Best way to handle disagreeing with a friend on a touchy subject?
April 8, 2010 9:10 AM   Subscribe

My friend wants my support for her disability advocacy campaigns. I feel she's misguided. What's the best way to handle this?

(Anonymous, since my MeFi name is one my friend knows from elsewhere.)

I have this friend. She's great. We met online via a shared hobby some years ago, and we've got on well ever since.

My friend has a disability that affects various areas of her life, and for the most part she copes impressively well with the bad hand her health has dealt her. Recently, though (in the past year or two) her condition has started to affect her vision. This isn't severe, and hopefully and probably won't get much worse; it may clear up entirely, but there's no sign of that happening at the moment. For now, she's finding ways to cope with the added frustrations and inconveniences it's caused her.

I'm visually impaired too, and I work in VI-related accessibility issues as part of my job. As such, I've been totally happy to share any help, tips and technology I've found that are useful for me, or that I've seen other people use successfully.

The problem: She's now on something of a crusade on this issue, and I feel that the accommodations she's expecting - from her online friends, from the community we share, from the world in general - are unreasonable. She has, for example, repeatedly requested that those of us with hobby-related websites use a particular specific colour scheme, along with specific fonts and font sizes, that she finds easiest to read; some of us also keep blogs, and she's asked them to use Typepad's equivalent of the more-inside fold for anything longer than a couple of short paragraphs, because large blocks of texts are tough for her. She's in a constant state of war with various local shops and services, whose disability accommodations don't meet her requirements as she sees them (standard print brochures are too small, but the large-print equivalents are too large, etc).

I've tried to stay tactful and supportive, pointing out that in my professional and personal experience, it's a lot easier to fix things on your end than on the rest of the world's wherever possible, and that her specific requirements won't match everyone else's anyway. (Her preferred colour schemes and font setups, for example, would actually make things harder for me to read, although I use various browser settings and plugins to have everything set up in the way that works best for me anyway and so wouldn't notice.) To no avail; she's now locked horns with so many people on the issue that she's not prepared to give an inch, and she sees my attitude as a combination of apathy and surrender. Our entire online community is now set to her preferred design- and conversation-standards, and she has a large body of support there for her campaigns elsewhere, some of which I do support but many of which I don't.

She also has an increasingly irritating habit of using me as an example when she gets into discussions with others on the issue, in a "my friend with X condition also needs…" sort of way. I really don't like being used as Exhibit A in an argument in which I'm not taking part, and have specifically asked her, several times, to please not mention me and my condition like that without asking me first. She always agrees and apologises, but always ends up doing the same again in the heat of an argument some time later.

I have a lot of sympathy for her problems, I do think that disability advocacy is a really important cause, and I think a lot of the time she's right to say that "it's easier if we don't kick up a fuss" is the wrong attitude to take. But honestly, she's starting to annoy the hell out of me with this. Every fifth conversation in our online community, it seems, is now about her vision issues; it's common to get gently chided by her or her supporters for a website update that isn't in her preferred format, etc. It's increasingly infuriating, and increasingly difficult to just ignore. Plus, I do feel sort of like a bitch for thinking "Jesus, shut up" every time the subject gets raised once again.

I like my little online community. I like my friend. Is there a way to deal with my grumbling annoyance over this that doesn't involve losing or alienating both of them?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can't you explain "reasonable accommodation" to her? And then explain how, for websites at least, it may serve her best to copy and paste text into a word processor and choose font, size, and color schemes that best fit her?
posted by Think_Long at 9:17 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is exactly what browser zoom, user stylesheets, and stylish are for. Or themes, in the worst case.

In any case, you should have a talk with her and tell her that you think she's being unreasonable, hurting your shared cause, and that you don't like being used as an example if she hasn't already talked with you about it.
posted by beerbajay at 9:28 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think there's a way for you to change the way that she is interacting with the world. That's her path, and it may change over time, or not. If she's young and this is her first experiene of personal advocacy, her tacticts may mellow (or not). For you, all you can do is be tactful and/or supportive, or when that's too much be silent. Even if she references you (I wonder, are you a "leader" type in the group?), everyone knows that you are two very different people, or they will once they interact with you. If you can't do something she wants you to do, you can practice saying "no" -- this is good practice, I'm bad at it, too. Maybe, "Oh, I'm sorry but that site is for the general public/for a large group so it's in the most generic accessible format available -- if you need to read it in a different format, I can send you the text or you can block copy it yourself."
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:33 AM on April 8, 2010

Ouch. I'm so sorry. I used to work in the VI field, and the only thing that could work is tough love, and risk losing the friendship. Staying tactful, and telling her not to use you as an example, is the only way to go. She's very upset about the vision loss, and is acting out.

Since she's sort of new to the VI world, she may not know that VI people have been using their own accommodations, on their end and not the company's, since the DOS days. It's pretty standard. Beyond web sites providing alternate text and not making their sites too crazy, everything else falls to the user to make it work.

She might want to go to the National Federation of the Blind for support; I think they have a newly blind section, as well as several "how do deal with the intarnets as a VI person" articles.
posted by Melismata at 9:33 AM on April 8, 2010

Is not being friends with her an option? Or taking a break from the friendship for awhile? She's using her disability as a way to control a whole bunch of things, and disability can be a "touchy" subject because it brings up guilt in others who think, "we can't criticize her or her needs, she has a disability!" But people can be unreasonable and demanding, disability or no. She has to take responsibility for her needs as well, and it sounds like she's shoving them onto others just because she can through guilt. In that case, trying to reason with her, make her understand things in a different way isn't working. That's why I suggested not being friends or taking a break. (And she's "using" you despite repeated requests NOT to. That's pretty disrespectful.) I figure if enough people do this, she'll get the message (though painfully), but it may be what she needs (though not what she wants, of course).
posted by foxjacket at 9:34 AM on April 8, 2010

Am I correct in understanding that your entire online community is now using settings that are actually harder for you to read, due to this friend's actions? Have you bluntly explained this to her and to others who have gone along with her requests?

It sounds like it might be time to stop being polite if she's not getting it. If she uses you as an example and you're present, interrupt her and state that you have asked her not to do that. If she then accuses you of not being a strong advocate, explain that her solutions create more difficulties for you--literally make things harder to read--and that disability advocacy is not a matter of forcing the world into a "one size fits all" model. It sounds like she expects the world to comply completely with her needs and utterly fails to recognize that that sort of attitude is part of the problem.

Who are her supporters? Do they also have vision problems, or are they relying solely on her vocal one-sided statements? If they are well-meaning but largely ignorant, you might try politely pointing out that your friend's way of doing things can actually make things more difficult for other people with similar issues and educating them about reasonable accommodations.
posted by Mavri at 9:34 AM on April 8, 2010 [10 favorites]

It sounds like it'd time for a public statement in your online community, in form of a thread, stating your position: what you see as "reasonable accomidation" and which parts you as a VI person do and do not support. Just so that everyone else is aware of your stance. Don't attack her views but present it as your take on the matter. Everything else is out of your hands.
posted by Omnomnom at 9:53 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

"The world does not revolve around you."

Repeat as needed.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:01 AM on April 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

She's not acting like a friend. You might have better luck focusing on that first--work on getting to a place where she acts like you're someone worthy of respect and consideration--before you try to persuade her that her advocacy efforts are misguided. Setting aside all questions of any disability accommodation, when she repeatedly uses your name and condition in a way you've asked her not to, and tries to excuse that behavior by changing the subject to her advocacy cause, that's a serious issue. She will have years to sort out her feelings, opinions, and expectations with regard to her disability and the world's accommodations thereof; mistreating her friends is not an appropriate way to work through that process. You can't tell her what to believe with regard to disability accommodations (or, rather, you can't ensure she'll agree), but you can tell her how you will and won't be treated.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:52 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

"The world does not revolve around you."

Yeah, is there anyway to (tactfully, obviously) talk with her about the fact that while advocacy is (again, obviously) is a good and necessary thing, the things she's advocating may not work for everyone, and may make things worse for some people with similar disabilities? In an odd and unfortunate way, her advocacy is doing what those who are opposed to accommodations in any form do too: it says, "This is the way I like/need it, and too bad for anyone else who doesn't like/need it."

Have you actually said to her, "The changes you advocated for on our online community have actually made it more difficult for me to participate in it. Or they would have, but I've managed to do a workaround on my end. But if I couldn't make the changes on my end, I'd have to stop participating there."
posted by rtha at 11:04 AM on April 8, 2010

Not answering the question, but I do have a solution to her problem in reading various websites. There is a bookmark you can add to your browser to make any website's main text much more readable and it's called, very appropriately, Readability. I use it all the time to read poorly formatted online content. Works a treat.
posted by qwip at 11:24 AM on April 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you have a blog, although it's not clear. If so, post an open letter to her on your blog explaining what you've sketched out here in more detail, why you disagree with her, and that while you have this one point of disagreement, you still value her friendship.

There's a risk that this would alienate her, obviously. But I've got to ask how strong a friendship is if it is so easily broken. There would be other benefits in putting a different position out there in the open, and making it public knowledge that the changes she's advocating do not work for everyone.
posted by adamrice at 11:34 AM on April 8, 2010

Stop being so polite. Seriously. She is guilty of inflicting the same behaviors that she finds odious in others: forcing text changes that make a VI person's life hard, using people with disabilities as non-sentient props (even with their -- your -- explicit request that she stop), etc. You, because of your similar vision issues and your job dealing with accessibility, may be the only person in her circle who can really tell her to knock it off without her dismissing it as abled privilege. If you don't knock some sense into her, who will? Who could?
posted by Asparagirl at 12:22 PM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

It sounds to me as if she's freaking out over this new development in her disability - it must be incredibly scary to suddenly have your vision compromised. She's funneled her freak out into advocacy, hence the overbearing and frantic insistence that things change NOW. I do think it's time for you to be very clear to her when her requests start to impact your ability to read your sites - and you definitely should tell her to STOP speaking for you. Don't handle her with kid gloves, let her know when she's going over the line and hopefully with time, she will calm down enough to listen.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:30 PM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like omnomnom's idea: put out a really thoughtful and balanced expression of what you see as reasonable accommodations. Don't attack her, don't really even make it about her, make it about how much the community has been doing and how you want to help make the standards clear. Say that you really appreciate all the attention to this issue, as another person with visual challenges, and that you want to provide some information based on your years of experience with this as to what is reasonable and essential. This way, everyone can have a clear understanding of what's expected, people don't have to worry about being sniped at, and new members can quickly get up to speed and feel comfortable that they're doing the right thing. Knowledge and information is a big way of gaining power and reframing a debate, so provide a lot of context, background, and links to authoritative sources of information. Base your own views of what's reasonable on all of that. Near the end, offer to work on a statement or FAQ for the community, and say that you'd really appreciate her help. That way, you're taking the high ground (appropriate, as someone who has been dealing with this for much longer), while also joining with her and drawing her in.
posted by salvia at 12:35 PM on April 8, 2010

She needs a referral to a center for the partially sighted or a vision therapist, if she doesn't already have one. It sounds like she's not coping in a structured fashion-- she's just seizing on Things That Piss Her Eyes Off Today and ranting accordingly. The rehab folks can teach her to set up her own accomodations and provide appropriate psychological support.

(Seriously, type being too large? My retinal scarring would like unkind words with this woman.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 1:16 PM on April 8, 2010

Tell her that advocacy is about making things better for as many people as possible, not just making things better for yourself personally.
posted by ishotjr at 1:46 PM on April 8, 2010 [9 favorites]

If you can't respectfully disagree with her without her continuing to be your friend, then she isn't really your friend to begin with, is she?

Your beef with her actions seems perfectly legitimate, and you seem like a genuinely conscientious and considerate person. I would wait until the next time she advocates for something that makes you uncomfortable (e.g. using you as an example for something you disagree with) or changes that you know would make things harder for others (e.g. the color scheme that would make it harder for you if you weren't customizing your view of the site), and use it to launch a polite, discreet discussion with her. Something like, "You know, I totally get where you're coming from by advocating for this, but I'm not sure if you're aware that while this change might be beneficial for you, it's actually detrimental for people with my condition. I think your heart is in the right place, but maybe we should see what existing advocacy organizations typically campaign for in terms of accommodations and see if we can make those our recommendations?" Or "I totally get where you're coming from, but it makes me kind of uncomfortable to be used as an example when you're pushing for xyz. I think it's great that you are supporting accessibility, but I don't totally agree with exactly what you're proposing they do."

I think that if she's a pretty reasonable person, as long as you make it clear that you understand and respect her position but that you have a different take on the matter, she should be able to handle that. If she doesn't, then it's kind of on her. If you don't say anything to her, you're letting her continue to make you uncomfortable without her even being aware that she's doing so, which really does you both a disservice.
posted by tastybrains at 2:08 PM on April 8, 2010

"I'm visually impaired too, and I work in VI-related accessibility issues as part of my job."

Dammmmmmit! I wish this question weren't anonymous because I wanted to send you mefi mail to ask about your job (totally unrelated to the question you asked here though). If you'd be so kind, please get in touch! Thanks!

As for your question:

"She also has an increasingly irritating habit of using me as an example when she gets into discussions with others on the issue, in a "my friend with X condition also needs…" sort of way."

If you don't feel comfortable with that, you have to put your foot down with her and make it clear... but even if you do, she might not change because her motive is a lack of self confidence. For example, I knew a woman whose boyfriend was also on a dating site months into their relationship. Rather than tell him she saw him on the dating site, she'd instead say "John says you're still on the dating site. Is that true?" She lacks the self confidence to fight her own battles, so she attaches other people to them. Even after being told not to do that, she still continued to because... she lacks the confidence to fight her own battles. I bet your friend is the same way.

"She's now on something of a crusade on this issue, and I feel that the accommodations she's expecting - from her online friends, from the community we share, from the world in general - are unreasonable."

You're right. I'm legally blind. I know these struggles very well, but expecting the world to accommodate me is unrealistic.

What your friend needs to do is learn to cope. Man oh man does that suck, but it is what it is. Maybe she needs to buy a bigger monitor, or a monitor with a lower resolution (damn those crazy high resolution monitors these days!). Maybe she needs to learn how to make css stylesheets to strip away formatting? I don't know... but that's for your friend to figure out, just as it is for me to figure out or for you to figure out.

Best of luck to you.
posted by 2oh1 at 3:19 PM on April 8, 2010

She seriously needs to understand that what is accessible to her may not be accessible to someone else. But by the same token, I am disturbed that 2oh1 thinks that asking for accommodations is unrealistic. Here is a wonderful article on accommodation vs. special treatment.

Accommodations are out there, much more reasonable ones that don't go about requiring folks to change their websites. In a perfect world, obviously, all websites would be accessible to everyone, but she should use the tools already available to her when she can. I'd like to recommend Accessibar for Firefox. The page says it's for older versions of Firefox, but it does work (albeit it's a bit quirky) with current versions.

That said, I have no qualms about requesting accommodations from time to time, with the caveat that the website owner may not care and may not listen. But I recently asked a quite large website to offer transcripts with their videos, and they did start to offer transcripts at least part of time time.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:49 AM on April 9, 2010

"I am disturbed that 2oh1 thinks that asking for accommodations is unrealistic."

IndigoRain, you apparently misread my words. I said nothing about asking. I said "expecting" accommodations is unrealistic. Key word: expecting. I got the impression that the OP's friend wasn't really asking anymore, but rather expecting. In fact, the OP matter-of-factly said this: "I feel that the accommodations she's expecting..."

That entire sentence is quite revealing: "She's now on something of a crusade on this issue, and I feel that the accommodations she's expecting - from her online friends, from the community we share, from the world in general - are unreasonable."

Things people can do to accommodate, they often will do. Things people can't do or simply don't want to do... they won't do. Expecting accommodations only leads to frustration each time accommodations aren't made. Having a disability is frustrating enough in ways the average person can't understand because it's something the average person will never know first hand. Learning to expect accommodations just makes having a disability even worse because it leads to constant disappointment and added frustration each time accommodations aren't made. I say this from experience, but my vision is unique to me, as are the challenges that come with it, just as anyone else's problems and challenge are unique to them. I can only offer advice as best I know through what I have experienced and maybe shed a little light on how I found peace and happiness along the way.

The best advice I could give the OP is also the hardest advice to take: helping her friend to learn which accommodations are reasonable and which are not will do a lot for helping the friend to lead a happier and less stressful life. I'm not saying it's the OP's job to do this, of course, but until the friend learns what is reasonable and what isn't, the friend will become more and more frustrated, and probably more and more bitter regarding her disability. That can become a black hole of despair that often runs much deeper than what the person in question reveals to others.

Life is too short.

I suspect that the hardest lesson for someone with a disability to learn - and I say this from experience, as this was the hardest lesson for me to learn... The hardest lesson for someone with a disability to learn is how to make peace with it. Change what you can change. Cope with what you can't change. Life is too short.

posted by 2oh1 at 3:49 PM on April 9, 2010

« Older Where should we move between Boston and Waltham?   |   Um... hello... uh... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.