By Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.
My disability happened very quickly. My illness was like a freight train out of control without any chance of stopping. I entered the hospital with sight and weighing about 190 lbs. A short two months later, I survived my illness but happened to have been left completely blind and a whopping 124 lbs. What we had assumed was a seasonal sinus infection turned out to be a usually lethal form of meningitis which I survived. I ducked a bullet of sorts but got hit hard by another.
Disability does not always occur suddenly as happened to me. Nor do you need to be born with a disability. Rather it can take months, years, or even decades to acquire a disability due to the natural human condition of aging. Realistically, disabilities just happen to an individual as we get older or succumb to an illness or misdiagnosis.
For this reason, I often refer to people who are seemingly without a disability as “temporarily able”, meaning that sooner or later, through aging or mishap, abilities that they once had will be lost to them. It could be their sight, hearing, mobility, cognitive function, or some other thing that they likely took for granted.
Many people report going through the seven stages of grief when this happens, ultimately winding up at the acceptance stage. Make no mistake, this means acceptance of the newfound Ability, as it were, and not the acceptance of the shitty way people treat those of us who happen to have a disability.
People who live with disabilities endure discrimination on a daily basis, in our society, our schools, and in the workforce. Society has and continues to ‘dis’ label those of us who transition from being “temporarily able”, marginalizing us and ignoring our capabilities and innate abilities.
There is somewhat of a hierarchy when it comes to society engaging with PWD. Generally, a person who clearly presents as having a disability gets a mixed bag of compassion, sympathy, a “free” pass and, in short, imposed low expectations for our abilities to do much independently. Instead of inviting a dialogue about how we want to be treated or assisted, we are told to get into the wheelchair, offered a walker, or some other demeaning options that are not at all universally usable. Some of us do need a wheelchair while others do not. Some of us prefer a service animal or an ID cane. Some of us prefer to use sign language as opposed to hearing aids or cochlear implants. We’re preferring to be seen as an individual with individual choices and needs as opposed to being forced to accept societal dictates, norms, taboos, or low expectations about our ability to choose what is best for ourselves.
Encountering a person who has obvious disabilities, appreciating that the spectrum of ability happens to be as vast and as broad as any other, society needs to consider a few things. There are some of us who need that added assistance and support but generalizing all of us as one group whose needs are addressed by the use of a wheelchair is not realistic or even acceptable. Accommodations are welcomed and often offered, but whether “temporarily able” individuals are acting out of empathy or sympathy, compassion, or indifference, or simply because they don’t want to be seen as a total jerk is hard to say.
Others who may have a disability that is just as chronic, but maybe not quite as obvious to the common observer, won’t get the same deference. People with hidden disabilities have a tougher time with it because their condition or diagnosis is not at all obvious. A casual observer might not take this disability seriously often assuming that the person is faking it in order to “benefit” from all the wonderful opportunities a disability brings to life (sarcasm intended).
I discussed the problems that accompany hidden disabilities in my blog post, Some Disabilities Are Not Seen or Even Heard. A person who is dyslexic, arthritic, or has some other disability or disabilities endures slings and arrows rooted in ignorance and even fear. Individuals with hidden disabilities have long endured the judgment, condemnation, and negative social implications forced upon the disability community for thousands of years. Even within HR circles, “diversity and inclusion” often do not include the disability community even though disability is at the intersectionality of all other diversity or minority groups. However, when the truth is revealed and the ignorance about what is or is not a true disability as determined under the ADA, the person with that invisible or situational disability, may or may not be seen or accepted as a person with a disability. Perhaps that person with a situational or invisible disability may get some consideration if the individual making that judgment call determines the condition to be considered a “real disability”.
Allow me to expound on the topic of situational disability. Just as it sounds, a situational disability is a short-term disability that can occur for any number of reasons. All too often society does not accept situational disabilities as deserving of empathy or of legitimate accommodations. A situational disability can be as simple as walking down the sidewalk and catching your heel on the curb or a crack in the sidewalk leading to a fall that breaks your ankle or some other bone in your body. You wouldn’t be able to do things with that arm or leg limiting a bodily function or independence to some degree and for some finite amount of time. Things that you could do the day before such as typing on your computer keyboard or dancing are not possible. Until you’re fully healed, the ability to type or dance is disabled to you.
Situational disabilities can also be environmental. Let’s say you are in a crowded airport. Your hearing might be sufficient but the din from all the passengers, announcements, planes, and background music prevents you from hearing someone calling you on your cellphone. For the time that you are in that situation, the ability to communicate is disabled to you. This is a common problem for people living with tinnitus, a mild form of hearing damage.
Just like chronic disabilities, situational disabilities prevent people from doing what they need to do and being who they want to be. The person in this situation does not need to be “disabled” permanently or in the traditional sense, yet they still have a disability.
Some might scoff at this and say that this is not a “real disability”. Let me ask you, who is to say what disability is “real” enough to pass this arbitrary test? If there is a condition that prevents someone from performing a life skill or doing something physical, isn’t that all that we need to consider when we look at the defined term of being “disabled”? You don’t have to be super empathetic to understand the frustration or especially astute to grasp the sense of loss of ability in these instances.
I’m not saying that because of this people with situational disabilities need to be on government assistance nor do they need Jerry Lewis to do a telethon for them. The good news is that the solutions are already here. The programs and technologies that make products and digital platforms accessible and usable for people with chronic disabilities help people with situational disabilities. Speech-to-text technology can help a person with a broken arm who cannot type. Text-on-screen phone calls can help the person “hear” in a noisy airport. People with situational disabilities only need to be made aware that these features exist.
A more comprehensive solution would be to bring people who cannot see, hear, or who discern information differently into the design and development phase of products and applications. I am not talking about algorithms or overlays to simulate use. I am talking about actual humans who have a wide range of abilities and disabilities looking under the hood and interacting with the way we design products. Everything designed with this in mind will work more easily for more people automatically without the need to retrofit or redesign platforms or other digital offerings. Ultimately, that would save time and money for the creating organization and the end-user would have a better experience.
The cohort of people with situational disabilities adds to the already 20 percent of the general population that has a disability. Bringing them into the fold of the traditional disability community makes a stronger case for universal design than we previously thought.
At My Blind Spot, we don’t merely advocate for universal accessibility and usability of digital platforms, software programs, and products. We advocate for the inclusion of Ability as a notable diversity group worthy of acknowledgment. Organizations such as American Express, American Airlines, Intuit, and many others have relied on the MBS AccessAbility team to make sure that their products and services work universally for customers, clients, and employees regardless of their ability, situational or permanent.
If you find this new perspective on people who have situational disabilities compelling, it’s my hope you’ll help move this into your business and social conversations. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about how to do that firstname.lastname@example.org.