Reimagining Disability Classification in Digital Accessibility: A Call for Equity


In the world of digital accessibility, understanding the populations that we serve is paramount. The way we categorize disabilities has far-reaching implications, influencing who gets the support they need and who remains underserved. Let’s embark on a journey to rethink disability categorization in the context of digital accessibility, and together, work towards a more equitable and inclusive online world.

To foster a more inclusive environment, we must strive to shift our focus away from medical model diagnoses toward specific, addressable barriers.

The Current Categorization Model: Political Roots

Our journey begins with a critical examination of the existing accessibility industry disability categorization model. It’s important to recognize that this model isn’t value-neutral; it shapes preferences, includes certain groups, and excludes others. As an industry rooted in the Disability Rights Movement, our categorization reflects the political context of its time. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who initiated the fight for the rights of disabled people in the US. However, this work remains unfinished, and not all disabled individuals were adequately represented.

The current categorization of disabilities in the industry often follows a pattern like this:


  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Speaking
  • Mobility
  • Cognitive
A group of disability rights protestors occupying a city street with signs, “We Shall Overcome” and “Access is a Right”.

The Gaps in Categorization

The current model, while well-intentioned, inadvertently perpetuates current disparities in power and resources within the digital accessibility discourse. Some disability groups hold more influence today, thanks to Disability Rights movements worldwide, receiving their own dedicated categories, while others are left in the shadows or lumped into broader, less distinct categories. For instance, specific disability groups like blind users receive specialized attention, while those under the cognitive umbrella face a vast and often confusing landscape of very diverse experiences, with dozens of separate disabilities piled together.

A crowd of people standing around a purple umbrella. Very few people fit underneath it. The people have diagnosis like BPD, Autism, Dyscalclia and more. Above are the words This Umbrella is too Small for Needs this Diverse.

Toward a Scientific and Education-Focused Approach

To counter these imbalances, we propose a shift towards a more scientific and education-focused categorization approach. But where do we begin? The challenge lies in determining the criteria for grouping disabilities. Should it align with Western medical models, Eastern paradigms which take a very different approach, or personal experiences? Let’s explore the possibilities while emphasizing consistency and transparency.

Balancing Specificity and Generality

In our quest for equity, principles of list architecture can guide us. A balanced list enhances memory retention for readers. It ensures that each list item is effective, neither too specific nor too general.

Let’s compare two potential categorization models, one rooted in the general and another in specificity, to highlight the importance of balance.

If the “cognitive disabilities” item from our original list serves as our standard for generality, one could envision a list that categorizes disabilities into 5 main sections:

  • Cognitive Disabilities (Thinking)
  • Sensory Disabilities (Senses)
  • Metabolic Disabilities (Energy)
  • Motor Disabilities (Movement)
  • Speaking Disabilities (Communication)

You’ll notice that in this list, the degree of generality/specificity is kept consistent from item to item. In order to represent the more specific, we’ll create subcategories within these main sections. Within these subcategories we can untangle some of the groupings that aren’t serving us.

Alternatively, if “vision disabilities” were taken as the foundation, we might end up with a very long list of very specific disabilities. For the sake of teaching and memory retention I don’t recommend starting with this approach. While it would be consistent in specificity, it would be less useful in a teaching or public engagement context. The process of making this list however can help inform our subcategories.

A balanced list that will be easier to remember in the long term will begin with the general and move more or less evenly toward the specific. For example, using the list of general disability categories above vision disabilities would now fall under sensory disabilities rather than stand alone, as it did in the traditional model.

The Path Forward

As we continue to refine our understanding of disability categorization, it’s crucial to remember that categorization models symbolize reality; they are not reality itself. They evolve with our understanding. Today we’re beginning to understand the harms caused by the medical model of disabilities, that highlights only deficits, deficits defined through bias and without input from those it seeks to label and rooted in a history of oppression. To foster a more inclusive environment, we must strive to shift our focus away from medical model diagnoses toward the specific, addressable barriers that people face each day. This method might lead to something like this:

  • Cognitive Disabilities (Thinking)
    • Memory
    • Learning
    • Intelligence
    • Focus
    • Mood & Motivation
  • Metabolic Disabilities (Energy & Endurance)
    • Fatigue
    • Energy (sprint)
    • Energy (endurance)
    • Chronic Pain (general)
  • Motor Disabilities (Movement)
    • Limb Loss
    • Paralysis
    • Chronic Pain (with movement)
  • Sensory Disabilities (Senses)
    • Hearing
    • Smell
    • Vision
    • Taste
    • Touch
    • Sensory Sensitivity
  • Speaking Disabilities (Communication)
    • Speech Impediment
    • Non-Verbal (total)
    • Non-verbal (partial)
    • Aphasia

You’ll notice that this list does not address diagnoses at all, but rather specific barrier areas as suggested. Chronic illnesses, Neurodivergences, and other disability diagnoses could be referenced via their more specific barriers which will, if we’ve done this right, be covered according to that barrier not the medical model label. I believe this method is not only more useful for those of us in the industry looking to solve barriers, but also for everyone seeking understanding of themselves and others. It leaves more room for intersectionality and abilities related to our identities rather than categorizing us by ever changing medical model diagnosis that disregard our value, skills and unique perspectives. It helps people like me with multiple diagnoses to worry less about trying to separate my experiences by label and focus more on my specific needs as an individual.

Changing for success as a leadership and business change through innovation and evolution of ability as a crumpled paper transforming into a boat then a swan and a flying bird as a metaphor.

Your Voice Matters

The question of how to optimally subdivide disabilities is an ongoing dialogue. We invite you to join this conversation. Do you see yourself in the proposed categorization models? Is your experience given equitable representation? Your insights can help shape a more inclusive digital world.

Conclusion: Towards a More Inclusive Digital World

Inclusivity in digital spaces and beyond requires an accessible approach not only in content but also in how we structure information. Let’s reimagine disability categorization in digital accessibility, striving for a more equitable and inclusive online world. Together, we can make a difference.

Diverse hands meet to create the shape of a heart as a support symbol expressing the feeling of teamwork and togetherness.


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