Not all users are Disabled

A lack of accessibility affects everyone; Disability does not.

Aaron Gustafson, you write good stuff, and I have a bone to pick with you.

No, okay, this is not your fault, so don’t take it personally. I just read your book and we need to have a talk — you, me, and the rest of the progressive enhancement community.

Evangelists of the progressive enhancement philosophy — a philosophy I readily support — are motivated by what I consider to be common sense. It is common sense that web developers build in a resource-conscious way; it is common sense that we be sure users can accomplish their tasks no matter what; it is common sense that we build things everyone can use.

After all, isn’t that why Sir Tim Burner’s-Lee started this thing? [h/t: PocketLint]

This community gets a lot of things right, in my opinion. The trouble is, in pursuit of this Rightness, this better web for all, it ironically makes some mistakes. And no, I am not here to drop yet another opinion in the already overflowing conversation about what is and is not an enhancement, etc., etc..

I am here to talk about language.

[Language] affects how you make your users feel about themselves, their experience, and your company…Language is an accessibility concern.
Aaron Gustafson, Adaptive Web Design: 2nd Edition

In the pursuit of progressive enhancement, many of us meet resistance from our peers. We are told that accessibility is “optional” because most developers think accessible design is too hard, or don’t think about Disabled users at all. In response, because they feel very deeply that Disabled people should be included, progressive design proponents often say something like “Accessibility is for everyone” — true — or “all users are Disabled”. Hold on.

When Mr. Gustafson talks about language as a key part of accessibility, he’s very right. When web developers are creating content, we have to choose words that everyone can understand, and we have to get the right point across while we’re at it. Words mean things.

“Disability” means something specific, relative to Disabled people and their experiences. To be a Disabled person is to 1) Have a body or mind that is considered in some way atypical and 2) experience interpersonal strife, disenfranchisement, or harm as a result of that atypicality. While it is true that everyone faces barriers to access in certain situations, only certain people are Disabled. Because those of us who are advocating for progressive enhancement are by extension fighting for accessibility, we have to be sure to do right by those who are affected most by a lack of access.

This means, Community, that we can’t mince words. All users have different abilities based on their context, just like Mr. Gustafson acknowledges: is the user on a smartphone? Camping in the Adirondacks and bound to a 2G connection? Are they back on their sweet quad-core desktop with a UHD monitor? These are all conditional ability states a user can have, but even the most limited of these states is not a Disability. Disability is not optional; it is permanent. It is a specific cultural context.

Accessibility is important for Able and Disabled people alike, but that does not mean the language surrounding them is interchangeable. Acknowledging the social space that Disabled people occupy without falling prey to the euphemism treadmill is necessary if we want to advocate for all users to have a good experience. Sir Tim Berners-Lee reminds us that the web is for everyone. Go buy Mr. Gustafson’s book so we can keep it like that, and while we’re in this thing for everyone, let’s remember to talk about everyone the right way.