We Have the Will, Do You?

I generally devote my posts on this blog to the sharing of videos, tips and other resources related to accessibility and universal design, rather than addressing political issues related to disability and society. Today I am going to make an exception.

As I was going through my Twitter feed and looking at posts from my excellent PLN, I came across the following Tweet from star ed tech blogger Vicki Davis:

You can read the referenced blog post for yourself, but the gist of it is that we now have the technology to allow students who have special needs to shine if only we had the will to take advantage of it. I  agree with this idea (we do have some amazing built-in accessibility features that every student, not just those who have special needs, can use to enjoy greater access to information). You can learn all about these technologies by watching the many videos on my YouTube channel.  However, what I had a problem with was the assumption the post was based on, which the author makes plain early into the piece:  “Like Hawking, many students are trapped in the prison of a body that does not unleash their capability.”

For those of you who are not familiar with it and don’t have to deal with it on a regular basis (as I do) this is an example of the “medical model of disability” at work. This is a model that holds that people with disabilities experience life through a “broken” body that has to be normalized through the use of modern medicine (through pills, surgeries or prosthetics ). Now, the decision to avail yourself of any of these interventions is a personal one and I try not to judge anyone who makes such a choice. What I do take issue is the narrative of disability that such a model supports, a narrative that revolves around shame and pity (as mentioned in an excellent comment to the post submitted by Anna, a parent of a child with disability).

On the one hand, I am happy to see that the mainstream ed tech community is finally starting to engage with this topic and recognizing the usefulness of assistive technology and accessibility for everyone. When popular and influential  bloggers like Vicki Davis focus on a topic it brings attention to it because of their large audience  (she has more than 98,000 followers on Twitter, about 95,000 more than me if you are counting). On the other hand, when popular bloggers share messages based on faulty assumptions, those assumptions are given even more life and staying power.

Fortunately, one of the beauties of blogging  is that people can engage in dialogue (sometimes civil and sometimes not)  through comments. Unfortunately, not everyone reads the comments and most leave the blog only with the ideas presented in the post as their takeaway. In the case of this post, I was happy to read a very articulate response from Anna that called out the author on her assumptions, and did so in a very respectful way. I hope that I am doing the same here. My intent is not to single out Vicki Davis. I follow her and see all the good she does through her work. My intent is to show that the ed tech community as a whole needs to change its assumptions and long-held beliefs about people like me. The same community that creates and uses many of the tools that can do the most to empower people with disabilities is also one of the most exclusionary when it comes to disability. If you want to see that at work, just submit a conference proposal that mentions universal design, accessibility or similar terms and see how well that goes. But I digress, that’s a topic for another post.

As Anna suggests, there is another way of thinking about this issue, one that is inspired by a different set of assumptions. Instead of focusing only on people with disabilities and their bodies, a “social model of disability” focuses on the environment as the source of significant barriers for people like me. For example, one of the major issues I deal with is the lack of transportation in my home area. If I had access to good transportation, my ability to get to a job, to doctor’s appointments and even to leisure activities like going to the gym would not require so much planning and effort.

Rather than “letting the caged bird sing” from a social model perspective we wouldn’t build a cage in the first place. The social construction of disability  is at work when a class website is built without any thought for how a parent with low vision (not just a person with a disability, but also someone who is older or who has had an eye injury) can use it, or when a classroom has too little space between tables for someone who uses a wheelchair to get around the room comfortably and without too much effort. People with disabilities are too familiar with the social construction of disability. It is often those who don’t have disabilities who are not, because as Vicki Davis states in a response to Anna’s comment, they don’t have to live it every day.

I agree with Vicki Davis on a key point. It is a matter of will. But it is not a willingness to take advantage of technology that will make a difference going forward. Rather it will be a willingness to question assumptions about the nature of ability/disability. No matter how much technology there is (and how good it is) as long as people’s thinking doesn’t change then we are not really moving the needle on this issue. People with disabilities recognize the social construction of disability (as evidenced by years of struggle leading to legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act).  The question is does the rest of society (including the ed tech community)  have a similar willingness to reflect on and change the way it portrays and discusses disability. It is much easier to retreat into “inspiration porn“. It takes a lot more will to do the long term work of changing  assumptions through ongoing reflection. Will you have that will?

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