Accessibility Education

Talking about Disability

The past year and a half has been a whirlwind. My wife and I relocated to the Pacific Northwest, having only visited it once (during the interview) so that I could accept what I still consider to be my dream job here in Seattle. Fast forward to today, and we are in the midst of one of the most chaotic years in United States history. But let's not focus on all the chaos. Rather, let's talk about the impact it has had on my life. Early in my career, my interests were far and wide — I aspired to be a generalist rather than a specialist because I was unsure of what I wanted to do for a living. I chased opportunity after opportunity for the skills and for the money. Four and a half years later, I'm sitting here with a vastly different view of the world. I've awakened a deep passion for inclusivity, structural change, and speaking out.

I look out at the world, and I care deeply about making it a more accessible and equitable place. I don't care about the money or the opportunity anymore. I care about working where I can stand up for what's right. That's why I'm here at this moment now.

I recognize now more than ever, my privilege — I'm a white, cis-gendered male from the middle class working in technology.

My hope for this post and those to follow is that my experiences will motivate you to start thinking more inclusively and develop products, features, and experiences for ALL people regardless of their abilities.

Disability Frameworks

There are many ways in which we view disability as a society. These diverse perspectives all have their pros and cons for people with disabilities. I'll walk through each of these viewpoints as a way to put the knowledge I've gained in my own words and also provide commentary on which I believe to be most just.

The Medical Model

The medical model of disability puts the biological condition at the center. It focuses on the physical implications of a disability and the means by which it can be treated or cured. It's a scientific approach that doesn't leave much room for empathy. In this framework, a person with a disability has a bodily problem that needs to be solved with treatment.

Pros:

Cons:

The Social Model

The social model is polar opposite from the medical model. Rather than focusing on a small group of people with a medical condition that needs treatment, it considers the broad social conditions that disintegrate some. To folks in this school of thought, the disability isn't a problem, society is. It's a more inclusive approach that begs us to make opportunities more accessible and usable by all people.

Pros:

Cons:

The Biophysical Model

Binary oppositions can be problematic because they reduce a condition to one end of the spectrum or another. The reality of life is that many issues are not binary in nature. The biophysical model attempts to view disability through both a medical and social lens.

I like this model the best because it seems to align closest to the reality that many people with disabilities face. It recognizes the scientific facts, while understanding that a better and more inclusive world demands social change.

The Economy Model

This way of thinking assumes that a person with a disability has a diminished capacity to contribute to the labor market. Instead of considering the sociopolitical reasons for this, this view is all about the money. Common thoughts are that a person's inability to be as productive can have implications on their financial security, the margins for the employer, and the governing systems that provide aid to various underrepresented groups. There's a direct link from this way of thinking to the Charity Model.

Pros:

Cons:

The Functional Solutions Model

This approach focuses on removing friction in daily life through innovation. Rather than focusing on environmental factors like social structure, design, etc., disability is viewed as a problem that we can engineer a solution for. You'll see a similarity here between this model and the medical model because the problem statement is the same while the solution is slightly different.

This approach focuses on removing friction in daily life through innovation. Rather than focusing on environmental factors like social structure, design, etc., disability is viewed as a problem that we can engineer a solution for. You'll see a similarity here between this model and the medical model because the problem statement is the same while the solution is slightly different.

Pros:

Cons:

The Cultural Affiliation Model

Other models of thinking attempt to "fix" what they view as a problem or an obstacle. The cultural affiliation model is all about acceptance. Interacting and engaging with others who are affected by similar life experiences can help to bring about a sense of belonging.

Pros:

Cons:

The Charity Model

This view of disability sees people with disabilities as an unfortunate niche group that is in need of our more able-bodied assistance.

Though well intentioned, to me, this is a problematic way to think. This model makes the assumption that people with disabilities want and need our help. It labels an entire group of people as "less than" and throws time and money at a problem rather than finding and fixing a root cause in an compassionate way.

Pros:

Cons:

Conclusion

As I illustrated above, there are many different ways in which we as a society approach disability. Depending on how you fit into the fabric of the community, you might be predisposed to one model of thinking or another. For us to become a more equitable and inclusive group of people, we have to examine all the perspectives. As you're innovating, creating, developing or otherwise building something new, I implore you think about how you can make your "thing" inclusive for ALL from day one. Even if positive change isn't immediate, we'll all be heading in a better direction.

Return to Top