Building Disability Empathy
James Jackson explores how cultivating simple, personal interactions can allow us to see disability from a more personal, empathetic lens.
By James Jackson, EIT Accessibility Coordinator
A few months ago, I was given the opportunity to participate in an Ask Me Anything event on the Knowledge Commons platform, a social network backed by UNESCO for discussing social issues. The event, organized by UNESCO MGIEP, was structured like an online press conference and designed to allow educators and policymakers in India, Japan, Australia, and Malaysia connect with individuals with learning disabilities and provide a forum for them to ask questions about their personal experiences. As someone with both Dyslexia and ADHD, I was invited to share my experiences.
The conversation ranged from the importance of teachers who are understanding, to more personal topics like which common questions people ask about Dyslexia that I find irritating.
The experience was both validating and empowering, but what struck me most was how much the simple details mattered. Talking about things like the absurd number of musical instruments I can play (to find out you will have to read the AMA, linked at the end of the article), may not seem important in a conversation about Dyslexia or ADHD, but these simple moments helped to put a human face on disability and build personal connections.
What also struck me was how atypical this kind of interaction is.
In my work as Electronic and Information Technology (EIT) Accessibility Coordinator at MSU, my team and I often have conversations about developing websites or making a syllabus accessible, but rarely do these conversations provide an opportunity to help members of the MSU community connect with the experiences of students, faculty, or staff with disabilities. Yet from firsthand experience, I know these simple moments have some of the greatest capacity to transform how we relate to one another and allow us to see disability from a more personal, empathetic lens.
When I worked as a web accessibility consultant, one of the ways I tried to illustrate the potential of accessibility was to show videos from Tommy Edison’s YouTube channel The Tommy Edison Experience. On the channel, Edison, who has been blind since birth, answers subscribers’ questions about his experiences, always with his own brand of humor and self-deprecation.
Videos like How Blind People Use YouTube & Twitter on the iPhone or How a Blind Person Uses a Computer often changed the dynamic around the discussion of accessibility. They not only demonstrated what web accessibility facilitates for users with disabilities, they also put a face on accessibility, a face the audience could relate to and empathize with.
This kind of human connection and understanding is critical to shifting the conversation. To a web developer, a rule such as Pause, Stop, Hide, which requires that animation lasting longer than three seconds can be paused, stopped, or hidden by the users, can seem obscure and restrictive. But, when someone like me who has ADHD has the opportunity to explain how animations can interfere with my ability to focus on the rest of the content, this rule can become a starting point for changes that benefit all users by ensuring your website stays true to its mission and enables users to accomplish their goals.
The difficulty is that it’s easy for us to elicit sympathy, to get people to agree that students with disabilities should have access to course content, but it’s more difficult for us to provide opportunities for faculty and staff to develop a personal connection with students.
For instance, conversations about classroom accommodations can be difficult for everyone involved. They often challenge how professors see their role with students and require students with disabilities to be vulnerable in ways we don’t typically ask of their peers. Finding ways to build empathy, and to increase understanding of disability can help to bridge this gap, and shift the conversation towards one that’s supportive of both parties and facilitates positive learning experiences.
The challenge we face as an institution is finding ways to create the spaces, culture, and safety necessary for these interactions to happen.