Point is assumption hurts

Today, Wednesday may 9th, marks the very first Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). I encourage you to take a few minutes to experience another perspective towards web accessibility first hand by going pointing-deviceless (whether you use a mouse, trackpad or rollerball, use the keyboard) or using a screen reader to navigate your computer, for even five minutes, at some point today. Every little bit helps.

But in combing through various articles and Twitter links this morning I stumbled across a post written by Derek Featherstone, titled Awareness, that immediately had me contemplating both my Grandparent’s struggles. To be fair, I’m not sure they saw their disabilities as anything they “struggled” with, as it was just something they had to deal with to successfully live a life. But for the purposes of this post and what GAAD actually represents it’s nearly impossible, for me at least, to fathom their lives as anything but a “struggle.”

When both my Grandparents were young — my Grandfather was 3 when he was struck by a motorcycle and contracted Red Measles while in the “Fever Hospital” and my Grandmother was 7 when she was afflicted with Meningitis — they were each left their “disability’s.” But in spite of such matters they lived out their childhoods and met each other at a social club organized by/ for the Hearing Impaired in Dundee Scotland as young adults. They were married in 1948, had two children by 1955, then immigrated to Canada in 1957.

As Derek put it “disability and the concept of accessibility can be confusing. Awkward. Uncomfortable. The first step to true understanding is usually awareness.” I’d agree. And, for the record, while I’m not a huge fan of the label of “disability,” I do recognize the need to use it. While it denotes a specific amount of difference, in terms of what is different, the fact that something has to be said towards any difference seems backward to me. In a perfect world calling attention to anything would be moot, we’d already have intimate knowledge of everything, however we don’t live in a perfect world, obviously. Therefore raising awareness is so very important.

And, much like Derek, I’m not convinced my interest in issues relating to accessibility on the web, at least, stem from what my Grandparents had to deal with. It’d be nice to claim, but would be entirely disingenuous. Honestly, my interest comes from a much more selfish place, being myself. And how accessibility issues affect me, as a quadriplegic. And if awareness is a goal of today I could tell you lots about what makes my life more difficult. And actions I take to improve certain circumstances. But in all fairness today isn’t about me. It’s about other people. And recognizing what anyone who isn’t you has to deal with in order to live a life.

That said, what I’m about to write has little to do with web accessibility. But it’s most definitely related. Insomuch as it has to do with assumption and ignorance. Web designers/ developers, whether forced to or not, make a whole lot of assumptions in any given day at their craft. Now I’m not bashing that fact, unfortunately it’s the nature of the beast, as we don’t typically have full access the entire gamut of devices we need to test what it is we build.

When I was in grade 7 (this would have been in 1987) my family, and my Grandparents included, travelled to the UK to visit family. Now this isn’t anything I often think about, but it’s always something that has stuck with me ever since. While in Scotland, and visiting my Grandmother’s sister, a woman — I don’t recall if this person was family or simply just a friend of my “Aunt” and Grandparents — in the matter of a few minutes, referred to my Grandparents, openly (and without even a hint of shame), as being “Deaf and Dumb,” A number of times. I don’t ever remember feeling such anger and disgust for someone I hardly knew.

My Grandparent’s being Deaf wasn’t ever a problem with anyone in my family. Which leads me to believe she wasn’t family. They’ve always been my Grandparents, period. And now some insensitive woman was, whether she realized what she was inferring or not (this, after all, was the convention from years ago, “Dumb” was a term used to refer to and individual’s inability to speak, I believe), was insulting them to their Grandson, right in front of their faces!

Both my Grandparent’s were extremely accomplished at reading lips. They knew full well what she was saying. Whether my Grandparents interpreted what she was referring to them as was even remotely similar to my interpretation, isn’t for me to speculate, but there was no mistaking my Grandmother’s reaction. I will never forget the look of embarrassment that came over my Grandmother’s face as this stranger spoke down at them. And, adding insult to injury, the way I remember the whole interaction, is this woman was speaking about them, not to them. Even though they were right there. Assuming they couldn’t hear her and/ or they couldn’t appreciate what she was saying hurt my Grandmother. And whether that is fair or not, I haven’t a clue. Point is, assumption hurts. Her’s or mine.

There was so much more I set out to write, but in the interests of getting this posted before this day runs out, I’ll conclude with this: my Grandparent’s were very kind, loving and intelligent people who overcame a lot of ignorance in their life, but never was it more apparent than here. When a 13 year old kid saw enough of a problem with someone’s remarks to be so infuriated that he so vividly remembers the incident a full 25 years later I think says it all!

Always remember your assumptions will invariably cause a reaction. Good or bad…


In Carl Sagan’s book The Dragons of Eden he contends that with respect to the “deaf and dumb” language “the ‘dumb’ refers, of course, to the inability to speak and not to any failure of intelligence” (pg. 116). So that “confirms” at least one of my assumptions. Sadly, one of the least harmful one’s.

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