Evangelist. I am an Accessibility Professional.”