Six disabled people of color smile and pose in front of a concrete wall. Five people stand in the back, with the Black woman in the center holding up a chalkboard sign reading "disabled and here." A South Asian person in a wheelchair sits in front.

Stop Saying “But”: Having the Right Perspective on Disability

YouTube rendition of this post

Have you ever found yourself saying a statement like the following:

“He’s blind but he goes to work everyday.”

Unfortunately, I used to say statements like that without any thought. I was a trained accessibility specialist, I worked alongside people with disabilities, my doctoral degree focused on building accessible technology – I was an insider and an ally. Yet, despite having much more exposure to the disability community than most people, a blind friend pointed out to me one day in conversation that I needed to “stop saying ‘but'”.

My friend explained that by describing a person in that way I was diminishing their abilities and enhancing stereotypes that people with disabilities can’t participate in typical activities. I was lowering the expectations of a person simply because they had a physical impairment and that was wrong.

Wow. How did I miss that? I knew better and I often encouraged others to know better as well. I should have known that my rhetoric was part of the problem and not the solution, I needed to be much more mindful.

Simply search the articles, books, and testimonials of disabled people and they will tell the tale of how society disabled them, often more so than their impairment. Non-disabled people often misjudge the capabilities of people with disabilities, but also often design systems that make activities appear harder or impossible. For example, a building that has stairs can seem impossible to navigate for a power wheelchair user until you add an elevator. Similarly, a computer with a keyboard and mouse may seem impossible for that same person to use until you add voice commands that also operate it fully.

Power wheelchair user with head and hand rests sits at desk in front of iMac desktop monitor, keyboard, and mouse with minimal desk décor. Overlaid on the photo is the Mac microphone icon and text from the original video: "Voice Control is a breakthrough feature that gives you full control of your devices, with just your voice. Its a whole new way to do everything you love."
From Apple’s preview video of their Voice Control operating system feature, this power wheelchair user sitting at their desktop can use their voice to accomplish the same tasks as someone using the keyboard and mouse.

Disability does not prevent equal engagement, it simply requires adjustments to ensure everyone is included.

Having the proper perspective on disability is key to inclusion of people with disabilities in technology and beyond. Start by removing the idea of “can’t” or “doesn’t”. Blind people watch movies, deaf people attend music concerts, wheelchair users do outdoor activities – people do people things. Do not consider disabled people as “amazing” and “brave” when they simply live life as free citizens.

No matter your role in life as you read this blog post, I hope you will begin to change your perspective much like I had to (and did). Disability is real and impactful to someone’s life, and important to explicitly acknowledge when working with and on behalf of others. But with the right perspective and language, inclusion can be a norm and not an abnormality. Let’s do this.

Featured photo attributed to “Disabled and Here“.

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