Words matter. Despite their inadequacies, words are our best means of expression. Because we are not born with words, we learn language as a means to translate our innate selves into something comprehensible to ourselves and others. You could say language is like a two-way mirror, projecting and reflecting our identity. Our facility with language affects how much of who we are gets lost in translation.
The words we use shape our communities. They can drive positive change or cement us in outmoded and unproductive ways of thinking and acting. And they are contagious, spreading throughout our communities, embedding themselves in our systems, defining our behaviors, and influencing outcomes. When the words and expressions we use to talk about accessibility convey prejudice and reinforce stereotypes, whether explicitly or implicitly, they can feed discriminatory behaviors, such as minimizing or disregarding accessibility, thereby preventing disabled people from using digital products.
We are two accessibility and user experience professionals who are also writers. In this article, we present a series of vignettes, loosely based on real-life events, as a narrative device to illustrate how language reveals unseen but nonetheless solid barriers. Any resemblance to real people and incidents is not entirely coincidental, but it is also not judgmental. We have all been and will continue to be characters in these stories, playing the villain, the accomplice, the innocent bystander, or the victim. But by relating to these stories and recognizing our own biases, we can consciously take action to address them. Following each vignette, we explore how the language could be problematic and counterproductive in achieving the aims of our profession. We conclude with some resources for refactoring our accessibility discourse, individually and collectively, so that we can better support accessibility and disability inclusion in our digital world.
Disability, Accessibility, and UX
But before reading the vignettes, let us explore the meanings of the words disability and accessibility. The World Health Organization defines disability:
Disability results from the interaction between individuals with a health condition, such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and depression, with personal and environmental factors including negative attitudes, inaccessible transportation and public buildings, and limited social support. (World Health Organization, n.d.)
By approaching disability with the social model, a combination of internal and external factors, we can begin to consider the intersection of functional limitations of bodies or minds and the barriers in our thinking, physical environments, and digital landscapes that result from failure to design for the spectrum of humanity that includes disability. It is important to also understand that for many disabled people, disability is a source of pride and cultural identity found in a space where the spectrum and complexities of disabled bodies and minds are celebrated (Andrews et al., 2022). Naomi Ortiz writes:
Disability culture is unique to us, to the ways we work and live. We go slower or faster than nondisabled people. That’s called Crip Time. In order to survive, we need help and when that help is both given and received, that’s called interdependence. (Ortiz, 2022)
Digital accessibility is the practice of making digital products usable by people with disabilities. Many people with disabilities use specific assistive technologies, such as magnification, screen readers, or speech access to digital interfaces. Digital accessibility involves designing and coding digital products so they work well with these technologies. It also involves optimizing digital environments to be directly disability friendly, such as avoiding visual design that can trigger seizures or migraines, and using plain language that is approachable to audiences with a range of cognitive abilities.
As a profession, user experience is a natural fit for accessibility. Unlike some of the more technology-focused roles in the industry, UX is about people. And for the most part, the job of the UX practitioner is good UX that ensures people have good experiences with digital products. With this focus, we can readily include a range of disabilities among user attributes and accessibility among user needs, and we can support disability inclusion when designing products that work for people who use the product.
In our professional communities, such as UXPA, we have guiding principles that implicitly support disability inclusion, such as acting with integrity and avoiding doing harm (UXPA, 2013). The ACM Code of Professional Conduct is more explicit in its guidance. For example, under the general ethical principle to “be fair and take action not to discriminate,” professionals are advised that “failure to design for inclusiveness and accessibility may constitute unfair discrimination” (ACM, 2018). Additionally, people who work in accessibility and user experience are likely to declare positive attitudes toward disabled people. Based on our experience, it would be hard to find someone who is overtly ableist working in UX. In fact, it is very common to hear people in the accessibility community say, “I am passionate about accessibility.”
Which makes it more concerning to recognize that some implicit attitudes and beliefs expressed through our accessibility discourse might be getting in the way of making meaningful progress toward disability inclusion. Here we present three simple examples of how we talk about accessibility and explore what each one says about the inclusiveness of our attitudes and communities.
Eat Our Own Dog Food
I am in a meeting with my co-organizers working through the details of an upcoming webinar. It’s shaping up to be quite an event with great presenters and compelling topics. We are discussing whether the platform’s auto-transcription feature is adequate for providing live captions. Given its limitations, we decide to hire support for live captioning, as well as sign language interpretation. “We’d better eat our own dog food,” someone says, and we all murmur in agreement, and then I think, dog food. What exactly are we likening to dog food? Accessibility? Disability inclusion?
How many of you have eaten dog food? I tried it once when I was a kid and did not like it very much. It was dry dog food—maybe canned is better. But still, most creatures would not opt to eat dog food when there are other options on hand. And that includes dogs.
Apparently, the origins of the expression, “eat your own dog food,” started as product endorsement modelled on Lorne Greene’s ads for Alpo® dog food. “I love this old dog… He’s an Alpo dog.” The tech industry adopted and verbified the term dogfooding as a way of encouraging (or forcing) developers to directly experience the products they create with the aim of improving the end-user experience. Personal investment is a great motivator as is affective experience. Product developers who suffer at their own hand may invest more effort in creating good experiences for their users. Recognizing the negative connotations of dog food, some have modified it to “drinking our own champagne” and “ice-creaming” (“Eating your own dog food,” 2023).
Now, we might say, “But that’s not what we mean when we use that expression. We mean ‘practice what we preach’ or ‘walk the talk.’” But that is the thing about words: They mean what they say. And in this case, the expression conveys that we had better do this thing that we don’t really want to do—that we find distasteful. If Lorne Greene had proclaimed that he loved eating dog food and would choose Alpo over a sirloin steak, it would be a different story. In that case, eating our own dog food would mean doing something we love to do, believe in, and choose over other desirable things to do. But user experience exists, as a concept and a profession, because concern for people is not inherently a first principle in technology development, which is often distanced from the caring professions. Technology needs disciplines like UX and methods like user-centered design because we are naturally drawn to solving complex technical puzzles but must be intentional about ensuring our solutions work for people who use digital products.
So, when we consider the above scenario, there is an apparent disconnect between the explicit attitudes of the endeavor (prioritizing people and advancing disability inclusion) and the implicit attitudes expressed as dogfooding (accessibility is something distasteful that we are obligated to do). This disconnect between explicit (conscious, professed) and implicit (unconscious, repressed) values and beliefs is particularly problematic and, unfortunately, particularly common.
For more than a decade, Project Implicit at Harvard University collected 7.1 million responses to attitude tests for implicit and explicit biases related to race, skin tone, sexuality, age, disability, and body weight. In that time, implicit attitudes about disability have shown little progress toward neutrality. Along with age and body weight, researchers predict implicit attitudes about disability could take hundreds of years to decrease bias sufficiently to reach neutrality. On the other hand, explicit disability bias decreased by 37% in that time, and researchers forecast attitude neutrality by 2037 (Charlesworth & Banaji, 2022). This discrepancy can be especially harmful as “hidden, indirect beliefs can pervade and persist more easily in the face of conscious values and ideals against them,” producing “the biased ‘air’ that permeates a community,” which can result in systematic discrimination (Charlesworth & Banaji, 2022, p. 12).
When we use expressions that convey negative attitudes, our words poison the “air” surrounding our advocacy and education efforts and undermine our objectives.
It Is Not Just About People with Disabilities
I’m leading an accessibility training and I am a visibly disabled person. There’s a pitch moment where I try to sell the audience on accessibility by talking about how accessibility isn’t just for people with disabilities. Curb cuts aren’t just for people using wheelchairs, they are for travelers rolling suitcases and caregivers pushing strollers as well. Clean visual design in mobile apps doesn’t just benefit people with visual or cognitive disabilities, it makes apps easier to operate when you’re distracted and juggling a pet and a latte.
On its surface, this argument sounds like a straightforward win for all involved. If accessibility is for everyone, of course it should be promoted, funded, and incorporated into our practices and products. Yet each time I make this argument, it gives me pause. Does attempting to sell accessibility by highlighting its value to non-disabled people imply that the value of accessibility to disabled people is not a compelling argument in its own right? Am I sending the message to my fellow disabled colleagues and customers, and even to myself, that accessibility will only be prioritized if it holds universal appeal? Where does that leave important aspects of accessibility such as Braille, American Sign Language, and coding for screen reader compatibility, which may not hold up to the argument of benefiting all of us?
Another flavor of the attempt to sell accessibility this way is the argument that we are all a little bit disabled, where everyday human imperfections are categorized as disabilities, like wearing glasses, being left-handed, or being a Yankees fan in a Giants town. As previously discussed, disability is a combination of an impairment and environmental factors, and the differences and deficits of our bodies do not necessarily result in disability. Claiming that they do can appear dismissive of the barriers disabled people must contend with in many aspects of life. It is not uncommon for disability identity to shift throughout one’s lifespan, or even for individuals to have a moment in which they realize, “that’s me,” and embrace a disability identity after engaging with accessibility professionally. However, accessibility matters whether those working on it have or do not have disabilities. Which begs the question, do we all need to personally feel disabled in some way in order to engage with accessibility? Can we feel compelled to take care of one another without being personally impacted?
The accessibility community has debated these concepts. The Web Accessibility Initiative promotes accessibility as “essential for people with disabilities and useful for all” (WAI, 2021). Microsoft® Inclusive Design Toolkit promotes designing for people with permanent, temporary, and situational impairments, for example, people who are deaf, have an ear infection, or are bartending in a noisy bar (Microsoft, n.d.). Karl Groves recently tweeted:
#a11y folks: we don’t need to continue with the “accessibility helps everyone!” narrative. It’s OK to say it helps disabled folks and leave it at that.
Thank you for coming to my Ted talk. (Groves, 2023)
But ultimately, the most productive and fundamental approach to changing the narrative is to shift away from making a case for accessibility by making it personal, making it financially attractive, and making the number of beneficiaries larger. Instead, we can shift our personal and professional practices to include accessibility in the context of a larger commitment to universal design. Ron Mace defined universal design as “design that’s usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (The UD Project, n.d.). We can both design as universally as possible and unashamedly advocate for accessibility as a normal and needed piece of designing for everyone. We can avoid othering or minimizing the needs of people with disabilities by speaking of accessibility as a valuable practice, not something that needs universal appeal to be worthy of consideration. To paraphrase the immortal words of Léonie Watson, we can design like we give a damn (Watson, 2011).
When we champion accessibility and the equity it brings to disabled people, we avoid implying that disabled people, and our access rights, are less important than those of the non-disabled people who may also benefit.
Me and You; Us and Them
The presenter is demonstrating a typographic effect achieved through crafty coding that could negatively impact blind people using screen reader software. It’s a clever illustration of how prioritizing visual design may lead to issues for non-visual users. They narrate the experience, saying, “You and I see [visual effect] but a screen reader user hears [gibberish].” Later in another session, a blind presenter uses their screen reader to demonstrate the effect of missing alt text, saying, “You see an image, but I hear [gibberish].” I appreciate the skillful examples, but then catch myself—wait, what? Who is you and I?
Our unconscious biases are often expressed in unintentional but harmful ways, such as assuming only sighted people are in the audience when talking about screen reader UX. One way to reduce bias is by intentionally centering diversity, equity, and justice in our profession and making sure people who represent marginalized groups, such as disabled people, are fully included as members of our professional community, as summarized powerfully by the disability rights slogan, “Nothing about us without us” (Wolff & Hums, 2017).
Additionally, the typographic example presented does not represent the most urgent issue for blind users. Nonsensical words and phrases are certainly something to avoid for screen reader UX, but they are unlikely to represent a significant barrier. Without contact with people with a range of lived experiences, designers and developers risk “over-engineering solutions or solving for a non-existent or trivial problem” based on an underdeveloped understanding of the problems people face (Lauridsen, 2021). In fact, much of our accessibility attention focuses on clever coding solutions and standards conformance rather than people.
One reason scenarios such as these exist is that representation and inclusion of disabled people lags far behind other diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. In some organizations, disability and accessibility are not included at all in DEI initiatives. Without the support of codes, policies, and programs, disability inclusion is less ingrained into our culture and values, and disabled people are not represented in our organizations and communities. “Although 90% of companies claim to prioritize diversity, only 4% of businesses are focused on making offerings inclusive of disability” (Casey, 2020).
It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, our language; it is that two-way mirror. If we project our beliefs, they will reflect on us. If our community projects inclusion through representation, by acting as if our community is inclusive and diverse, our community will become more diverse. And that will help us overcome implicit biases by breaking down barriers and increasing interaction among disabled and non-disabled people.
In the title song from his album “Us,” Brother Ali talks about the impact of acting on individual bias within a collective, in which one person’s words and actions have so many repercussions. “The world’s gettin’ too small to stand in one place / It’s like we’re roommates just sharin’ a space / Can’t separate and still carry the weight.” He encourages us to examine our biases so we can recognize and overcome them and move forward together. “There’s no me and no you, it’s just us” (Brother Ali, 2009).
Similarly, in UX and accessibility, our individual words and actions impact accessibility in profound ways from reinforcing negative attitudes to undermining disability inclusion to causing harm through inaccessible products. Weighed down by biases, there can be no “us” tackling the challenge of digital inclusion together.
By acknowledging our collective interdependence, we will be able to truly embrace accessibility and disability inclusion.
Where Do We Go from Here?
In these vignettes, we show how examining how we talk about accessibility can help us recognize ways our implicit beliefs are not aligned with our expressed beliefs. This recognition can fuel a personal reckoning in which we acknowledge unconscious biases and seek to overcome them so as not to feed disability bias and systemic ableism. We can start by examining unproductive words and ways we educate and advocate for engagement with accessibility and resolve to change them, and with that, begin changing ourselves and each other.
- The documentary film, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, available to watch on Netflix®, https://cripcamp.com/
- Emily Ladau’s book, Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally (Ten Speed Press, 2021)
- Alice Wong’s anthology, Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century (Vintage, 2020)
- Denis Boudreau’s book, The Inclusive Speaker: How to Truly Connect with All of Your Audience without Leaving Anyone Behind (Prominence Publishing, 2023)
- Outsmarting Implicit Bias collection of informational and educational resources, https://outsmartingimplicitbias.org/
We are grateful to Tessa Charlesworth, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Harvard University, for generously sharing her knowledge and expertise. We are grateful to our personal and professional communities for providing a safe space for questioning, learning, and working together to make things better.