How do we talk about disability?

Creating accessible digital products doesn’t have to cost a fortune, and it definitely doesn’t have to be disruptive to your design and development cycles. It’s significantly more affordable (and efficient) to build an accessible product from the beginning, than to fix and remediate a broken one. A focus on accessibility is important, but a focus on sustainability is the key to true success. 

Illustration of brunette woman wearing a yellow t-shirt.

Daniella Levy-Pinto, Community Member at Fable

“In Canada and the U.S., approximately one in five people have a disability.  Think of five people you know, chances are one of them has a disability.”

Let’s talk language

Disability is a sensitive topic. Fear of saying something wrong prevents people from having conversations about disability.

Are the terms “disability” and “disabled” the same? Disability and disabled both describe functional limitations. The term disability is used to refer to individual functioning, including physical, sensory, cognitive, and various types of chronic disease. Many activists and academics prefer to use the term “disabled” in a way that focuses on the disability being part of a person’s identity, as in “disabled person”. 

The change to “people-first language” brought the term “people with disabilities”, which emphasizes putting the person first and the disability second. In Canada, the government uses “people-first” language. 

Some people outside of the disability community tend to use euphemistic terms like “differently-abled” or “diverse-ability”. This suggests that there is something wrong with talking candidly about disability. This is not necessary. For most, referring to someone as a “person with a disability” or being “disabled” is fine.

Another term you may have heard is ableism. Ableism can be defined as the “ideology of ability,” in which life without disability is preferable to life with disability. In this way of thinking, disability is a problem that needs to be eradicated.

Ableism is considered prejudice and discriminatory toward individuals. For example, when business owners create physical or virtual spaces that are not accessible, they are posing barriers for people with disabilities, displaying an ablistic attitude.

Understanding disability

There are two main models of understanding disability – the social model and the medical model. These are broad perspectives that determine how government and society meet the needs of people with disabilities.

Although models of disability may be incomplete and may not reflect the real world, they provide a useful framework to understand disability issues.

The Medical Model of Disability

This model presents disability as a problem of the person, directly caused by a health condition which requires continuous medical care by professionals. The Medical Model places the source of the problem within the person. In this model, management of disability focuses on a “cure,” or on behavioural change that would “rehabilitate” the individual.

The Medical Model often sees people with disabilities as dependent upon society. Policy responses are often paternalistic, which can lead to the discrimination and segregation of people with disabilities.

The Social Model of Disability

In this model, disability is not a characteristic of an individual. It is the result of a complex set of conditions, many of them created by the social environment. This perspective is based on the notion that “disability” is a socially created problem, and an issue that can be addressed with the integration of individuals into society.

In this framework, there is a focus on making environmental (and other) changes to eliminate barriers, a responsibility of society at large. This approach inevitably leads to empowerment and equality.

In this model, the environment and society can even be more limiting than the disability itself. However, eliminating barriers requires individual, community, and social change. People with disabilities are experts about their own experiences and they have an integral role to play in the elimination of barriers. They can identify issues and help devise solutions.

Designing with everyone in mind

Since the mid-1980s, universal design has aimed to create a better quality of life for everyone, through construction of the built environment that is thoughtful. Universal design is also known as inclusive design, and challenges the idea that accessible design is an “add-on”, but rather that everything should be designed with everyone in mind.

Today, the concept of universal design applies not only to buildings and facilities, but also to apps, websites, and products. These can be designed so that they are attractive and functional for all people, at little or no extra cost.

As website creators and developers of products, you can rely on universal design principles to ensure that everyone can access your content, regardless of whether they have a disability or not.