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Read It’s Time to Retire “RTFM” by April Wensel

The culture of programmers and other technologists is plagued by toxic elitism. One of the manifestations of this elitism is an unrelenting hostility toward so-called “non-technical” people (a distinction that’s also ready for retirement), beginners, and ultimately anyone asking for help. If you’re unconvinced, please spend a few minutes browsing the popular¹ question-and-answer site, Stack Overflow² (just make sure you prepare yourself emotionally beforehand).

I completely agree with the author of this post that there is definitely a lot of hostility toward beginners in the tech community. However, there are absolutely times when RTFM is not only appropriate, but necessary. Take, for example, developers and accessibility, specifically semantic markup. At a certain point, developers should be taking on the responsibility of learning how to write code that runs in browsers which adheres to web standards. Another example: It’s not the job of accessibility practitioners to fix the resultant problems when standards-compliant code isn’t deployed, and it’s not our job to whip up complex yet accessible components to submit as pull requests for every open source project on the internet. At some point, developeres need to learn to do their jobs, and sometimes RTFM is the only way to get that point across. You literally cannot make things accessible without being able to consult documentation on the subject, especially when you’re starting out. You must learn how to research so you can get to a point where you can ask the appropriate questions and then work on implementing a solution. RTFM or similar isn’t appropriate when someone indicates they’ve tried to find the answer on their own and they are stuck. It’s not appropriate on the first day of class. But to say that we should throw it out completely ignores the reality that for things like accessibility or learning a programming language, reading the documentation is a necessary component of that process. It ignores the reality that, in cases where people with disabilities are asked to do the heavy lifting, (accessibility work, for example), there’s a very likely possibility that people with disabilities, who already have to deal with the consequences of developers and designers breaking things, are then tasked with ensuring that they are fixed, by spoonfeeding if necessary, and very often, for free. That is very tiring work, and there comes a point where asking people with disabilities to be compassionate to designers and developers becomes an effort that does not produce results, wastes time and energy, and creates situations where all that work will have to be done, again.

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