An interesting discussion on the Web Standards Group (WSG) email list last week prompted me to write about political-correctness in the area of web accessibility.
There was some dissent on the list about the correct “labels” to apply to people with disabilities.
“Disability” is not a dirty word. It just means a missing or imperfect ability. Hands up anyone who wears glasses? I’m guessing most people in their forties or older, plus many others. Guess what? You have a disability, because your ability to see is not perfect. Disabilities that can make internet use difficult aren’t limited to blindness or low vision, however: they even include conditions such as arthritis, which can make using a mouse difficult; people with cognitive difficulties; and people who, for one reason or another, have motor or mobility problems. If someone breaks their arm and can’t use a mouse, they have a disability. Sure, it’s temporary. But still others have permanent or long-term issues and it’s part of our job as web designers and developers to assist them. It’s really not a hard thing to do, and being aware of the wide range of people to whom the word “disability” applies is a good first step.
Labels â€” however much we may dislike them on one level â€” are quite important in enabling us and other members of the wider community to take into account the special needs of people with disabilities. If we don’t know about or understand the disability, we might unintentionally offend or make that person’s life harder than it needs to be.
Some people get offended at what they see as incorrect labels or, probably more accurately, labels they see as displaying an underlying “bad” attitude. In the WSG discussion, an Australian usability expert referred to people with hearing loss as “hearing impaired”, but a Deaf person from the US said, “The correct term is ‘hard of hearing’ and if you call someone ‘hearing impaired’, it just goes to show you don’t know what you’re talking about!” That was quite strong, given that “hearing impaired” is the generally accepted term here (or one of them) that is applied to people with less-than-perfect hearing. If it’s not in the U.S.A. then fine, but that doesn’t make us ignoramuses. (Ignorami?) And for those that just don’t know, but who mean well? I don’t see it as any big deal personally, but it’s important to remember that others do, so it helps to know a bit about the labels in use in the various regions in which we work.
For example, in many parts of the world, it seems it is correct to say “people with disabilities” â€” the idea being that they are people first and the disability is secondary. But we’re told that in the U.K., it is “disabled people”.
As web developers, I believe that if we must use labels on our websites, the important thing is to first define the target audience, then find out, preferably from that group, what they prefer to be called. If it’s an international or multicultural site, a brief statement on the choice of wording for the label might be appropriate â€” otherwise we run the risk of offending some users, when our intention is actually to improve their experience.