How often do you see disabled people on the front page of a website that’s not related to healthcare? Here’s how disabled people are ignored on websites!
by Anneliese Knop | Anneliese Knop MS. ALC is a mental health counselor whose early career revolved around work with children and adolescents. Growing up blind, however, gave her a passion for working with parents of children with disabilities, and parents who have disabilities themselves. Find and Follow her on: PsychologyToday for referrals, LookOnTheDarkSide.com for blind lifestyle content by the OG blindfluencer, Amazon, Goodreads, and Facebook for book updates, LinkedIn for mental health articles and networking, Twitter for a little bit of everything.
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By reading parenting blogs and forums aimed at parents of children with disabilities, you might get the impression that the entirety, or at least majority, of such parents’ thought-life is consumed with healthcare, welfare, and the accessibility of K-12 education. There aren’t a lot of articles, books, or advice out there on how to prepare your blind teen for a career with upward mobility, or a college student in a wheelchair for law school.
Survival tends to be the key theme in these circles, followed by basic education. But networking skills, entrepreneurship, or public service don’t seem quite as important. The Bureau of Labor Statistics seems to bear out this minimalist focus; no more than 20% of adults with disabilities are gainfully employed, and that’s the best we’ve ever seen in this country.
I could list all the varied barriers to career development and advancement for people with disabilities, ranging from transportation gaps to inaccessible office settings, but one important factor is imagination. Is a child with cerebral palsy told “you can grow up to be anything you want” in the same way an able-bodied child is? And can you imagine a city council member who uses a walker for balance even though they’re only 35?
Due to such limited representation of disabled people on websites, an avid reader of Atomic Mommy recently sent this article to our writing team to investigate further. It’s a brief survey of government websites across the world wherein the researcher sought to quantify the representation of people with disabilities on government websites. The numbers produced look alarming, and suggest a hole in the fabric of government operations. Here’s what the author Sarah Turner of Website Planet’s blog wrote:
“We crawled the internet and looked at more than 500 government websites from around the globe and what we found was shocking! While around 50% do show physically disabled people in images, only less than 4% have them on non-health and wellness related pages. Governments aren’t the only ones at fault here. Stock photo websites, like Shutterstock, do not tag disabled people as actual people, but only for their disability.“
But the concept that people with disabilities are often reduced to their diagnoses isn’t new. Let’s dig into these statistics for a minute. “Over 500 government websites” sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?” But… 500 out of how many total? If each of the 50 United States had only 10 websites a piece, that would make up the entire sampling. Ms. Turner and her colleagues clearly widened their scope, but that means that they had very few websites per country, and even fewer per municipality within those countries such as cities, counties, states, and provinces. Each of these municipalities must have at least a handful of websites each. That adds up to thousands of pages just in the US alone!
Is less than 4% of a tiny sampling such a big deal?
As a mental health counselor, I had to study research methods in both undergraduate and graduate school. One of the key concepts of good research that I learned is that an experiment, or survey, isn’t considered valid until it has been replicated multiple times. This is, as far as my Googling revealed, the only study of its kind. That doesn’t mean it’s bad research, though. It means we need to keep asking this question to find out how pervasive the problem truly is.
But is the issue worth the effort?
People often react oddly when I use sight-oriented cliches like “a picture’s worth a thousand words” and “out of sight, out of mind.” But they hold true for the majority of the population so it makes sense that I learned to speak a visual language, to some degree. We know the power of photography very well in this society; it shows us a fragment of reality, a part someone thought worth capturing and remembering.
By this logic, government employees with disabilities apparently seem unworthy of being captured at departmental events that make it onto the blog, or reels showing programs in action. By this reasoning, recipients and participants of government services other than healthcare or welfare are either non-existent, or unwanted.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Heidi Joshi, who is totally blind, describes on The Be My Eyes podcast, how she is often treated like a patient in her own hospital, even when wearing full PPE and a white lab coat! People simply can’t imagine her in the role of doctor because of her long white cane or her service dog. Do you think there were photos of people with canes on the brochures of her alma mater?
In 2008 the United States elected its first black president. Since then, openly LGBTQ2S+ politicians have made headlines for being the first in their various offices, from local townships to United States Congress. Whatever you may think of former President Obama’s politics, the image of a black man’s face in our history books alongside other US presidents will have, and has already had, tremendous inspirational impact on young BIPOC people with dreams of public service at the highest level.
But what about disable people being inspired to pursue public service at the highest levels? Our very own former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a desk designed to conceal his wheelchair in the oval office, almost 100 years ago. So, even though we have already had a physically disabled president, he still felt the need to hide himself so he would be viewed and respected as a whole, and powerful, person.
Can you imagine a quadriplegic in the Oval Office? Can your child, who daydreams of being able to run around and play tag with the other kids, imagine herself dictating executive orders from behind the Resolute Desk?
What Sarah Turner’s work teaches society.
The real value in Sarah Turner’s work is in the second half, where she explores the process through which webmasters choose photos to decorate their sites and open windows into their departments and offices. She and her team replicated this process by scrolling through the average number of pages of photos on all the major stock photo websites, and specifically kept an eye out for people with visible disabilities and/or identifiable accessibility equipment such as canes, walkers, and hearing aids.
They found one photo that met the search criteria. Just one.
Her conclusion was that photos of people with disabilities rarely, if ever, include tags like “happy person” or “smiling person.” Given that tags are usually applied by thousands of freelance photographers uploading their images to these stock photo websites, it seems the fault lies largely with those who take and tag pictures of people with disabilities. This wide pool of people doesn’t seem to see us as whole or happy, and the result is a lack of disabled people being shown on websites.
So, who’s at fault? Photographers, webmasters with narrow search criteria, media and communications professionals who don’t screen for diversity before signing off on web designs, and site hosts of stock photo websites. That adds up to a lot of people who don’t see people with disabilities as part of the natural background of government operations, either as civil servants or civilians in search of anything but bare-minimum government aid.
How does this affect children with disabilities?
Children are notorious for wild imaginations. It’s a signature part of early life, the belief in the impossible and the ability to dream beyond expectation. The lucky ones have those daydreams nurtured and cultivated into passions, then into projects, and eventually, into professions. But when a parent is so overwhelmed by the daily needs of her family, she finds herself in a community that spends more time grieving lost parental dreams than nurturing them. Parents have dreams for their disabled children just like parents of able-bodied children do, and its a world where their children are seen and valued as whole, and happy individuals with real value to give to society, and not just as charity cases.
What can be done to change the viewpoint of society?
Time for another cliché, though not a sight-oriented one. “It takes a village.”
It takes a village full of diverse people to change disabled people being from being ignored on websites. We need to prove what’s possible to the next generation. Communities can help parents of disabled children by normalizing their presence and potential. Ask “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and assume the answer is possible until proven otherwise. And if it’s not possible, ask “how can we make it possible?” Harness your own imagination in service of a child. Then put words to action and build a new vision where people with disabilities can do anything and won’t be seen as anything less.