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The Unheard Word

One woman's slightly skewed views

Politically-correct labels

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 — however much we may dislike them on one level — 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” — 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 — otherwise we run the risk of offending some users, when our intention is actually to improve their experience.

6 Responses to “Politically-correct labels”

  1. Jem Says:

    One problem I’ve come across in my small group of accessibility-obsessed friends is that they seem to think that disabilities stop at those who’re visually impaired. Maybe it’s because I’m looking at the wrong websites, but I think this general attitude stems from 90% of websites we’ve (my friends and I) looked at focusing only on improving websites for screen-readers.

    Is this true of most accessibility-focused pages or am I just missing out on a proportion of the good ones?

  2. Vicki Says:

    No I think you’re right Jem. Blindness and low-vision disabilities are the most obvious, probably because the whole net experience is more radically different (and difficult) for those people than those with most other disabilities. This would in part explain why the focus is on these people.

    An amazing number of web designers on various discussion groups I’ve belonged to don’t see any need at all to do more than put alt attributes on images. They say, “It depends on your target market and we are not targetting blind people”.

    Web sites we as designers do for clients are generally sites for the client’s business. That means, they’re selling either goods or services. Make using a website and/or buying a product or service difficult for a user with one of the vast number of disabilities in the population, and that potential customer is lost to our client. Is that what our clients want? I hardly think so!

    So I’m not sure why it’s really hard to get through to web designers that a) web accessibility is about a very large proportion of people in our society and they are people with money who buy things, and b) implementing accessibility measures on a website site is neither difficult or time-consuming in most cases.

    (OK I’m blushing now. This blog is has not been modified – yet – for web accessibility but I will get to it! Really! 🙂 )

  3. howard Says:

    I think you really have to make a judgement about the rationality of people such as you described above, who choose to be THAT picky about innocuous terminology. ‘Hard of hearing’ or ‘hearing impaired’ Both adequately describe the situation.

    What is true though is that it is not unimpaired people who have a monopoly on oversensitivity. Unfortunately, that sort of argument by them detracts from the importance of recognising and dealing with it compassionately and thoughfully.

  4. Vicki Says:

    Howie that is so true. People with disabilities often think they are being “picked” on but in truth they’re not always. People can be impatient and intolerant of anyone who doesn’t measure up to their own “standards of perfection”. And others simply don’t care about anyone except themselves. It’s (I’d guess in most cases) not a particular insult to people with disabilities, because of the disability.

    The person who was so definite about the terminology for people with hearing loss was a Deaf person who sees the attitudes behind the words as the problem, more than the words themselves. I understand that, which is why I wrote that we need to be aware that the labels are important to people, whether or not we identify with that importance.

    My personal opinion is that people with an underlying attitide so insensitive to those with disabilities are not going to be sensitive to the nuances of politically-correct labels.

  5. Juanita Audit-Tcake Says:

    And I think it’s reasonable to say that a lot of Americans are simply unaware that other versions of english are spoken beyond their shores.

    That’s not particularly a criticism, the British were just as myopic in the mid 19th century. It’s an empire thing.

  6. Joe Says:

    Read SWAP by Sam Moffie. the hero is deaf and so is the author.