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
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?
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.