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BADD 2012

This post has been written as part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012.

When I first contributed to Blogging Against Disablism Day back in 2009, I attempted to define the term disablism in relation to web professionals. I drew some fairly strong conclusions:

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.

Defining Disablism, May 2009

My post was picked up by disability and new media researcher Sarah Lewthwaite, who added a new dimension by applying the term aversive disablism to what I had written.

Aversive disablists recognize disablism is bad but do not recognize that they themselves are prejudiced. Likewise, aversive disablism, like aversive racism, is often unintentional.

Taken from Mark Deal’s paper ‘Aversive Disablism, subtle prejudice towards disabled people’

This time, I’ve decided to expand on this theme by looking at a related behaviour I’ve observed – something that I’ll call complicit disablism.

Complicit disablism

As a web professional, I’m constantly asked to post information to the web, to develop new online services, and to design new interfaces. Part of my role is to ensure all of these things are done correctly – to not only comply with all relevant laws and legislation, but to also deliver the best user experience, for all users.

Often, the topic of accessibility will come up. Unavoidably, this often goes hand in hand with needing to explain why something isn’t possible, or requires more work (videos need transcripts, PDFs need to be tagged, images need meaningful descriptions, colours must be changed to offer sufficient contrast). Of course, when you explain why, most people wouldn’t dream of arguing.

But life is not always that simple. Maybe resources are limited, or the person paying the bill is insisting on something inaccessible. I know of several web developers who have reported being instructed to do something that will directly create accessibility barriers, and their protests have gone ignored, dismissed or overruled.

Enter the risk of complicit disablism – an ethical occupational hazard being faced every day by web folk. Do you risk everything and stick to your guns, or do you relinquish and sacrifice accessibility for a quiet life, effectively being complicit in the discrimination this might cause?

I was struck by some advice given by law site, which suggests:

If clients insist on such designs, you should address this in the development contract. Seek an indemnity to protect you in the event of litigation over the website’s failure to comply with the accessibility legislation. – disabled access to websites

I was fascinated by this idea – that a developer should go so far to protect themselves from the fall-out of a bad design. It seems sensible, though, and might even serve to set the alarm bells ringing in the ears of your client, perhaps enough to shock them into some sense.

Being reasonable

But before the conversation reaches this litigious extreme, I’d like to recommend that people try one last tact – a plea to reason, or more specifically, to reasonable adjustment.

In the UK, the Equality Act talks about a duty on service providers to make reasonable adjustments to make their services accessible. has this to say on that subject:

In considering what constitutes a reasonable adjustment, the Code suggests that factors which might be taken into account include: the service provider’s financial and other resources; the amount of resources already spent on making adjustments; and the extent of any disruption which taking the steps would cause the service provider. – disabled access to websites

Talking about reasonable adjustments, specific to your client’s circumstances, may suddenly change the conversation from “we must do all of this, now” to “let’s start here, and aim for there”. This can be a very powerful tool for the accessibility champion, giving them enough flexibility to work with their client and find a reasonable compromise. After all, accessibility is not binary – not simply black or white, accessible or not. It’s also not a one off job. By getting approval for small, reasonable steps towards better accessibility, you may make far more progress than starting off by saying “we either do all of this, or we do nothing”.

In this way, hopefully people will find themselves no longer being complicit disablists, but rather enablers for real, reasonable change.

Do you agree that focusing on reasonable adjustments is good enough? Have you found other ways to get your clients to accept your accessibility measures? If your client still disagrees, do you agree that you’re complicit? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

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13 Responses to Complicit disablism and the power of reason

  1. James says:

    I’d also direct people to Brian Kelly’s excellent post on aversive disablism which touches on very similar themes.

  2. Gary Miller says:

    Fascinating thoughts on something I’ve not encountered myself. I find myself wondering what I would do in the event that some future client insisted that I compromise my professionalism.

    Where I am, I’m still trying to convince Guest House owners that they’re breaking the law. The old story of ‘But blind people don’t go on holiday’ still exists in the more rural areas – sad, but all too true.

    Brilliant article James!

  3. Stomme poes says:

    A tactic I’ve commonly used is “SEO”. Search engines being held in unbelievably higher regard than actual users, they are also in many ways disabled. While I dislike the argument “It’s good for SEO”, I’ve used it as reasons for building in accessibility in general.

    This post’s other tactic is great to have in the arsenal.

    …Hm, I have a lot of bellic words in my post… what does that mean.

    • James says:

      Thanks Mallory. That’s a really interesting point – if your client isn’t bothered about avoiding discrimination, but IS bothered about climbing up the SERPs, then I guess it makes sense to play the SEO card. I guess that could be the “carrot” to the “stick” of being sued!

  4. Great post James, on a very interesting topic. Complicit Disablism is an unfortunate, but necessary addition to web development vocabulary. The strategies for “managing up” identified by you and within the comments are great for demonstrating resistance is possible.

    • James says:

      Hi Sarah, many thanks for your comments. Great to have your endorsement of the term – as you say, unfortunate but necessary for developers to consider.

  5. Kimberley says:

    Great article. I used to work for an organisation which received a lot of funding for a web project aimed at older people and disabled people who were guilty of this. They wanted the website to be accessible, but when budget or timeline was threatened, accessibility was the first to go.

    And some of the practices the web team were teaching to other content editors…still makes me shudder!

    • James says:

      Kimberley – wow, when older and disabled users are a key target audience, the arguments for accessibility are even more obvious! And yes, if you have a weak link in the training, you’re destined to fail. Scary!

  6. I seem to have spent a lot of time over the past few years trying to explain website accessibility. Even after explaining, people can be very reluctant to do the necessary work. My own websites and blogs are certainly far from perfect, but I do try to get at least some of the basics right.

    • James says:

      Thanks for your comment Janet – an awareness of the issues and a willingness to change are the foundations of accessibility so you’re well on the way! I guess we just have to keep chipping away to get everyone else on board.

  7. Great post. Lots to think about here.

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