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Blogging Against Disablism
Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) 2009, with bloggers from around the world posting their thoughts on the subject. You can read more about the day on the Diary of a Goldfish website.

I thought I’d have a look at the term “disablism” – to get to grips with its meaning and work out how broadly it can be applied.

A dictionary definition?

Disablism is a relatively new word. The term has been popularised since 2004 by Scope (a UK disability organisation whose focus is people with cerebral palsy) as part of their Time to Get Equal campaign. However, it can be traced back to news articles from as early as 1995.

Scope rightly points out that we’ve had other big ‘isms’ (racism, sexism) for decades, and states that it’s time to add “disablism” to that list. On Scope’s website they even have an appeal to get the word added to dictionaries. They define disablism as:

discriminatory, oppressive or abusive behaviour arising from the belief that disabled people are inferior to others

Scope – Beating Disablism

On reading this it immediately struck me that this is a rather broad definition – and for good reason. Just as with other forms of discrimination, we’re not just talking about the obvious stuff – the abusive taunts, the bad jokes and the blatant social segregation. We’re also taking about the attitudes and policies which, although perhaps not intentionally discriminatory, are nevertheless so due to a lack of due consideration.

But the bit about “belief that disabled people are inferior to others”… how broadly can that be applied?

Society’s barriers

My father once said that it is society which puts up the barriers, through its attitudes and assumptions, which in turn disable the person (just as society can enable a person). Sometimes these barriers are the result of a blatant act (banning blind dogs from a taxi, for example) and are usually explicitly covered by the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in the UK. But often the barriers occur due to not doing something – as the DDA would say, not taking reasonable measures.

Often, this will be a result of ignorance to people’s needs. This is not through ‘believing that disabled people are inferior’, but simply a product of not understanding their needs. I would therefore amend the definition:

discriminatory, oppressive or abusive behaviour arising from the belief that disabled people are inferior to others, or through not acknowledging that disabled people are equal and taking reasonable measures to protect their rights accordingly

This broadens the definition even further, covering those instances where, although no intentional bias exists, there is still discrimination through lack of action.

Ignorance is no excuse

Many will argue that if they do not know about the issues, they can’t be guilty of being ‘disablist’. But that misses the point of a truly inclusive society – one which not only breaks down barriers, but doesn’t even create them in the first place. A perfect scenario would be where it is harder to exclude than to include. Perhaps this is an unrealistic hope, but it is nevertheless a noble aim and should be the target of our efforts.

Accessibility on the web

As the drive towards an ‘inclusive web’ continues to gather pace, I struggle to think of a valid reason why a web professional should not know about, and practise, web accessibility. Of course, accessibility isn’t binary, and there are many grey areas. But the fact that we still see many of the “school-boy” errors (missing descriptions for images, text that won’t resize, etc) means that there is a long way still to go to get anywhere near an acceptable global standard.

And like it or not, every single person who makes the choice not to spend the 20 seconds giving that image a suitable description, or thinks that aesthetics beats usability, or who assumes blind people wouldn’t be interested in their site anyway – these people are the embodiment of disablism, because they have relegated the needs of those users (for whatever reason) and, by that action, cast them as inferior.

Addendum: I was proud for this post to be cited in Sarah Lewthwaite’s own BADD contribution – Web Development and Aversive Disablism.

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9 Responses to Defining “disablism”

  1. Gary Miller says:

    James,

    Nothing superfluous here. I really like your amendment to the definition of ‘disablism’ and particularly the piece on accessibility for the web.

    The fight goes on….

  2. NTE says:

    Excellent post! I think your definition of disabilism, and of an inclusive society are spot on!

  3. Nicely done.

    I have never really been entirely happy with the DEMOS deifnition of disablism, as adopted by the TTGE campaign. I think your addition improves it immeasurably.

  4. Hi James, this is an excellent post and really got me thinking about aversive disablism and the web. As a result I’ve posted my thoughts, referencing your post directly at http://slewth.wordpress.com also as part of Blogging Against Disablism.

    • James says:

      Thanks for your comments everyone – I’m pleased to see that my amended definition seems to ring true.

      Sarah, your post is very interesting reading; I’m proud to have been the inspiration for it!

  5. Mike says:

    As someone who has made websites with visual constraints in mind I have to say its rather hard, and time consuming. As quoted above adding image descriptions is rather quick but designing 5 different websites (albeit the same one in sizes) is hard.

    You get the proportions correct in one scale and find features are out of alignment in others. Freelancers generally work by the hour, doubling the time to make small business sites and passing on the increased costs to the owner isn’t something that will get you many recommendations.

    Large corporate sites however have one or more people working day-in-day-out and have the time and resources to cater to all audiences.

    So until everything used in html is scalable, and that scalability is included in the standard feature set I don’t think you’re going to get small sites being that considerate. Which is a shame.

    • James says:

      Hi Mike, thanks for your comment. I’m interested to know why you think there’s a need to build websites at 5 different scales? As long as you separate content from presentation and don’t lock down elements such as font size, users can customise your site themselves to better suit their needs. There should be no need to provide a separate ‘large text’ version, for example, although it’s pretty simple to throw in some style-switcher widgets if you want to offer that functionality too.

      More often than not, building accessibility into website from the start is easier because you’re more likely to be using clean code and logical semantic markup. It’s often more about not introducing unnecessary barriers.

  6. Mike says:

    Poor wording on my part, it was the same site with the text size increased using ‘ctrl +’. The content at larger text sizes wrapped without much issue as I set it in pt and was accessible. However, it was decided that the site needed a thorough navigation and had to work similarly and not take up much space so we needed a cross browser compat. menu that kept its proportion to the content as the text size increased.

    In Firefox, Safari and IE the size increase is to the pt values of the fonts in use, in Opera it actually zooms the site (and images) by a percent. So I had to position elements with in em or pt.

    To have the collapsible menu work when resized sub-menus had to be positioned without gaps otherwise the CSS hover property would be lost and all the sub-menu would rehide/collapse. For example if the proportions where out by 0.05em then a 100% size increase had them misaligned by the font-size * error * percent which for a the standard font size of 12pt (16px) is (16px * 0.05 * 100%) = 80px! Which is huge. So I had to keep trying different values at all 5 sizes until it worked; the time consuming bit.

    Why 5 sizes? When I did the work I did some research and found a study somewhere that said that less than 2% of people used over 5 text size increases so I figure if it stays in proportion for 1-5 increases in theory it should for anything above that and if it didn’t it was still 98% compatible.

    So as you say we did introduce a barrier (the menu) but the intention behind it was to make the site more accessible!

  7. Sheogorath says:

    Often, this will be a result of ignorance to people’s needs. This is not through ‘believing that disabled people are inferior’, but simply a product of not understanding their needs. I would therefore amend the definition:
    discriminatory, oppressive or abusive behaviour arising from the belief that disabled people are inferior to others, or through not acknowledging that disabled people are equal and taking reasonable measures to protect their rights accordingly. Disablism may also arise through a belief that certain disabilities are more deserving of services and other help than others.

    FTFY.

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