People Aren’t Disabled. We Create Disabling Things.

July 24th, 2020 by zoltan · 4 Comments

A man in a wheelchair struggling to travel a small flight of outdoor stairs

As someone who has made web sites and applications for more than 25 years, I have seen the web grow from its infancy to what it is today. As web site creators, our profession has done a lot to empower users to get things done, to stay updated with the world around us, find the information we need, and to keep in touch with others.

However, my last few years as an accessibility subject matter expert has also made me realize that many of my fellow creators of digital experiences have inadvertently prevented some of our user base from getting things done, to stay updated with the world around them, find the information they need, and keep in touch with others. These fellow creators didn’t mean to, but they did this by making sites and apps that are inaccessible.

A lot of people call people who can’t use inaccessible technology “disabled”. As someone who has a blind father and a deaf mother, I challenge the use of that word.

Who Are We Disabling?

Photo of an elderly man in a grey fedora sitting in a wheelchair.

My dad going for a walk in the neighbourhood in his wheelchair. I wonder where I get my love for fedoras…

My dad insists on doing his own banking. He knows how to use a screen reader, and has the ability to use computers, phones and tablets with one installed. If a banking website doesn’t work correctly with a screen reader, that’s not his fault. It’s the fault of the designers, developers and QA professionals and project managers that were involved in building that website. We are preventing him to gain access to his money. We are wrong to put him in that situation.

Photo of an elderly woman holding a Japanese detective novel to the camera.

My mom is a strong, tough woman and will tell you off if you try to butt in ahead of her in line at our local grocery store.

Recently, my mother had to spend an extended period of time in a local hospital. Because of COVID-19, we were unable to visit her in person and relied on Zoom to communicate with her. She wears hearing aids, and although she can hear us when we talk to her in person, she had a problem with hearing us speak through the hospital’s iPad. Since Zoom doesn’t have auto-captioning by default, and my mother couldn’t understand we were saying, it was very difficult to communicate with her. Auto-captioning technology exists today (and platforms like Microsoft Teams and Google Meet have this technology built into their platforms). When Zoom made the decision not to include auto-captioning as a default feature in their product, they decided who would not be able to communicate with their loved ones during a global pandemic. And if the people who develop technology like auto-captioning make it hard or expensive for companies like Zoom to license that technology, then they are part of the problem. These decisions isolate and make people feel helpless, when it should do the opposite. We have the technology to empower, so why did this happen to my mother?

If we don’t care about accessibility, we are the ones who make people disabled. People are not disabled. It’s the technology we make that is disabling.

We Have A Moral Responsibility

Anyone involved in the creation of technology wields a lot of power. As digital creators, the decisions we make affects how people use the tech we make, how easy it is to use, and how enjoyable it is to use. It’s also determines if some people can’t use it at all. Everyone in our industry needs to use the power we have to ensure everyone can use the things we create. It’s our job. It’s our responsibility.

This may be hard for some of us to hear, but it’s the truth. If you work as a digital creator, you are responsible to make your creations accessible. I am not writing this to make you feel guilty of all the inaccessible websites or apps you have been involved in making in the past. What’s done is done, and hell, you didn’t know. I admit that I have also been guilty of doing of inaccessible tech in the past, because I was not always aware that the code I was creating was inaccessible. But when I learned what I was doing wrong, I became aware of my responsibility. Today, I do everything I can to ensure every project I’m involved in results in an end product that is usable by everyone.

So if you are reading this article, thank you. This is the first step of your journey. I encourage you to get up to speed about making technology accessibility. Designers, developers, QA professionals and project managers need to get involved to ensure this happens.

How Do I Learn To Make Experiences Everyone Can Use?

Glad you asked! Here are good places to start:

All the links above are just a start and are by no means definitive or complete. Research more, learn more, and most importantly, do more! If you involved in any aspect of creating online experiences, you already have to keep up with the latest technology and techniques that our industry uses. The same goes with accessibility. I have done accessibility work for a long time now, and I am still learning … and that’s okay. It’s how it should be, and it’s part of our industry’s culture.

We work in an industry that creates things that millions of people use every day. Let’s use that power to ensure we are empowering and enabling all our users.


Header photo credit: Carlos Martinez

Tags: accessibility ·

4 responses so far ↓
  • 1 Monica // Jul 28, 2020 at 9:18 am

    Love the article and the photos of your parents. Thank you for highlighting the human side of tech and emphasis that it is supposed to enable all of us. Kudos Zoltan!

  • 2 Lee May // Aug 6, 2020 at 7:32 am

    Well done Zoltan! Very impressed with your engaging writing. I was not aware that auto-captioning existed.

    Keep up the good work.

  • 3 zoltan // Aug 6, 2020 at 1:00 pm

    @Monica Thanks so much … and long time, no see! I thought it was important to talk about why people like me do accessibility work. Hopefully it inspires others to think of it not as a legal requirement, but something that is necessary for people to function in our digital society!

  • 4 zoltan // Aug 6, 2020 at 1:03 pm

    @LeeMay Thanks for your kind words! Auto-captioning is something I use all the time on Teams and Google Meet, even though I am not hearing-impaired. I love it since I often miss something due to a distraction, mishearing the speaker, or not even being familiar with the speaker’s accent. It’s a good example of showing that assistive technologies are beneficial to everyone, even people without disabilities.

Give Feedback

Don't be shy! Give feedback and join the discussion.

Please Note: If you are asking for help using the information on this page or if you are reporting a bug with the code featured here, please include a URL that shows the problem you are experiencing along with the browser/version number/operating system combination where the issue manifests itself. Without this information, I may not be able to respond.

An orange star denotes a required field.