my so called “coming out”March 15 | 2017
I’ve been focusing a lot about accessibility lately, but it wasn’t always this way, or lets say, I wasn’t too vocal about it. When I started out over a decade ago, only very few people from my inner real life circle knew that I had a visual impairment. I never was ashamed of it, nor did I deliberately hide it, but since many of my clients were remote, I never brought up the issue, until we met in person at some point. As for accessibility, I always made sure that my work is made in a way so that almost everyone can perceive it and it wasn’t only driven by my own self-interest to be able to “see” my work as well. I simply believe that good design is simple and to the point. That pretty much automatically includes some kind of accessibility thinking and it wasn’t a big deal to me.
all of this changed back in 2013. I got a project from a department of the Ministry of Health in Thailand, where I was living at the time. Fun fact: It was my eye doctor who has connected me to the ministry. The task was to create a so called “policy brief” template, which topics would target patients at the age of 50+. Since human vision usually worsens with age, the design had to be adjusted accordingly. Nothing easier than that. The result was great, even though there was a funny incident during the process. After I’ve sent the last revision, another staff member hopped in and wondered if the font size in the text is large enough. One of the ladies I worked with replied disclosing that I can’t see too well, so all should be good. I then stated, that even the targeted audiences vision is far better than mine, so for sure, all was good. Soon after I was invited to give a talk on accessibility at a meetup group. While I was preparing my slides, I quickly realized that I was debunking most rules and guidelines, that were already implemented on many sites who would proud themselves in being accessible. I figured many would ask “Who the hell are you to say this?” and the only way to remain credible was to disclose my visual impairment. The talk itself went well, yet I could feel the tension of the people who just had to deal with the fact that their entire worldview on accessibility has been crashed by a “blind” designer, of all people.
from then on, the Genie was out of the bottle. I slowly began writing articles about life with visual impairment, partly based on my own experiences, but mostly what I observed with others. Nonetheless, I have sometimes had the fear, that being “out” would do more harm than good, especially regarding my professional career. I often tend to forget how crazy it sounds what I do to normally-sighted people. Even though most react positively, I have to be very cautious so that the visual impairment doesn’t overshadow my work. As much as people praise the honesty and openness, there is a dark side to all this. I became aware of it during a conversation with another visually impaired friend and accessibility advocate. He told me about a mobile app (whose name I won’t disclose for privacy reasons) he often helps out fixing inaccessible code. I have assumed it’s one of his paid jobs, but I was wrong. It turned out that he did it all for free. If he had been normally sighted, the situation would look very different. So while on one hand people call you “brave” and “inspirational”, on the other, your expertise and skills are worth peanuts. Where does this dichotomy come from? Well, first off, it’s not really a dichotomy. If you dig deeper, those praises people with disabilities get are actually rooted in the assumption, that they are weaker and less capable by default. So if some of them stand out for whatever reason, they are simply seen by non-disabled people as an exception to this rule. However, that doesn’t mean that people with disabilities will be put on an equal level. Many non-disabled people have huge difficulties to be on the same level, or even below with someone they presume to be weak/less than to begin with. At that point, all the praise goes out of the window, like with my friend whose effort suddenly isn’t worth any reward.
does that mean that in order to get half as far, you have to work twice as much? To some extend, you sadly do. Life is not fair, not just for people like me or others. You need to grow balls/ovaries of steel and keep on moving and be confident about it. Whining about the world and how hard it isn’t gonna help you, much less give you the rewards you deserve. You can’t change others of course, but at least you can always change yourself and how you deal with your life. So stop bitching, suck it up, go out there and kick some ass!