So you are an able-bodied person? Think again!

The dictionary definition of Able-Bodied – “fit, strong, and healthy; not physically disabled.”

The dictionary definition of Disability – “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.”

accessibility, disability, architectural barriers
Able-bodied versus disability

If you have read the above, read it again. Then take a few moments to reflect on your life. Think about the times you have felt fit, strong, healthy. Think about the times you have experienced a physical or mental condition that limited your movements, senses, or activities.

I reflected on my own life as a seemingly able-bodied person and came up with a list that was very long. When I was 3 years old, I spent a few months in the burn unit of the hospital recovering from severe third-degree burns from a kitchen accident. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and lost pretty much all my skin from my neck down. Since then I have had multiple health setbacks at different ages from life-threatening adult chickenpox, difficult pregnancies, several miscarriages, to cancer, and this year…covid! Each posed a severe strain on my body and mind causing great discomfort, resulting in my inability to perform my daily activities for several months sometimes years.

Becoming an accidental ally for accessibility.

I became an accidental ally for accessibility a few years ago when I was asked to lead the accessibility initiative at the company where I was doing product consulting work. In just a few weeks, I knew I was on to something. I felt the need to explore the WHY. So I started to look into different kinds of disabilities, trying to understand the people behind the disability, What was their life like? How was it different from mine?

And then one day, I stumbled onto Anne Gibson’s work. Anne is a UX designer with a very strong voice. I absolutely loved her work called ‘The Alphabet of Accessibility Issues’. Below is a link to it.

In this article linked below, she writes about how she came about writing the Alphabet of Accessibility Issues. In Anne’s words,

“It was inspired by some developers I was working with at the time who believed there were exactly three types of disability in the world:

– The profoundly blind guy who needed a screen-reader and who made their work harder

– The profoundly deaf guy who needed captions and who made their work harder

– The guy “with like a broken arm” who couldn’t use a mouse but would probably be fine later and thus didn’t actually need keyboard accessibility

People with cognitive issues never even crossed their radar – they were deemed unable to work in my co-workers’ minds. Anyone who was permanently disabled, actually, pretty much fell into that category… or for some reason maybe they thought they just shouldn’t work?”

You can read more about what went into it at the link below.

Anne’s work put a spotlight on my own life.

I vividly recall the afternoon I sat at my desk at work reading her article from A to Z. I knew several A’s, my son’s best friend was a D, so many people in my life fit into each alphabet and there it was …I stopped at X and stared at it for a few seconds. I read it again and again and again. X was me! It was my story. That was me in 2013.

That’s when it struck me. The concept of an able-bodied person is deeply flawed.

Do you know what else is flawed? The way we think about people with disabilities, the way we treat people with disabilities, and the way we think about web accessibility. Flawed. Flawed. Flawed.

I printed each alphabet on a slide, posted it in the hallway on my floor. In the days that followed, many of my colleagues told me that it really resonated with them. Many of them shared stories of people in their life who fit into those personas. Many thanked me for sharing it saying it broadened their understanding of their perceptions about being able-bodied and about disabilities. It made a huge difference as we worked on the accessibility initiative. It was very important for everyone to understand the spectrum of disabilities before jumping into solving for them.

I realized many years later that it was nothing short of a miracle that I was given the gift of life and brand new skin post my accident as a toddler. It was my first introduction to being disabled. Since then I have been disabled over and over again for periods of time. So what gives me or anyone the right to engage in this meaningless way we label people as able-bodied vs disabled?

This us vs them approach is ridiculous. There is no them….there is only “us”. We are all in this together. If you are one of those people who has never ever been sick or hurt or injured (I doubt there is even one person but let’s just assume for sake of discussion) then there is always old age. How will you get by that milestone in your life? We will all grow old at some point, lose our abilities, and not be in a position to perform daily activities. What then?

So my plea to you is the following –

Consider a broad spectrum of human abilities.

If you work on building products and services that are used by people then please consider the wide range of skills and abilities when you do. Refer to Anne’s work as a starting point to understand what that wide range looks like. Develop your own personas and share them with your teams. Ok?

Developing empathy requires you to engage.

What this means is you engage with people with a wide range of abilities to understand what it’s like to be them. You may not get the full experience but you will walk away a lot wiser than you were before by engaging in understanding them. Ok? Still with me?

It’s ok to be vulnerable.

During my battle with cancer, I took a few days off but mostly continued working on launching my first product as a product manager. I was fully committed to my job so I barely took time off to recuperate. In hindsight, that was a huge mistake. It had long-lasting implications on my health but most of all it sent the wrong message to my colleagues, my employers, and my children. I was showing them that I could work through the discomfort, pain, and disability. I think we need to change this narrative. This concept of celebrating the people who make work their only priority needs to shift to celebrating the people who make their health a priority.

How often do you hear people talking about going back to work after a couple of months of giving birth or working while battling cancer? I understand for some it can be an escape, a distraction but I would argue there are other ways to escape. Our children are watching and if we don’t role-model it for them they will never learn that taking care of their health should always be their #1 priority! We all need to be ok with being vulnerable. All employers need to support vulnerability. That’s when we will truly normalize what it means to be disabled.

Accessibility solves for 100% of the population and not just 20%.

How many accessibility presentations have you seen that start with the slide that shows the number of people in the US / in the world with a disability? Too many. I think we need to stop leading with that. This creates the impression that accessibility is about solving for 5-20% of the population (depends on where you get your data from). That is not the case at all. I think of accessibility as solving for a spectrum of the many stages of human life and the wide range of human capabilities. Does your approach to accessibility change when you think about it in this way?

Accessibility tough love is a thing.

Finally, please read this article by Sheri. I admire Sheri for many things but what I love most about her is that she reminds me of the women in my life. My mother, aunt, my grandmothers never sugar-coated anything for me. It was always straight up. If I was lazy, they told me to get off my fat ass and get shit done. If I was sulking, they told me to get off my fat ass and stop feeling sorry for myself. You get the point!

Sheri is straight up, you may not like her but that’s ok. I don’t think she cares. But do listen to what she is saying because it is important. (For those of you that may be offended by my use of the words ‘fat ass’, please note that I am a South Indian woman. Fat ass is a compliment in my part of the world. 🙂 )

A parting thought..

Remember a time when you were at the lowest point in your life. We have all been there. Now think about all the things that people did for you that helped you cope with it. Imagine a world where we are in tune with each other’s needs especially during these low points. So if you see someone struggling, you help them. Don’t get me wrong. Accessibility is a person’s fundamental right to access. Don’t mistake it for altruism.

What I am suggesting here is we change the way we think about disability, the way we think about people with disabilities, the way we think about accessibility.

After all, caring for each other is what makes our species unique.

You can learn more about us, The Accidental Ally

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