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Alan Brightman’s Disability Wonderland

March 19 2010 | by

Alan Brightman

As a voracious reader of books, I read many different genres. However, I like straightforward plotlines, chapters with a clear structure and a logical progression of an idea or story. For those reasons, it took time for me to digest, figure out and ultimately, understand, DisabilityLand, Alan Brightman’s well-written book about people with disabilities.

DisabilityLand isn’t your typical non-fiction book. It’s an eclectic compilation of short stories and vignettes from Brightman’s years as an advocate for people with disabilities while at Apple and Yahoo! This book shakes up perceptions one might have of a typical disabled person, who too often is caricatured as someone who is either incapable of performing basic life activities independently, or is a hero and depicted as supernatural, amazing or gifted if he or she assumes a role of high responsibility and great influence.

I asked Brightman why he wrote DisabilityLand the way he did, light on plot but chock-full of interesting anecdotes that span from 1972 to the present. “The vignettes and the questions just happened like that in real life. Unconnected. Unexpected. To have presented these anecdotes in some kind of continuous, more traditional narrative, I think, would have created an artificial tidiness,” he says. As far as the book’s clean and simple layout, Brightman says he wanted to make the books easy and enjoyable to read. “Lots of white space. Inviting layout. Color graphics. Enter and exit wherever you want,” he adds.

DisabilityLand is an extension of Brightman’s work in disability issues since the late ‘60s, when he volunteered in state schools for developmentally disabled people. He says he became appalled by schools’ living conditions and institutional atmospheres, and wondered whether there was anything he could do to “help make even a little change happen.”

Today Brightman, 62, leads the Yahoo! Accessibility Lab, and he works to ensure that new technologies remain accessible to people with disabilities. He continues to try to make a positive impact on the lives of people with disabilities, saying he has always found this group to be “smart, caring, way too busy, but with mostly ridiculous senses of humor.”

The land of people with disabilities that Brightman describes is not easy to summarize. It’s a complex community of people who are physically, emotionally and mentally shaped by the fact that one or more of their basic functions are limited, and who make an effort to live a full life that is both shaped by their disability and their efforts to mitigate that disability in their lives.

In one section, Brightman illustrates how disabled and non-disabled people view assistive technology differently:

The Cabinet Secretary came to visit Apple. I showed him a 9-minute video of someone with a disability doing something with a computer. At least once a minute the Secretary chimed, “That’s amazing!”

When the tape ended and the final “Amazing” had sounded, I said: “With respect, sir. It is only amazing to you because you never see it. But for the people who use computers in this way, it’s not amazing. It’s just ordinary. It goes on every single day of their lives.”

He understood immediately and thanked me graciously for pointing out the difference. Then he added, “But it’s still amazing, isn’t it?”

Brightman also talks about his work organizing disability awareness sessions with engineers and executives at Apple and Yahoo! In one experience, he writes:

One [Apple] engineer put weights on her typing hand and soon discovered that when she pressed any key, the corresponding letter on her screen kept repeating and repeating and repeating until she was finally able to lift her heavy hand off the keyboard.

“And listen to this,” said a different engineer. “When the Macintosh needs to get my attention, it beeps at me, right? Every Macintosh does. Which is a nice convenience, right?” . . . [He] then slipped on a pair of earmuffs, raised his voice a notch or so, for effect, and challenged the nods: “but what if I were deaf? Then the beep is pretty much irrelevant, isn’t it? So I ask you, how do I get my Macintosh to alert me if I can’t hear it?”

I noticed in DisabilityLand the frequent use of the word “retarded,” which has taken center stage in political discourse today. “That was the word that was used everywhere back then, 1974-ish, and too often in pejorative forms,” Brightman says. “When I use the word in DisabilityLand, I was merely trying to stay true to the story I was recounting. With the term going out of fashion today, Brightman says he supports the campaign to end the use of the word. “I can’t even remember when I last used the word. I’m hopeful that it will fade away over time,” he says.

DisabilityLand is a good reminder of how far our society has come since the 60’s and 70’s. After finishing it, I came away wondering if Brightman ever did find a place called DisabilityLand. Perhaps he was just trying to prove that disability is all about attitude not place; it’s about celebrating the diversity and different perspectives that people with disabilities bring to our society, communities and everyday lives.

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