The flawed concept of visible and non-visible disabilities - The Accessible Link #6
It defines disability from a non-disabled perspective.
I've been a bit under the weather in the past few weeks. I got a new asthma inhaler after my asthma started acting up. Two days after starting the new inhaler, I got a cough, which has kept me exhausted since but seems to be improving now (fingers crossed!).
So the impairment that most impacted my life in the past few weeks was not my spinal cord injury but my asthma. And that's not so unusual that I say that about my other conditions too, which are often classified as "non-visible". I think the “concept of visible and non-visible impairments” is totally flawed. I try not to use this classification because it is often inaccurate. It defines disability from a non-disabled perspective. It also ignores that people can have both and that this might change.
A hidden agenda
It also creates a binary that comes with an agenda. Many people who say, "It's not just about wheelchair users", often don't make any efforts at all to serve another group of disabled people. They speak of "hidden disabilities" and don't notice that many people with energy-limiting conditions - very often non-visible impairments - would also appreciate using a lift to avoid the massive staircase without handrails. Or they use the terms "hidden" and "non-visible" to avoid saying who they actually mean. Autistic people? Deaf people? People who undergo cancer treatments?
Many barriers when using public transport are an issue for more than one group of disabled people. To divide us into two random groups is very simplistic, and precisely that, dividing. Overcrowding is the best example. No wheelchair user loves to be in overcrowded areas, on a train, or at a station. Overcrowding is an issue for neurodivergent people, blind people, and many other people. So why divide the affected groups into two halves that don't reflect reality?
Not so non-visible as it seems
Additionally, many people who are seen as having a non-visible impairment have, in fact, a visible impairment if people would pay more attention and listen to what people are saying to them. My favourite example is the boarding situation at the aircraft door. I witnessed it many times after I got pre-boarded. A person arrives at the aircraft door and shows the flight attendant the boarding pass without being asked for it. There are clear signs that they have trouble finding their way.
More often than not, an awkward conversation follows, and, in the worst cases, the passenger still doesn't know where to go at the end. While I often realised this passenger was very likely visually impaired with difficulties reading the boarding pass and the seat numbers, the flight attendants often don't notice it till the end because they don't expect it, even when the passenger says, "I don't see very well."
Not the same every day
The concept of visible and non-visible impairments also ignores that impairments change. A person with Multiple sclerosis may have visible symptoms on some days and not on others. So it's not helpful at all to classify impairments like that. Again, it doesn't reflect the reality of disabled people.
There is the wrong perception that people are more supportive if they know someone is disabled. The sad news is that this is not always the case. Also, disabled people have no obligation to tell everyone they are disabled. They still should be able to expect a decent customer experience like everyone else.
In conclusion, the concept of visible and non-visible impairments is flawed, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and ignoring the diversity of the disability experience. Instead of focusing on whether impairments are visible or not, we should focus on creating a world that is accessible and inclusive for everyone. This means providing accessibility that often benefits everyone, regardless of whether their impairments are visible.
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Some interesting links
A broken lift is bad. A working lift that is switched off is inexcusable. Disability campaigners hit out at ‘unacceptable’ 500 closures in a year of tube lifts that were working.
If your marketing team wants to use the alt text on social media for something other than image description, stop them. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been criticised for misusing alt text on social media - weeks after big brands were called out for doing it.
New York’s subway will be 95% ADA-compliant by 2055. The MTA agreed to install lifts or ramps at the more than 300 stations that are currently inaccessible.
Something to watch
To celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day last week, Microsoft created a video to show what's possible when accessibility is a priority. They partnered with copywriter and disability activist Lucrecia Gómez Boschetti to tell the story of how, throughout history, disabled people have influenced many useful inventions that have improved the quality of life for everyone.
And the accessibility features of traffic lights influenced music. Do you know Billie Eilish’s song “Bad Guy”? That’s the story behind it.
Some final words
The danger in tokenism is that it masks inactivity. On paper, it looks as though companies are making progress. Tokenism isn’t solving any problems. It’s only making them worse. Tonie Guajardo (Snell)
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Who is writing this newsletter?
I’m Christiane Link, and I improve the customer experience in aviation, transport, and travel. I worked as a journalist for over two decades and travelled extensively for business and leisure. I’m a wheelchair user. If you want to read more from me, follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter. You can also reply to this email if you want to contact me.