I’m going to preface this post by stating that in my experience, this particular topic can occasionally be downright controversial. As such, I feel it’s important to note that accessibility is a subject that hits particularly close to home for me. No, I don’t personally have a severe disability, but my ex-wife does. Specifically, she is deaf. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to witness first-hand how even a relatively minor disability can affect the lives of those afflicted.
As far as disabilities go, one of the easiest to live with is a loss of hearing. After all, at some point in time in life, the vast majority of the population will experience some loss of hearing and still manage to live a relatively normal life. This feat is particularly true in the modern age. Even as recently as a hundred years ago (a relatively short time in the grand scheme of things), disabilities could legitimately be viewed as crippling. A loss of hearing made you a burden on your family, a loss of sight made you completely useless, and a loss of mobility could be terminal. Today, the advent of technology has made the situation for the disabled much easier through modern hearing aids, cochlear implants, electric wheelchairs (not to mention elevators), and even gene therapy; but that doesn’t mean that those affected by disability have it easy.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, my ex and I have remained good friends despite having both moved on with our lives. We still spend time together, go out to lunch fairly frequently, celebrate birthdays and holidays together, and so on. Recently, we went to a restaurant, and during the process of ordering our meal, the waitress asked Courtney what she wanted. She wasn’t paying attention to the waitress and didn’t respond immediately, oblivious in her own little world until I got her attention. This situation is a relatively regular occurrence for us and, in part, is why we spend so much time together. Over the years I’ve become her de facto translator when she visits a doctor or other important appointment. Knowing each other as well as we do results in an ability to answer many questions for her when she misses them, and can translate (either through simply getting her attention and repeating the question or, in a worst-case scenario, through sign language). However, in the case of this particular individual, once our order was placed and she turned back towards the kitchen, she muttered “what, are you deaf or something?”
Thankfully, Courtney didn’t hear the comment, and I wasn’t about to repeat it. Chances are, it would have been met with a smartass reply on Courtney’s part and a laugh, but I saw no reason to make an already tense situation worse. However, this incident, while minor, does punctuate the problem that is evident in the world today. Despite the numerous advances modern medicine has made towards integrating those with a disability into society, society itself all too often still treats them as second-class citizens. I find this particularly sad, given that each of us is just one genetic anomaly away from a perceived disability ourselves. Even worse, disabilities aren’t always genetic. Many people who weren’t born with a disability find themselves afflicted nonetheless through random chance. Take, for example, the men and women of our Armed Forces. Many of my brothers and sisters in arms have come back from tours overseas with diminished hearing or vision due to conditions in country or, even worse, minus a body part thanks to doing their patriotic duty. Despite the noble cause of their disability, they too are treated as second-class citizens.
My personal belief is that every person alive today is worth giving the same chance. Whether or not they are seen as a productive member of society should be a reflection of the effort they put into their existence, not the conditions under which they were born, or experiences they have had. Particularly in regards to those who are disabled as a direct result of military service, not only should they not be seen as second-class, they should be honored. How many of you would have been willing to sacrifice for your country?
So where am I going with this rant? Well, for this post, there are two types of people who visit my site: users and developers. For those of you who make a living on development, or a similar innovative industry, I challenge you to take the needs of those less fortunate than you into account when you make your next product. Particularly for those who are in the software development world, there’s no good reason that our products shouldn’t be accessible. Screen readers and similar aids are now commonplace; we merely need to ensure that our products take them into account. For those end users who are reading along, you’re not exempt from the problem either. You may not have an impact on the usability of a given product, but you do have a direct effect on the lives of those around you. Next time you see someone who is disabled, don’t treat them with pity, treat them as the citizens they are. It can make a world of difference.
It is the responsibility of every man, woman, and child alive today to make the world a better place for tomorrow, and the actions of an individual can make a profound impact on the world around them. Let’s try to leave the world a little bit better than we inherited it. The future of our society begins now!
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