Stephen Kuusisto has reason to be frustrated with Split This Rock’s website not being accessible to people with disabilities. He pointed out two problems: PDFs of the schedule of the upcoming Split This Rock Poetry Festival are not ADA compliant and emails we send out frequently lack the descriptive tags that should be attached to embedded images.
We didn’t know that PDFs are not accessible, but ignorance is no excuse. When Stephen wrote to me, I immediately wrote back to apologize and tell him we’d rectify the situation. Not labeling images, I’m afraid, is the result of all of us – a tiny staff at Split This Rock – feeling stretched to the limit and cutting corners. I was wrong not to train new colleagues and not to give all of us continual reminders, so that we wouldn’t make these errors.
We are still learning. We sometimes miss things. But when those errors and omissions are pointed out, we are grateful: it offers us the opportunity to improve how we practice what we preach.
I would like to take a minute to share the ways we have tried to make Split This Rock a place that is welcoming to people with disabilities. We were lucky to have the poet and writer Kathi Wolfe on our first festival coordinating committee back in 2008. Kathi is legally blind. A writer and poet, she urged us to include a disability rights and cultural perspective.
We designed our website to be ADA compliant, venues for Split This Rock events are wheelchair accessible, and we make large-print materials available at our festivals. Once we were able to provide ASL interpretation for a festival featured reading and we will strive to do so again this year. I know this is by no means a perfect record, but we are trying.
We have also welcomed and accepted proposals for panels and themed group readings at Split This Rock Poetry Festival on disability poetics, giving festival participants an opportunity to learn from poets and activists about the disability rights movement and about disability culture. We’ve presented poets with disabilities as festival features, including Stephen at our first in 2008 and Sheila Black at the upcoming festival in March.
Accessibility is one of our core values: “Accessibility – Split This Rock values individuals of all abilities and strives to make its programs and materials accessible to all.” We include people with disabilities in the language we use to describe the stunning diversity of American poetry to which we are dedicated.
On this occasion, though, we screwed up. Given the lack of access that people with disabilities face every day, I don’t blame Stephen for being angry that an organization that claims to be dedicated to inclusion excluded him. He is right that we should have built into our schedule – into the daily culture of the organization – periodic check-ups of the website for ADA compliance.
This episode challenges us to rededicate ourselves to accessibility. We are in the midst of a website redesign, for example, which we had hoped to have launched by now. The site will be ADA compliant and we’ll all be able to update it, a huge improvement for the staff, as, at the moment, only one very part-time member of the staff can make changes – very slowly – to the current site. Unfortunately the launch has been delayed, but we are eagerly awaiting the new site and its greater functionality.
I am sorry that Stephen will not be joining us for this year’s Split This Rock Poetry Festival. We will miss his wisdom and his powerful voice. I hope he will consider being part of future festivals. And we welcome his further engagement – and that of other people with disabilities and advocates for disability rights – as we continue to learn and to build the kind of organization we wish Split This Rock to be, one that is welcoming and accessible to all.
Split This Rock