Able-bodied people comprise the dominant culture in America; thus, our cultural understanding of “normal” is contextualized around the contours of able-bodied activities. We consider, for example, an autistic mind or a visual deficiency that enhances other senses to be a detriment. In truth, these traits are often different ways of perceiving, understanding, and interacting with the world.

For many of the 60+ million Americans who have some kind of disability, this is frustrating. Their experience is not centered, and so their needs are not understood by a society built around how the able-bodied navigate the world. Instead, they are left to puzzle out their days with pieces that don’t always fit together. This despite the fact that even minor accommodations like a well-placed ramp or a thoughtful, private breakout space might make all the difference in helping these people lead “normal” lives. 

Website Accessibility for Everyone

Let’s take one example: In the hyper-competitive online world, one would think websites would be designed to be accessible to as many people as possible. Yet, the disabled too often find themselves unable to properly navigate many sites. Common sense, good business practice, and the Americans with Disabilities Act all demand inclusive access and a similar shopping and navigation experience, yet many organizations fail to provide it.

Daryn Harpaz, a website content accessibility guidelines compliance specialist and founder and CEO of Zenyth Group, LLC, believes it is good business to consider the needs of 15%-20% of the population, and also just plain decent. “We should be enabling our community from a social aspect to be integrated, inclusive,” he opined. “And I think that says a lot about where we need to move in the direction of disabilities in general.”

Ableism and Ableist Misconceptions

The persistent inability of the able-bodied to recognize that not everyone has the same physical or psychological experience of the world that they do is today known as ableism. Living in a world meticulously designed to accommodate your needs—and even your most indulgent wants—is privilege. And while the emergence of privilege in any system is, to a degree, inevitable, refusing to grapple with privilege and its implications is a choice. We must be attentive to eliminating assumptions that reflect an able-bodied view of the world that does not create space for everyone and their diverse needs.

People with disabilities tell me that ableist thinking includes a variety of knee-jerk assumptions and misconceptions, including this one: that people with disabilities have no autonomy and constantly need help, even if they don’t ask for it. It’s not true, but it does precede another issue: people with disabilities must constantly explain themselves, for example by detailing how they became disabled. While these things seem well-intentioned—”I just want to help” or “I’m just trying to understand your experience”—they often only serve to make the able-bodied more comfortable with people who by simply existing challenge their privilege. 

It is also an ableist misconception that all disabilities are visible. This perpetuates stigmatization and mistreatment of people with mental illness or autism, which is, after all, no different from physical impairment except that it affects the brain. Taken together, these false ableist impressions accrue and become barriers to inclusion and equity for disabled people. 

Hearing a Product of Ableism?

Deaf people view themselves as a culture, with its own cultural signs and signifiers, not as a group that needs to be fixed. Many deaf individuals have chosen not to undergo cochlear implant surgery, even with the prospect of being able to hear for the first time. 

Their rationale has been based on a fear of losing the community that has nurtured them, combined with the attendant fear of not being fully part of the hearing world. (To be fair, many deaf individuals do choose to get cochlear implants and are thrilled to enjoy the miracle of birdsong, loved ones’ voices, and the rest of the world of sound.)

Many of those who make the decision not to have the surgery report backlash from relatives and friends who can hear, but not understand their perspective. That in and of itself helps explain their decision, they say. Individuals with disabilities often want, more than anything, to be recognized as complete humans, irrespective of their disability. In other words, to be considered “normal” just the way they are. 

Oliver Sachs, the world famous neurologist and best-selling author, recounted the story in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, of a man who led a full life as a blind person until doctors discovered that they could cure his blindness. His transition to sight was arduous and traumatic, and turned him into a miserable sighted person. While  his doctor and sighted wife persisted in their effort to complete his transition to a sighted person, he eventually took back his cane and returned to his contented life without vision. 

Similarly, Shona Davison, writing on the Autistic UK website, put it this way, “Often the kindest, most caring people believe the way to help us, is to help us become more ‘normal’. This is what happens when one takes a medical model approach to autism – when one considers autistic people to be broken, disordered, or ill.” 

While the challenges and needs of disabled people are as varied as the individuals, those of us who benefit most from society’s current structure have a duty to expand the scope of those benefits and create a more inclusive world for all. Our perception of “normal”  needs to shift from a binary consideration to one that is mindful of the diverse ways individuals can—and do—perceive and navigate the world. Issues of accessibility, both in physical spaces and online, need a critical examination and modern update to accommodate millions of disabled individuals who are currently marginalized by streets, buildings, and websites designed for the able-bodied and able-minded. We need to be ever-aware and ever-curious about the insidious nature of ableism, recognize it when we see it, and correct it however we can. And ultimately, the abled need to set aside their own misconceptions and personal hang-ups in order to appreciate that disabled individuals have the agency to define their own cultures and conceptions of normal. 

Trying to solve these problems is a huge undertaking that might seem impossible. However, we must try. Even though no one can transform our ingrained societal norms overnight, change is possible if the able-bodied take the time to listen, empathize, and regard every disabled individual as a complex person trying like everyone else to fit in and build a life of their own. If we are going to start somewhere, let’s start by making that mindset “normal”.