When was the last time you read the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights? Like most Americans, I am a big fan of the First Amendment. I think it is an absolute masterpiece of political thought. I have been thinking about it a lot over the past few years.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Simple, to the point, and overwhelmingly powerful. I am what one might consider a free speech absolutist. I strongly believe that we must allow for a cacophony of speech and writings to stretch and fill our physical and digital spaces. With this panoply of poetry and prose, opinion and analysis, to allow the good citizens of our Republic to make up their own minds. Hallelujah!
Pair this wonderful Amendment with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafted in 1947 by a committee led by Eleanor Roosevelt and my resolve that there should be free access to information is almost absolute.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
While I don’t think the committee that drafted these words had either anything like the internet nor specifically individuals with disabilities in mind at the time. However, for Tamman’s work, when one reads this with that context, I find it to be even more powerful. It is a true call to action, and the relevance today is palpable. Not to mention that if the great Eleanor Roosevelt thought it was a good idea, it is probably a good idea.
Several years ago, Tamman’s CEO, Mike Mangos and I were discussing the big why behind our work in the digital accessibility space. We said out loud, that ‘access to information is a human right’ and instantly, I knew in my core that it was right for our company. Since that time, Tamman has fully embraced this ethos. It has become Tamman’s rallying cry, our guide star, and the true north for everyone who works on building the inclusive web. I have been writing and speaking about access to information being a human right consistently for almost two years. The belief has essentially become religious dogma for me.
But like any religious dogma, if one does not take the time to question it, it can grow weak and meritless. 2020 and certainly the first part of 2021 has provided a massive opportunity to question if this ethos was all that I believed it to be or if even it is still the right approach for Tamman. Given the amount of misinformation and propaganda around the Pandemic, Presidential Election, and many other pieces of information in the news, as well as all the confusion that is wrought from social media, I found myself asking, ‘is this the right thing to say? Should this be our approach? Is access to information really a human right?’
When the truth is distorted or when one cannot reasonably even discern what the truth is, should we still maintain access to the information? What if, by providing access to information, we are simultaneously providing access to misinformation? Will I be an unwitting puppet to the views of a tyrannical minority who are only concerned with their self-interest and not the common good? When social media decided to close accounts and censor on-line actors, I have questioned if this is the right thing for a free society such as ours to do. I have and will continue to struggle and wrestle with these questions.
I am happy to write that it is precisely in the questioning that my belief is strengthened and that the answer continues to be yes, access to information is crucial now more than ever. It is messy, it always has been, but the answers lie in trust.
I read an article by my friend and colleague Nimit Kaur who wrote not only in the grand tones of the right of people to have access to information but also the imperative of this right to daily life. As a native screen reader user, she goes on to provide detailed examples in social media, applications, and smartphones, and more of how simple solutions of alt text and prompts provide her with access to the content. Some of her examples of the use of information in daily life were mundane in their application. Yet, it dawned on me that being committed to an ideal doesn’t mean being committed to the perfect version of that ideal that only works in the pristine, grandiose, idealist world. Rather, it is being committed to the full and complete version of a thing that is sometimes ugly, sometimes mundane, but fully applicable in our lives. One must trust, I must trust that when we provide access to more voices, more sources of truth, bring more people into the cacophony of the conversation, that a Madisonian philosophy that competing interests will provide firmer ground on which to debate. It is not Tamman’s place to be the almighty judge of truth.
Madison tells us that people will always break out into factions and special interests. Those factions will do what they can to communicate their version of the facts. Free speech and the free flow of information across borders and mediums demand that we allow voices to be heard.
I recognize that this is not only about information. In the digital world of today, one cannot discuss merely the flow of information without discussing algorithms and distribution that create echo chambers and spaces of circular logic. I am not so naive to think that these forces that control the dissemination of information don’t dramatically impact access to what people can see and hear. There are issues here that need discussing. According to Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, “A company making a business decision to moderate itself is different from a government removing access, yet can feel much the same.” The choices that social media giants made in the wake of the attack on the Capitol to exclude and censor were done because they do not have the answers on how they can simultaneously control and monetize information. It is incumbent upon us to continue to add to the cacophony and make it more and more accessible – to work to break down the silos and echo chambers.
I cannot predict human behavior and if people decided to turn away from verifiable information. I can work in a company like Tamman that ensures that when someone, especially someone with disabilities, needs to access information, they can. The answer is not exclusion, the answer is more and more inclusion. I trust that a world where there is more access to information, where the truth has more outlets to find ears, and eyes and brains that were previously excluded is in fact a more fair and just world. I believe this is a thing worth working towards every day.