​Invisible Disabilities & Accessibility

Published on
July 25, 2020
Time to read: 
Smiling happy Chantal Fraser.
A portrait of Chantal Fraser, taken by Becky Hinch, from Becky Hinch Photography https://beckyhinch.com/

I’ve worn glasses for more than 40 years. I am visually impaired to the point that without my glasses, I could not legally drive a vehicle. The first thing I do on waking is put on my glasses. I consider myself to be healthy, and am grateful that my body is fit enough to allow me to do pretty much anything I want to. Many of the people I know wear glasses, they’ve become so normalized that most of us don’t think of people wearing glasses as disabled.

This week I underwent dental surgery. The recovery has given me first hand experience about living life without being able to clearly articulate my thoughts using my voice. For the first 14 hours after the surgery I alternately slept and woke long enough to drink water to stay hydrated and take over the counter medicine to deal with swelling and pain.

When I eventually got up, with enough energy to move around and login to my laptop, I had no desire to eat or drink. Eventually I was hungry enough that I tried some yogurt and other soft foods. I quickly realized that the dentist’s advice to limit speaking was important for several reasons, beyond helping my mouth heal.

It literally hurt to talk; my jaw and tongue ached. I had arrogantly booked meetings for the afternoon after my surgery, confident that I would bounce back quickly and be ready to resume my regular activities within 24 hours. I was wrong!

Luckily, my colleagues are incredibly patient, and I was able to rebook all but one meeting to next week. The one meeting I attended, involved a lot of written prep work, and a colleague took over the main speaking role. She did a fabulous job. By the time that meeting came to be, I was able to speak clearly enough to interject a few slurred and mumbled thoughts of my own. The others at the meeting knew that this was temporary and knew me well enough to make allowances.

I continue to heal and feel better as every hour passes. As I get set to publish this blog, 3 days after the surgery, I can now hold short conversations and I’m close to sounding how I normally do. I am confident that I’ll have a full recovery. That being said, I make my living by sharing words, quite often through speaking engagements and live coaching sessions. So I hope I'm right.

A colleague shared a thought with me earlier this week, “You can’t truly understand equity, diversity and inclusion, unless you’ve been part of an excluded group.” I think this is particularly true for understanding the lives of disabled people. You can’t truly understand what it is like to be disabled, unless you’ve experienced living with a disability, even if only temporarily.

I can illustrate this for you with a story. The morning after my surgery, while I was feeling alert, yet still unable to talk, I saw a notice from a woman I admire, saying that she was holding a virtual tea to share a lesson on her area of expertise. I’ve long enjoyed her posts, so I signed up, figuring I’d be one of dozens of people attending, and wouldn’t need to speak. When I arrived, there were only 9 people in the session. I was familiar with the tech used, and noted in the chat that I couldn’t speak and why.  After the training was over, she did what good facilitators do and made sure to engage everyone in the discussion. My note about not speaking had slipped off the screen. She tried to get me to speak. I typed another comment, which she must have missed because she kept urging me to speak. Finally, I unmuted long enough to mumble “can’t talk, hurts” and went back to typing my responses. The woman holding the virtual tea was trying to be inclusive. She meant well, it simply never occurred to her that I might not be able to talk.

The last few days have given me a glimpse into living with an invisible disability. If you “look” able bodied, it’s difficult for others to believe that you’re disabled.

All this has led me to more deeply understand how important it is to make all workplaces, products and services accessible to everyone. It’s added to the lessons my disabled colleagues share on social media about how being able to work/learn remotely makes their lives easier, and how they hope that these options continue to exist after the pandemic. In addition, it's helped me understand that online resources should be as accessible as possible, which includes providing content that is accessible for people with invisible disabilities, such as the blind/visually impaired, deaf/hard of hearing, and those with different ways of processing information such as autistic people and people with ADHD.
We have the technology, let's invest in making content accessible so that everyone has the opportunity to thrive. In Canada, this also means ensuring that everyone has access to affordable broadband internet services. This is especially important to those in rural and remote communities.

I hope that this post has helped you understand the importance of creating accessible content. I’ve started to explore ways to make this website and my other online content more accessible. Won’t you join me?