It seems like such a small thing, but a watermark did indeed become a human rights matter.
Allow me to explain. I’ll share the short version first and then the detailed journey which I realize some of you may perceive as “banging my head against a wall”. I am definitely tenacious. When I think something matters – especially to more than just me – I don’t give up. Unfortunately, I think much advocacy work can feel this way. I find committing to staying curious helps. Read on to find out what I have learned.
• The reading material in a course I paid for contained intrusive watermarks throughout making it difficult for me to read. I’m a highly sensitive person with a low threshold for visual sensory input.
• Despite 19% of the class wanting the watermark removed, the course creator deemed it an “unreasonable accommodation”. The greater concern was the perceived business risk of intellectual property theft.
• Disability rights organizations in the home country of the course creator stated that the unwillingness to provide an accommodation, in this case, is discriminatory and a human rights matter. They deemed that access should be made available to those with sensory impairments. This was backed up by a US lawyer looking through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
• I share this story in hopes that leaders and creators will see that providing accommodations to those in need is more than a moral and business imperative; it is a legal requirement.
I signed up for an online course about a subject that as a highly sensitive person, I was very interested in. In fact, I anticipated finding such value in the learning that I had been sharing about it with my community and was keen to share it with the world in the book I am researching and writing.
The night before the course was to start, I accessed the reading material online and was stopped in my tracks.
As a productivity coach and professional organizer, I often coached my clients to recognize speed bumps – internal resistance that gets in the way – and roadblocks – external challenges which make it difficult to continue. I found myself face to face with a roadblock: eight lines of watermarks slashed each page. The watermarks included both the company name and my email address…which includes my name.
I mocked up a sample document to show you what the materials looked like. Please know that I would never dream of sharing a document that looks like this:
I couldn’t read the pages. For me, it was like trying to have a conversation with two people speaking to me – at the same time. My brain shuts down. I stop being able to process information as my brain constantly shifts from one person to the other. I know that I’m not alone…
Image: screengrab from The Kelly Clarkson Show on Youtube
Have a listen to Ted Lasso actor Hannah Waddingham chat with Kelly Clarkson about how they both detest the “in-ear doo-da” – she is talking about earpieces that let you hear a producer while you are performing. You’ll find this part of their conversation at 8:47. The struggle is real.
Feeling: Frustrated 😣
Strategy One: Ask for help
“Help!” I titled the email I wrote to the course creator. “While l understand the need to protect intellectual property….it is far too visually distracting for me.”
The creator and a team member looked at the documents and acknowledged “yeah… it’s very busy”. I learned that course materials are stored in a “data room” (through Digify) which restricts access and tracks views as well as printed copies. Working with this tech solution, they were able to reduce the number of watermarks to one much larger image across the page that looked like this:
Unfortunately, this still didn’t work for me.
I was told nothing more could be done and assured that my “learning, insights, and community gained will make up for it.” Hmmm. ⛽💡
Feeling: Invalidated. 😑
Strategy 2: Ask for a private conversation
I decided to ask for a meeting to discuss this challenge in the context of inclusivity around learning. I wanted to explore the conflicting goals of IP protection (which I understand as a patent and trademark owner myself), and visually sensitive people being able to comprehend subject matter in their learning modality of choice. I prefer visual information.
I offered suggestions to simply have the copyright information at the bottom of the document along with the student’s email address. (On their website, Digify suggests students will “think twice” before sharing documents if their email address is in the watermark. I take this to mean that shame is a deterrent.) Another idea was to gain explicit agreement from participants, in writing, to not share materials.
I looked at the protections provided and the possibility of workarounds*, and feel that some of the Digify services seem to be more of a hindrance to legitimate students than a deterrent to thieves. That is to say, to those determined to misappropriate information, they would be “speed bumps” and not “roadblocks”. I thought there had to be other equally effective ways to deter the sharing of this work.
Feeling: You don’t trust me. ☹
The creator said they would consider what to do.
Feeling: 🙄 Optimistic
The next day in class, each of two cohorts was polled to find out if participants were bothered by the watermark and if they would like something done about it. Results were shared.
81% of students did not find it a problem, however, 19% of students did.
Dr. Elaine Aron, who pioneered the research into the trait of high sensitivity in the mid-to-late 90s suggests that about 20% of people have the temperament. Based on this, the happy face in the Happy Space® Podcast logo is set at 19% tilt. Great, I thought. This will surely mean the watermark is changed.
Feeling: Buoyant 🙂
Nope. I was wrong. We were told that “the watermark does not bother the majority of participants and the majority don’t want us to change it.” Despite almost 1 in 5 wanting the watermark adjusted, they decided to keep it as is.
I was then offered a 50% refund if I chose to leave the course.
Feeling: Dismissed. 🤨 And stunned. 😮 And curious. 🤔
How is inclusivity about “the majority”?!
And still, optimistic. 🤞🏼
So, I stayed.
Strategy 3: Raise with the group
A few days later in class, we were speaking about personal needs with respect to sensitivity and I brought up my challenge in class along with noting the fact that I was not alone.
The next day, I was told that I must “drop the watermark issue or leave the course”. I was told that “Removing the watermark is not a reasonable accommodation and poses a business risk for us.”
Feeling: Dismayed. 😟
And still, I stayed.
Strategy 4: Get curious
I committed to staying curious. I had begun to research Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in their country to understand the context within which they were operating. Perhaps awareness and action around inclusivity were lagging, I thought.
Disability rights groups pointed me to a White Paper published in their country which referred to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I learned that my sensitivity to visual input can be considered a sensory impairment which is considered a disability. As such, I should therefore receive “reasonable accommodation”.
Here is the specific language:
Impairment is a perceived or actual feature in the person’s body or functioning that may result in limitation or loss of activity or restricted participation of the person in society with a consequential difference of physiological and/or psychological experience of life.
• Psychosocial (mental removed)
• Neurological impairments (added)
In their country, “Reasonable Accommodation refers to necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden”.
I searched the Ontario Human Rights Commission and found: “In the context of employment, the Supreme Court of Canada has described the goals and purposes of accommodation:
… the goal of accommodation is to ensure that an employee who is able to work can do so. In practice, this means that the employer must accommodate the employee in a way that, while not causing the employer undue hardship, will ensure that the employee can work. The purpose of the duty to accommodate is to ensure that persons who are otherwise fit to work are not unfairly excluded where working conditions can be adjusted without undue hardship.
So guidelines are similar in both of our countries.
I continued to ask questions in the next couple of classes. Unfortunately, this was perceived negatively and I was told to no longer participate in the live component of the class…with no option for discussion.
Feeling: Surprised and incensed. 😤
Strategy 6: Persist
This matter has wide-reaching implications. So, I kept digging.
To further understand if my request was indeed a reasonable accommodation, I reached out to labour and employment lawyer US lawyer Stuart Silverman who found it an interesting question.
Here are the comments he shared with me via email after analyzing the situation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):
Feeling: Validated. 🙂
Strategy 7: Share without shaming
You’re reading this post – and thank you so much for reading this far – because I think it is important to continue to invite mindset shifts and compassionate action without shame. This is why I have not shared the name of the course. In fact, I think some of the work of the course creator has value, however, I cannot share it until the moral conflict described here is resolved.
What does this mean for highly sensitive people?
It means being okay with referring to sensitivities as an impairment. I find this challenging conceptually because I deeply value the strengths of the trait but am willing to do so if it means receiving appropriate accommodations. Not everyone will be okay with this.
It means we have legal rights to back us when raising our voices.
It means we deserve to be taken care of.
What does this mean for organizations?
It means digging deeper and moving past initial reactions to examine if that position is reasonable given human rights legislation.
It means being creative and adapting as necessary to be more inclusive.
It means making an exception that could take some extra time and effort.
It means taking compassionate action. Actions speak louder than words.
What am I hoping for?
We are all on learning journeys and open to new thinking in different ways. I hold hope for the following:
1. I hope that the course creator, team, and my classmates will read this and reflect on what happened – the action and inaction, and what might be done to do better.
2. I hope this can serve as a case study sharing the challenge of raising one’s voice for reasonable treatment.
3. I hope that the need for persistence in achieving accommodations will disappear as more minds open with and act with true compassion.
I would love to hear your thoughts…
How would you have felt? What would you have done?
Email me to let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Workarounds would be time-consuming but entirely possible through free software such as watermark-removing apps and “printing to PDF” in order to save documents electronically.
I explore the intersection of productivity & inclusivity through speaking, coaching, and hosting the Happy Space Podcast. Hot talks at the moment are
“Understanding & Embracing Neurodiversity” and “Leadership Skills for a Hybrid World”. If I can be of help please book time to chat with me.