How Ableism Leads to Inaccessibility

From 24 Accessibility:

Ableism is the belief that a fully-functional body and mind are the norm for a human being.

This definition may seem innocuous at first read; it feels like common sense that if everything goes smoothly, we are supposed to have a body and a mind that “work,” with all the features you’d expect from someone most people would consider as “normal.” Indeed, not many people question the idea that having an obvious impairment, like missing or dysfunctional senses or body parts, sets you apart from “the norm.”

But this norm is only what we collectively want it to be. It is imposed upon ourselves only by ourselves. We choose where we want to draw the line.

Why have such norms in the first place? A fairly common justification is that we need norms as a reference to design and make stuff that people will use — that is, most people. That’s why we mostly have “mainstream” products, designed on the basis of demographics that describe the “average” user: between this and that height, this and that weight, this and that ability, etc. And as soon as one doesn’t fall in those average categories, trouble happens: the product is unfit to the user’s needs. Or, as ableist thinking puts it: the user is unfit to use the product.

This distinction is the very core of the issue. Ableism — consciously or not — considers people with disabilities as unworthy, somehow, of enjoying equally the world like those “in the norm.” And it’s easy to observe that the world we live in is spectacularly ableist by design.

If we adhere to the social model of disability, which prevails in fundamental texts like the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and the CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities), we can see inaccessibility as the result of the environment’s inadequacy to cater for the needs of those who do not fit the ableist norm criteria. Which is where ableism differs from other isms that constitute a system of oppression: it is very often merely a form of negligence, or of underachievement – and being content with it. Most able-bodied people do not have to worry much about how disabled people do, because they don’t have a first-hand, repeated experience of interacting with people with accessibility needs. As a result, they simply neglect to fully address their needs, for lack of awareness. So discrimination based on disability also happens by doing… nothing, or not much. It’s the result of not actively pursuing the goal of putting down barriers to equal rights and opportunities. Not from evilness nor disdain, but from sheer ignorance and inaction.

Unfortunately, most of the current physical spaces were built way before the idea of equal rights for people with disabilities was codified. Full rights to physical access are a relatively new paradigm: the ADA was born in 1990, and the CRPD it inspired, in 2006. Retrofitting accessibility into existing places, where it was not a requirement from the start, can be very costly. In some cases, it would imply to level down everything and start anew. Clearly, we are not ready to consider this as an acceptable cost. And there’ll be a few generations sacrificed again, before we reach a point where we’ll have renewed all of our infrastructures, building them accessible from the beginning this time.

(And, yes, I am fully aware that in 2018 many recent constructions are still not accessible — but for the sake of clarity, let’s pretend, for a moment, that it’s not the case).

Digital spaces have a double advantage though: they are relatively new in history and very volatile in nature. The Web was born in 1991, and its creators made a point to design it to be accessible to users with all kinds of needs. Besides, even the most sophisticated piece of software is nothing but zeros and ones in a computer memory, so it’s theoretically easy to erase it and rebuild it from scratch, with minimal physical friction. And when it comes to assisting users with disability-related needs, there’s a wealth of solutions available to them, at a cost that is more and more seamless with every new operating system.

But the reality is pitiless: like its physical counterpart, the digital world remains mostly inaccessible to users with disabilities. How come? All conditions were there: we had the fundamental texts to provide guidance. We had the technology to make it possible. We were starting from scratch. So what happened?

To me, the root cause is the same, in both worlds: inaccessibility is the natural child of ableism.

Know thy enemy

A very first step is to acknowledge the existence of ableism. It’s actually everywhere. We bathe in it continuously. And this is also why we often don’t perceive it. Some of its forms and incarnations are very obvious, like physical and psychological abuse towards people with disabilities; but other ones exist in more subtle manifestations, like through language, prejudice about the needs and abilities of disabled people, and sheer lack of awareness regarding disability and its social consequences.

On his blog, Andrew Purlang proposes three categories of ableism: Well-meaning, Systemic, and Asshole ableism. Purlang provides well-chosen examples of attitudes that fall into each of these categories, which are very mind-opening. A word of caution: you might recognize things you have already thought or said, in each of these categories — I did, despite my history and best will. It doesn’t mean that you and I deserve being called names for this. It’s simply an illustration that ableism is so ingrained in our culture and minds, that it’s hard to recognize it for what it is, even for its very victims.

Let’s examine how ableism-based thinking and attitudes permeate our practices in the Web industry, following Andrew’s categorization.

Not my problem

Because inaccessibility is a by-product of ableism-based thinking, regarding digital accessibility (or lack thereof), you may hear or read1 things like:

  • “People with disabilities aren’t our target customers”
  • “Our stats show that we don’t have users with disabilities among our visitors”
  • “We don’t receive complaints from users with disabilities”
  • “We had other priorities”
  • “We are planning to address accessibility in future versions”
  • “We didn’t have the time nor the budget to make it accessible”
  • “We are sorry to hear you had issues with our form. Could you get someone help you fill it?”
  • “What is the return on investment?”
  • “What do we risk if we don’t comply?”

All the above statements betray a state of mind where people with disability are seen as second-grade users, or that ignores them altogether. Their fundamental human rights are denied or belittled, based on financial or technical justifications. To me, this is “asshole ableism” disguised as systemic. If ableism was actively fought, with the intention of eradicating it from society, there would be no discussion, and aiming for full accessibility would never be questioned. It would simply be the way things must be done, and inaccessible products would never hit the market. It wouldn’t be “doing the right thing,” but “doing things right.”

But as we saw above, even though it’s condemnable for its consequences, inaccessibility is rarely intentional. Thus, awareness about disability can greatly change how accessibility is brought back into the whole picture.

Of course, to achieve this, it is vital to actually engage with persons with disabilities, to actively listen to them and infuse their feedbacks into practices, since they are the best source of knowledge regarding their experiences of life with a disability. But if you delve into the subject, you will be appalled by the commonality of effectively not inviting people with disabilities to express their needs. Their expectations and insights are routinely ignored, dismissed, or altered. It’s not a specific trait of ableism — other forms of oppression also confiscate the expression of the oppressed. But in the case of disability, technical barriers to expression are so easily built up … in fact, they are here, solid and sturdy, by default; and willful actions must be taken to overcome them. Without such proactivity, their voices are effectively muted. And who can be blamed for not hearing silence?

Systemic ableism in action

I do Web accessibility consulting as a living, and it’s been my only activity for the last 10 years. So almost every website project I have worked on, in this period of time, had made some room for accessibility; sometimes with high standards set from the beginning.

Yet, a significant number of them started, at an early stage, with visual mockups of the pages-to-be. For some of them, they replaced or superseded more abstract specifications, if they ever existed. Stakeholders were then invited to express their feelings and opinions about these static pictures, and I was sometimes asked to review them in the light of accessibility best practices. But if you think about it, this approach does perpetuate the belief that visual perception, without any adaptation to the viewers’ needs, is the primary way to assess a design proposal. The one that truly matters. If it pleases the eye, then it has better chances to be greenlit, even if it could be detrimental to user experience.

And I have yet to see similar mockups that account for various adaptations on the users’ side, like when fonts are replaced or resized when actionable items are highlighted, when content is reorganized differently through a streamlining tool, or when images are removed. And, predictably, I have never, ever heard of prototypes that account for the vocal output of an interface. Designers design for those who can see as they do, and thus remove all the other ones — disabled ones — from the decision process. Clearly, it’s not intentional, yet it’s a consequence of ableism. With the same result as active discrimination.

Not every project starts like this, though. Often they use prototypes with which you can actually interact, built with aptly named prototyping tools. They allow you to design functional interfaces and let users play with them, without much coding, since the tool does it for you. However, most interfaces built like this are not very friendly to users of assistive technologies. Granted, many use third-party component libraries, some of which have a fair degree of embedded accessibility. But accessibility never felt as being a focus of those products, to me.

To verify this, I investigated 20 of them2. I first checked their vendors’ websites to find information about accessibility, which was conclusive in three cases only:

  • One works only in Chrome, which makes it inadequate for users of screen readers, who seldom use this browser, compared to the general population.
  • One displays a VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template) for the app itself, which is great actually. However the results of the audit show, for example, that some features won’t work with a screen reader. So designers who depend on a screen reader can’t be part of the designing process if this tool is used. I inferred that prototypes built with it have very little probability to be accessible, too.
  • Axure (kudos to them!) worked extensively, teaming up with renowned specialists, to embed accessibility to their product, both technically and in spirit. They also provide tips for designers on how to build accessible interfaces.

For the 17 other products, I directly asked: “To what extent accessibility requirements are met in prototypes created with [product name]? Is it possible to use them with assistive technologies?” (and yes, the relative vagueness of the question was intentional; it was part of the test).

Two vendors never answered. I didn’t follow up either, like any other potential customer in such case.

Two respondents (Microsoft for Office Visio, and Webflow) answered positively, claiming that their products can build prototypes that work with assistive tech. They also led me to resources written for their customer base, helping them to make accessible interfaces.

The remaining 13 vendors responded either negatively; or saying they honestly didn’t know (which means: nope); or in a way that clearly showed they had no clue.

I have had such responses as “[Our product] currently does not meet any specific accessibility standards, our product team is currently monitoring interest and reviewing whether we should meet accessibility standards such as WCAG, 508, ADA etc..” This is very much like the “what’s the ROI?” question. Being accessible is seen as an option, some choose to be consciously made on the basis of purely economic factors; setting aside the implication that it passively excludes a large share of the population, both from working with the product, and being involved in the decision processes it supports.

(And I don’t want to mention the one who simply replied “Hi Olivier! It should. Just give it a try and find out, though :).” I won’t. Don’t make me do it).

So the bottom line is, only 3 out of these 20 vendors had seriously factored accessibility in, with a clear intention to make their product usable by people with disabilities, both for the interface and the outputs. I didn’t test formally, so I can’t confirm their success to do so, but it’s already something. More depressing is the fact that the majority of them hadn’t even considered it.

This is unfortunately not limited to prototyping tools. Virtually every category of software we use to build web content and apps is dominated by inaccessible products. From IDEs to bug trackers to instant messaging apps to project management solutions, the tools we need to do our jobs rarely account for the needs of users with disabilities. You can’t integrate a teammate or a business partner with accessibility needs, without planning ahead and testing thoroughly. Oftentimes you will be limited to solutions that work for them, rather than the ones everyone in your team likes or is proficient with. Or the said teammate or partner will have a very restricted capacity to contribute to the team effort — provided they are kept on board.

And I could go on like this: I don’t remember my last project where people with disabilities were invited to review the functional specs, or the backlog, to bring their perspective — because it never happened. I have yet to see users with disabilities, representing a wide array of situations, being routinely hired for focus groups. And I have never witnessed a release being postponed because of a critical bug that affected only some users with disabilities. The recent example of Gutenberg, WordPress’ codename for their newest version of the administration interfaces, is a perfect illustration, unfortunately. Before them, major players in the field, like Microsoft with Edge, Facebook and Twitter, took ample time before delivering a satisfying experience to users with disabilities, despite their deep pockets and general interest in being accessible to as many people as possible. The thing is, a concept like the Minimum Viable Product, does not seem to apply to all types of users, at least for a large number of organizations.

So, really, it’s easy to exclude people with disabilities from the process of designing and building a website or an app: just do your job as usual.

Time for self-infliction

These are all manifestations of systemic ableism, that transpire in our working habits and culture, in the digital arena as well as everywhere else.

Now, you may think that accessibility advocates and promoters are immune to ableism. Because after all, if we work in that field, it’s because we want equality for people with disabilities. And in truth, it is a strong driver, possibly the starting point for each one of us.

However, consider this; a few months ago, someone tweeted this question:

“If you’re a product person (dev/designer/PM, etc.) who builds digital or physical products, what motivates you to incorporate accessibility into your products? (Please do your best to elaborate beyond the usual ‘because it’s the right thing to do.’)”.

I was really bothered by the implication of this question. If it’s “the right thing to do,” then why should you need to “elaborate beyond that?” Justification to do wrong … that I would understand. But here?

Unsurprisingly, many answers revolved around “it could be me some day,” and “it benefits to all.” These are very common mantras among people who do their best to “do” accessibility, and motivate others to do it too. But I find both very questionable, indeed.

We shouldn’t stand for people’s rights only because we could use them in a plausible future. We shouldn’t either use the perspective of being disabled one day, through age or whatever, as a motivator for others to embrace accessibility. It is acutely selfish, and insulting to those who, here and now, need accessibility. If we really care about equal rights, we don’t need to make it about ourselves.

And we shouldn’t instrumentalize disability, as a tool of coercion. Yet it’s a very widespread behavior regarding accessibility – I, for one, have adopted it way too often. Just remember that accessibility is a human right in itself, and also the technical condition of enjoyment of many other fundamental rights: to health, education, housing, employment, information, culture, leisure, etc. for people with disabilities. If we see ourselves as allies, then I don’t think we should make it about us (or the future us), nor use such fear-inducing techniques.

The other far too common justification is that accessibility is not only good for people with disabilities, but also for non-disabled ones. Technically this claim would need closer review to be 100% verified. But it’s not the ickiest part of it. Although accessibility can be useful to some uses not related to disability, it is necessary to the related ones. Putting comfort and necessity on the same level tends to devalue accessibility, instead of promoting it. Because if you need to defend it through this, maybe it’s not that crucial or is it?

And it’s a slippery slope because convenience can be more easily discarded than a requirement. Once, during a training session, I explained that good contrasts are also useful to users of mobile phones when their screen is exposed to sunlight. One trainee replied that his smartphone adapted the screen luminosity to ambient light; and that he could look for shades, should he have to. So why care for contrasts? And he was right! Who would want to spend energy on issues that can be solved by the user for free? And that’s how I lost that battle.

Finally, I think it sends a foul message to people with disabilities: that their legitimate rights aren’t self-sufficient, and need to be defended through a workaround that relies upon the well-being of the able-bodied. This shouldn’t be! Unless we don’t believe in their legitimacy enough to stand for what they are.

Bottom line: promoting accessibility on other grounds than accessibility itself, and not for what it means and really serves for, albeit well-meaning, is an ableist attitude.

Sorry for the pain.

So now what?

If you are willing to learn, I’d suggest you listen and read from people with disabilities who are much more eloquent on ableism than I’ll ever be. There are many of them out there, and social media give them a platform they never had before. Some of my personal favorites:

  • Annie Segarra (aka @annieelainey on Twitter) has a large audience, for good reasons. She does great videos and shares her powerful insights in a very clear and enjoyable fashion;
  • Imani Barbarin (aka “Crutches&Spice” on Twitter) has mind-opening perspectives and a sharp tongue about ableism and intersectionality;
  • Eugene Grant (aka @MrEugeneGrant on Twitter) shares his experiences as a person with dwarfism, and provides very insightful comments on how people interact with differences;
  • And many others I’ve discovered through retweets or comments of the awesome people above.

Strong with the awareness acquired from such listening and reading, observe how people behave and think towards people with disabilities – not only the plain hostility, but also the presumably good intentions – and try to spot ableist patterns. Notice how the language we use influences and reveals our mindsets about disability, as Lydia X. Z. Brown (aka @AutisticHoya on Twitter) demonstrates in this brilliant article: “Violence in Language: Circling Back to Linguistic Ableism.”

(Caution, though: don’t automatically call out people for their ableism, unless it’s really obvious and immediately harmful to somebody. As I amply wrote before, ableism is rarely intentional, and people may take offense at what they see as an exaggeration and excessive social justice activism. I have experienced such backfire, including from people I considered as allies, and it hurt. Badly.)

On the more active side, there are many things you can do, whatever your position is in your organization. I can’t do a better job than Matt May, Adobe’s Head of Inclusive Design, at providing guidance on “How to Implement Inclusive Design in Your Organization“, which obviously works for accessibility too. Read it, learn it by heart, print it into leaflets that you’ll pin everywhere inside your premises, or put inside fortune cookies, whatever you want — as long as it helps make these guidelines business-as-usual.

If you have a responsibility in choosing the tools used in your projects, at the very least, ask your prospective vendors to produce a VPAT. Challenge them about the accessibility of their products, and of their outputs; about how they integrate persons with disabilities in the design process. And don’t be content with heartfelt declarations: ask for proofs of tangible actions, and actual results. Even if your workmates don’t actually need accessibility! Just to put pressure on them… Because more customers must ask for it, for vendors to consider accessibility seriously. It must be on the radar, and the stronger the signal, the more likely it is to be detected.

Of course, also apply this to your own productions. Be conscious of the impact of accessibility for people who actually need it, not just for convenience. And there’s no better way to understand it than by interacting with users with accessibility needs. All of this will feel more doable if inclusive practices paved the way at the organization’s level, making accessibility, not a dismissible parameter, but an inherent part of your Definition of Done.

Everything is politics

Probably you had never seen accessibility as a political stance, and as an act of reclaiming rights. And it may come to you as a bitter surprise that our world and our minds are so full of ableism. Maybe you don’t even believe me — it’s a fairly common reaction. None likes to be told that their attitude is harmful, especially when they see themselves as righteous. I didn’t like it. I hate finding ableism, every now and then, in what I think, say or do.

But please leave aside the concussion, and try to see things through these lenses. I do believe it’s important to shed this peculiar light on the issue. Because unless we acknowledge the impact of ableism on everything we do and bring it back into the political field, I don’t think accessibility will ever become a reality.


    1. Unfortunately I’m not making this up ; I actually heard or read such statements. I’m sure many fellow practitioners have, too. back to content


  1. 14 products suggested by this article: “The 20 best wireframe tools“, and 6 more from “Top 12 prototyping tools” (I retained only those that seemed fit as actual prototyping tools, not broader purpose tools). back to content

The post How Ableism Leads to Inaccessibility appeared first on 24 Accessibility.

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