Digital Platforms Provide Community for People with Physical Disabilities, If Websites Are Accessible

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Digital Platforms Provide Community for People with Physical Disabilities, If Websites Are Accessible

When designed with accessibility and inclusion in mind, websites and digital platforms play an essential role in removing barriers, helping people with physical disabilities establish community and support.

Jan 06, 2022

For those living with a physical disability, online forums and digital platforms have expanded opportunities to find support, resources, and participate more completely in society.

While many obstacles have been removed, people with physical disabilities still encounter digital barriers, resulting in isolation and exclusion. Much of the responsibility to remedy these obstacles resides in the hands of businesses and organizations who design and manage digital platforms.

How Big is the Physical Disabilities Community?

While one in four American adults have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the diversity within the physical disabilities community blurs the distinctions between physical and other types of disabilities.

Some physical disabilities don’t just impact a person’s mobility, but cognition, vision, hearing, and other self-care activities. These also include what are considered invisible disabilities, a broad category that captures many neurological conditions and chronic illnesses that are not easily discernible or apparent to others.

For instance, sarcoidosis is an inflammatory illness that can manifest in any part of the body. It forms lumps called granulomas, which attack various parts of the body, often the lungs and lymph nodes, but also the heart, eyes, skin, and other organs.

Some people may have the illness and not even exhibit symptoms, while others may develop it permanently, resulting in mobility issues, fatigue, shortness of breath, cognitive difficulties, rashes and tender skin areas, blurred vision and eye pain, fatigue, and rapid heart palpitations.

“A large percentage of people can have it developing within their body and not even know it and it'll go away,” Andrena Senola Johnson, a filmmaker, producer, and sarcoidosis advocate who has lived with the inflammatory disease for 11 years, tells InclusionHub.

“But then there's roughly 25 percent of the people where it does become a chronic condition and may require lifelong treatment.”

And yet, despite the millions of people living with physical disabilities in the United States, many remain isolated, economically disadvantaged, discriminated against, and excluded from participating more fully in society.

High Costs of Living With a Physical Disability

Financial strains and unemployment hit the physical disabilities community harder than non-disabled people. According to the United States Department of Labor, “The unemployment rate for persons with a disability, at 12.6 percent in 2020, increased by 5.3 percentage points from the previous year. Their jobless rate continued to be much higher than the rate for those without a disability.”

As many living with physical disabilities have high medical bills, pursuit of financial security becomes a torturous dance. Johnson knows many who are financially burdened.

“A lot of us are stuck in this pattern where you want to work, but you can't work too much,” she says, noting that people fear that they’ll no longer qualify for healthcare.

“If I work more than three or four days out of a month, I might make close to $350, and if I make $351, I now have to pay 20% of my medical bills because I'm no longer covered under Medicare or Medicaid,” Johnson continues. “So I simply just have bad care.”

She says medical expenses can be up to $50,000 a month.

“It's like you almost have to remain in poverty, or become rich, to be able to afford being sick,” Johnson says. “Though it's kind of a conundrum, it's just an unfortunate fact for many of us.”

Impact of Physical Disability on Social Relationships

In addition to financial strains, people living with physical disabilities experience challenges in their social lives, as well.

While some people live their entire lives with a disability, many develop one later in life—for example, after a car accident that causes damage to the brain. For that segment of the population, navigating and redefining friendships and other relationships poses painful challenges.

“In personal relationships, it's hard because people miss the old you they once knew,” Johnson says. “I was very outgoing. And I would love to be very light-hearted and just go with the wind.”

Due to limited mobility and chronic fatigue, she finds it difficult to socialize as she once did. “Now I'm like, no, I can't do none of that. It's the thought that ‘Oh, no, that's exhausting.’ Just thinking about it, I'll be so tired. I couldn't do anything else for the rest of the month. You have to redefine the relationship and find ways to still socialize within your limitations.”

Several years since her diagnosis, she continues to explore what she wants from her social life. “So I'm still trying to figure out personally what I can do with friends that I still want to be around that won't be exhausting.”

For people with physical disabilities seeking a stronger sense of community and connection, digital technologies have been a godsend—when platforms and websites are designed with accessibility in mind.

Why Digital Spaces Are So Vital for People With Physical Disabilities

Unfortunately, people with physical disabilities face many obstacles in digital spaces. For instance, assistive technologies are routinely utilized to access websites and engage with online applications. However, websites can be exclusionary if they do not employ alt text with images or enable people to access a website relying solely on a keyboard, which is key for many assistive technologies.

“I can see how important accessibility to online services can be, especially because it's good to have a support group,” Johnson notes. “I just imagined if I didn't have the ability to view those pages and join those groups, that it can be really isolating and just disparaging to not have somebody you can reach out to that is going through the same thing that you are.”

In addition to functionality, lack of representation on digital platforms can discourage people living with physical disabilities from participating. By including imagery that features people with physical disabilities (not just model portrayals), such as someone who uses a prosthetic leg, organizations can demonstrate there’s a place at the table where everyone can belong.

During trying times related to medical health or emotional wellness, being part of a community is profound, and digital platforms can provide boundless opportunities to connect.

“When I was first diagnosed, I was told that there's no support groups, I don't know if they're speaking of neural sarcoidosis. Because it is a little bit more rare, so I really didn't look for much,” Johnson says.

“But later on, when I was seeking counseling, the therapist told me to just go online,” she adds. “I decided to go on Facebook, and I started finding all of these different groups with thousands and thousands of people who could relate to what I was going through.”

Whether it’s a means of participating in the broader society, seeking medical support, or maintaining strong social ties, accessible and inclusive digital platforms are vital tools for people living with physical disabilities. And unless organizations and businesses design their websites with accessibility in mind, many people are going to be excluded or pushed to the margins.

Designing for accessibility enables more people to participate, which enriches our communities and enhances the lives of people whose needs are often overlooked.

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