My Father’s Daughter Blogging Against Disablism

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.

6 Responses

  1. cindy cash says:

    What a beautiful piece of writing, Annabelle–one obviously richly endowed with clear and enduring love, pain, pride, and acceptance. You have greatly honored your father with this tribute. I, myself, am blessed to count you as family and a much-loved and respected sister.



  2. Anna Belle says:

    Aw, Cindy. How you touch me. The Cashes are so lucky to have you as part of the family. I never imagined a blog could be such a wonderful thing. I think these thoughts so often, remembering Daddy, but when does one have a chance to say them? And to have such lovely responses from my wonderful family (including Webster III!). I’m so glad we will see each other soon.

  3. moxie_mocha says:

    One of the blogs that I read on a regular basis mentioned about Blogging Against Disablism. I never heard of it before. I’ve heard of audism, which is discrimination against deaf people; I’m deaf. On that blog, there was a link to the list of blogs on the “Blogging Against Disabilism.” I got onto your blog, and I am blown away by your story. Wow! I’ll be coming back and read more of your posts.


  4. Anna Belle says:

    Many thanks, moxie_mocha. I’d never heard of “disabilism” before either. I took it seriously since the Web Standards Project, which has high credibility with me, linked to it.

    I would be most appreciative if you could let me know in a blog post of your own or comments here or via email what webmasters can do to improve the experience for deaf people. I don’t think my church’s site has anything that would be problematic for the deaf, but I could well be wrong about that.

  5. Chuli says:

    I came across your photo in a google search after I visited this wonderful memorial. I am a professor at Western Illinois University. I am honored that I often am allowed to teach on disability culture. In regards to FDR I teach he was not ashamed, but pragmatic and intelligent. At the time, disability was viewed as weakness. He was an intelligent man that knew the leader of the free world could not be associated with perceptions of this nature. I do wish he would have seized the opportunity to propel the disability rights movement forward. Alas, maybe he knew America wasn’t ready. We have indeed come a long way, but we have a long way to go.

    • Anna Belle says:

      Thanks, Chuli! I agree — America wasn’t ready then. I guess it’s closer now, but I’d bet it’s still not exactly ready. I loved the series of “West Wing” episodes when the President had to reveal he suffered from MS right as he was starting to run for re-election. The uphill battle felt spot-on to me.

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