Why the Microsoft guys, however well-meaning, have got it wrong

Inclusive design, or situational disability?

I’m presenting at the ARLG 2016 conference this week on the topic of accessible resources (with Ben Watson from the University of Kent). Our focus is on how to bring them into mainstream provision, and as part of my preparation I’ve been reading up on inclusive design. I looked first to good old Twitter, and found some interesting tweets from David Storey, platform engineer at Microsoft. I’ve come across the term ‘situational disability’ before and it did strike an odd note with me at the time. I took a look at the Microsoft Design webpage, which includes a link to their Inclusive Design Toolkit Manual.

I wanted to like it. I really did. There’s so much good stuff in there and, above all, inclusive design – or design for all – makes sense. I’ve spilt coffee over myself trying to wrestle with a door handle, and I’ve watched a short video in the office minus sound and wished for subtitles – ironically I am deaf, and use subtitles the majority of the time!

However, I am uneasy with the term ‘situational disability’ and the way in which they conflate the terms. In this blog post I’m going to attempt to explain why.

 

A question of semantics?

As Microsoft point out in their manual, the World Health Organisation definitions changed between 1980 and 2001 from disability being classed as a ‘personal attribute… any restriction or lack of ability… to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being’ to being ‘context dependent… a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.’

Inclusive design is based on the social model of disability: an impairment is attributable to the circumstances in which an individual finds themselves. It’s about removing barriers – subtitling cinema screenings for deaf people, removing steps at entrances for people with walking frames and wheelchairs. Where a range of needs are accommodated, people with disabilities are equal.

But… It’s not that simple. Don’t get me wrong; the social model of disability has been a force for good. It’s allowed people to stop thinking about what’s ‘wrong’ with them, and to ask for their rights. I can do my job just as well as the next person, I just need to wear some hearing equipment, and for people to occasionally speak a bit slower in meetings.

There are things my body cannot do. I can’t hear a pan boiling over in the kitchen. I can’t fully appreciate the beauty of classical music. I can never ‘just join in’ with a conversation in the office as I can’t hear what people are saying around me. When I stay in hotels with no alternative alarm available, I say nervously to the receptionist ‘please check room xxx if the building starts to burn down in the night…’ I’ve adapted to these things, but that doesn’t mean that they go away.

 

Conflicted feelings

Returning to the terminology – do I feel it is wrong-footed because I am disabled? Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t feel personally offended, or discriminated against, and I’ve spoken to plenty of non-disabled people who feel that the term is clumsy and ‘there could be something better’.

I received some interesting responses on Twitter when I asked this question (thanks, everyone who contributed!) Elizabeth Ellis helpfully signposted me towards the W3C wiki ‘Situational terminology’ page, which contains some useful discussion and suggestions.

Tug of war by Robert Clemens. Available under a CC BY ND 2.0 licence.
Tug of war by Robert Clemens. Available under a CC BY ND 2.0 licence.

 

Language matters

The issue, as I see it, is that the social model of disability has been used as something of a blunt tool in recent years. Microsoft’s toolkit is a case in point for taking this definition too far. If we flip the model of social disability on its head, we can say that anybody who faces a temporary impairment has a disability. Taking this to its logical extreme, as Microsoft do, equates a parent holding a child as a [situational] disability.

I fully understand the logic in this – and I accept all the examples that they give – but we need to change the language. Words have power, and language matters. We have disability legislation in this country, and worldwide, because disability is a protected characteristic in law. When you reduce disability to a series of potential, specific and temporary interactions, you diminish the experience of people who live with one every single day of their lives.

So yes. I hold my hands up and admit that when I hear these rather black and white arguments, defended with black and white logic,  my injustice radar starts tingling. Another argument that I’ve heard goes along the lines of ‘it’s only an issue if you think disability is a negative thing’. Well, guess what: there’s a big world out there full of complex people, with complex emotions, living complex lives. Invariably things are not usually ‘good’ or ‘bad’; such binary thinking is not helpful.

 

Law of unintended consequences

Alistair McNaught, Accessibility and Inclusion Specialist at Jisc, said something once which has stuck with me. He said ‘there is much incompetence in this world which is mistaken for malice.’ Alistair is one of the kindest and most fair-minded people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. In this  rapid-fire world of instant communication it is all too easy to make snap decisions, rush to judgement, preach from your electronic pedestal.

People, and companies, get language wrong. They embrace slightly dodgy arguments. In doing so, they may alienate or upset people.

I personally believe that Microsoft should adjust their language, and deploy some more subtle and nuanced ways of thinking. But that’s just me. What do you think?

 

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