My Father’s Daughter Blogging Against Disablism

Note: This was originally posted May 1, 2007, on another blog of mine that I plan to shut down soon. Nine years later this remains exactly where I’m at around Web accessibility and “disablism.” So I’m transferring it to this blog.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2007I found out at the eleventh hour (thanks to The Web Standards Project) that today, May 1, is Blogging Against Disablism Day. Normally I make an effort not to rush my posts, since I’m prone to typos, but not today. This matters too much. I care deeply about accessibility, and here’s why.

My father was born in 1920. When he was only two, he contracted polio. In my earliest memories, he had a slight limp, but as he aged, first he needed one walking stick, then two, then a wheelchair, until at last he was bed-ridden. He had post-polio, and got steadily worse.

Picture FDR. Not only did my father worship FDR, he even looked a bit like him — expect he had a kinder face. And like FDR, he did his damnedest to pretend that there was nothing different about him. When I opened doors for him, we’d both act as if I weren’t. The whole family would engage in intense conversation when Daddy was getting up from the dinner table – a mask to cover his struggles. When he fell, he would get up with head high, and carry on as if nothing had happened.

Meanwhile, in his-world-ignoring-polio, Daddy lived his dream and blazed a trail. His passion was higher education for the under-served, which in time meant African-Americans. He taught at Fisk University for many years, and also served as Fisk’s representative to both the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. He retired late in life from the Atlanta University Center, where he continued the same work.

As he aged and society changed, he started to talk more about the polio. I think what made the biggest difference was the Polio Survivors Association. Towards the end of his life, he even took me to a few of their conferences. I was flabbergasted to meet hundreds of people who acted like him. Most were driven, literate and articulate – and they played the same I-don’t-really-have-a-disability game. Their heroic stoicism was the stuff legends are made of.

A few years later, in 1999, Daddy died — you guessed it — of polio. His poor body just wore out. He battled this disease for 77 years, one of its longest survivors. But that’s not really the point.

What I most wanted to tell you is that he absolutely adored technology. (My geek-streak comes from him.) He found incredible freedom from his handicap in the simplest of technologies. I remember him explaining to me around 1984, in loving detail, what a spreadsheet was and how it worked. When I finally met Lotus 1-2-3, I already knew all about it. And how he adored the Web. If he’d lived a few more years, he’d have written an earthshaking blog.

In the final years of his life, he lost most of his control over his hands and arms. He had a hard time with the keyboard and mouse, but he persisted, never complaining. As I design websites, I think of him. I’m not a big fan of complicated flyout menus. Guess why. I make fonts large. Guess why. When accessibility experts like say something needs to be done, I pay close attention.

One last secret about my father — his name was Webster, but everyone called him Web. So here’s to disabled people, accessible sites, and most of all, here’s to the Webs.