Originally published March 25th, 2009 at Accessites.org; recovered from the Internet Archive.

Accessibility and web accessibility are often highlighted as issues for people with disabilities. This is no surprise, all things considered, given the common definition of accessibility. “Disability” is, however, an almost meaninglessly broad term. Many of those who could be considered disabled would not choose to self-identify as disabled.
“Disability” is a label, and like any label, the members of the labeled group are diverse and may exhibit the label in unexpected ways.

How many people with color blindness self-identify as disabled? How many people with children in strollers are unable to climb stairs with their child — would they self-identify as disabled? How many left-handed people struggle with right-handed scissors? Is this disability? An issue may appear trivial, but that makes the problem no less frustrating when encountered.

What is Disability?

Disability, at some level, effects every part of our day-to-day existence. Disability is nothing more than an inability to make use of a particular resource as it is presented to you. This is how disability is particularly differentiated from usability: with disability, you cannot use the resource on your own. If a resource has poor usability, you are able to use it, albeit with difficulty.

This is why disability is not an absolute. Disability only prevents you from using tools if alternatives are not made available to you in a manner which you are able to use. The blind can “see” if an object or action is described well enough.

The examples above are situations which may only disable the person in certain circumstances. The person with color blindness (protanopic or deuteranopic) is disabled when a circumstance requires them to distinguish red from green with no other clarifying indicators. Some people may be able to carry their children and stroller up the stairs; others may not. An elevator, moving walkway, or escalator platform can resolve the problem. Some left-handed people can successfully switch to the right hand, or at least manipulate right-handed scissors in such a manner as to successfully cut paper — but can many switch hands to write a letter?

Physical strength or handedness are not classically considered disabilities, but there can be no question that they effect one’s ability to accomplish certain tasks.

But Some People Really are “Normal”

Oh, yes, of course. I mean, I’m normal. But you? Well, I have some doubts.

I mean, there are tons of things that I can do which you can’t. Doesn’t that mean you’re disabled? No? It just means that you have a different set of abilities than I do. Or, alternatively, a different set of disabilities. Neither of us are necessarily disabled; but we are “differently abled.

”That’s right… I forgot. Everybody has a different and independent capability to perform tasks. Some people are impaired when it comes to math, others, art. Some people don’t run very fast; others can’t walk. These disabilities will always affect one’s life. The degree to which disability effects one’s life is highly variable. People who are classically considered disabled tend to have limitations which are severe enough to effect their life every day.

What is commonly called “normal” is truly just an abstract concept which we apply to our personal experience: whether by attributing it to ourselves or to others, it is relative to our own perceptions and our environments.

The web has a great power to reduce that effect. It’s commonly remarked that people behave differently on the web. This is because the web divorces them from their mundane routine — and this is true for everybody. On the web, with a well-designed and accessible web site, people with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, sight impairment, or hearing impairment can have an experience fundamentally equal to the experience of the so-called “normal” user.

In any context, people with a disability are disabled not because of an inherent inability to compensate, but because they are in an environment which requires tasks they are unable to perform. If we change the environment, we can remove the disability.

Because of this, it’s truly critical that we, as web developers, take seriously our power to provide or remove a resource for our users. When we build a web site, we have the ability to create an environment which can provide equivalent access to information and resources to everybody — or we can create an environment which takes that access away.

This article has been reprinted in Human Exceptionality: School, Community, and Family, by Michael L. Hardman, Clifford J. Drew, and M. Winston Egan