The History of Digital Accessibility, part 1: Why Accessibility Standards Matter – Theories of Disability
We’ve traveled a long road to get to where we are today in terms of accessibility in general – and digital accessibility in particular.
An understanding of how disability has historically been understood enriches the history of the fight for accessibility standards and the advent of digital accessibility. Though much of this is in the past, it’s important to remember that many people throughout the world are still caught up in the uglier parts of this history, and as innovators in the digital world, we can do our part to make it a little bit better for our users by keeping accessibility in mind throughout the development cycle.
Theories of Disability
When talking about accessibility for people with disabilities, we need to understand what we’re saying when we talk about disability. For this understanding, we look to researchers Allison Reid-Cunningham and Victoria Fleming in their 2009 study of theories of disability found in social-science textbooks.
A broad definition of disability includes “physical or sensory disability, developmental delay, cognitive impairment, mental retardation, chronic illness, learning disabilities, mental illness, and work-related disabilities.”
Theories of disability are taken from social sciences, such as sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, and political science. Depending on the lens through which disability is viewed conceptually, different practical models of understanding emerge. These models can be categorized into individual models and societal models of disability.
Individual models frame disability as a problem inherent to the individual possessing it. In the Western world, these have included moral models, wherein the disability was associated with some moral flaw in the individual, or the moral lesson is intended for those caring for the person with disability (these are often based in Christian dogma of sin). Individual models have also included the eugenics model, the survival-of-the-fittest model, and the deficit model, all of which assert that something is missing in the individual with disability and advocate solutions to “correct” for it. Each of these was and is horrific in their own way, and, fortunately, they have fallen out of fashion in most relevant contexts.
Image description: Image o a black devil holding small children in each arm. Two woman stand on either side of the image. On the top of the image there are 3 dragons soaring.
Individual models of disability have been responsible for a large portion of the discrimination faced by people with disabilities, such as forced sterilizations, executions, and ostracization. And though there are exceptional societies that adopt individual models wherein the person with disability is seen as a spiritual beacon of sorts, those are the exception, and arguably, those perceptions still fail to include the individual in those societies to the extent they might choose.
Societal models of disability view disability in the context of the society in which they exist; people with disabilities are understood as a group of individuals within society who are treated differently. These models take account of the natural and built environment, social values, groups, media, and cultural perceptions of disability.
The most well-known societal models are the oppression model, the diversity model, and the social-construct model.
Prominent Societal Models of Disability
- Oppression model – societal perception of people with disabilities has cast them as “others” and therefore led to their oppression.
- Diversity model – people with disabilities are grouped together as a subculture within a larger cultural context of many other subsets of society.
- Social-Construct model – disability is entirely external to the individual possessing it. It is seen instead as society’s inability or failure to address the needs of its members by removing environmental and societal barriers to participation and institutional benefits.
Though we don’t hold ourselves to any model or other, at SenseIT, we adopt the approach taken in the social-construct model – we see it as our job to support the removal of barriers for all, regardless of their disability status.
Theory in Practice
These models all serve the purpose of understanding what disability is and how we as a greater society relate to it and the individuals possessing it. They are important to understand primarily for the people in roles that come into direct contact with people with disability, but secondarily for anyone who takes it upon themselves to understand why we need accessibility standards in the first place. The history of general accessibility standards is a direct precursor to digital accessibility as a concept, and we care about understanding the concepts involved because of the real effect they have on real people.
 Source: Allison Ruby Reid-Cunningham & Victoria C. Fleming (2009) Theories of Disability: Findings From an Analysis of Textbooks on Human Behavior and the Social Environment, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 19:1, 10-25.
 This is still the medical term that is used, even if colloquially, it makes us cringe.
This may also interest you
The History of Digital Accessibility, part 3: Digital Accessibility Standards, Then and Now
Tamar Schapira & Gilia Sacharow
Exploring the SenseIT Logo - An All-Inclusive Design
The History of Digital Accessibility, part 2: Infrastructural Accessibility Standards – A Prelude to Digital Accessibility