When I tell people I work as an Accessibility Consultant, I often get asked what that means. What many of these people don’t realize is that even if they haven’t heard of accessibility as a concept, they’ve likely heard of and possibly even used some of its most mainstream features. This just goes to show that accessible design makes engaging in both digital and physical realms easier for everyone, not just people with disabilities. Despite this, in my experience accessibility is often treated as an afterthought rather than incorporated into the design process. The root of the word accessibility is access, and throughout this article I will explore at least some of the issues that impact people with disabilities’ abilities to access and utilize digital technology and services as well as why incorporating the principles of accessible and usable design at an early phase is beneficial for everyone.
Many people view digital technology merely as a toy or accessory; a luxury. I would argue however, that it should be viewed as more of a tool or instrument, with the power to improve anyone’s engagement not only with the physical world, but also with people and information. This is especially valuable for people with disabilities because of the potential to bridge fundamental gaps that define the disabled experience. For example, before I received my first smartphone I was afraid to travel and explore independently. After getting a smartphone, it unlocked a level of comfort and confidence in doing so that I had not previously experienced.
Factors that inhibit access
There are a number of factors that hinder access to consumer grade digital technology like smartphones. Since the employment rate among people with disabilities was 18.7% in 2017 compared to 65.7% among people who don’t have a disability (US Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy), the earning and purchasing power of people with disabilities is arguably one of the more impactful. Smartphones and tablets are great starting points for people with little to no prior experience with digital technology due to their versatility compared to conventional desktop and laptop computers. Unfortunately, these devices are getting increasingly expensive, in some cases costing as much as conventional computers. For some people with disabilities who rely on government benefits that limit the amount of money they can earn if they want to keep those benefits, this is cost prohibitive. On top of that, while insurance providers sometimes cover the cost of dedicated Assistive Technologies, they will not cover even part of the cost of smartphones or tablets that can perform the same functionality and more.
Once you have a smartphone, there isn’t much that you can do with it without the internet, whether that be a cellular data or Local Area Network (LAN) connection. In the US, the internet is treated as a luxury rather than a utility. This vastly impacts the ability of people to obtain a connection, again because of cost. According to Pew Research Center, 23% of people with disabilities reported that they never go online in 2017, compared to only 8% of people without disabilities. Furthermore, much of the devices that we’ve come to rely on in our daily lives are very text-centric, relying on our abilities to read and write. Literacy rates among individuals with disabilities are lower than among those without.
The last barrier to entry that I will mention is the design of the hardware and software running on it. Design is pervasive in our society in that it dictates how we engage with the world we live in. From the way pedestrian and car traffic flows in shopping malls and roads to the way we interact with our smartphones, computers, and virtual assistants, these are determined by intentional, deliberate design. Design, specifically good design, is even more important for those of us with disabilities because the ways in which we can move, communicate, and interact with the world we live in are often limited, or different, than a person who doesn’t have a disability.
Can design thinking improve access?
In the relatively short amount of time I’ve worked in digital accessibility, I’ve heard the phrases user experience design, usability design, and user centered design, among others, tossed around interchangeably by my designer friends and acquaintances. What all these terms aim to advance is the idea of design thinking. In her Ted talk titled “When We Design For Disability, We All Benefit”, Elise Roy describes “Design thinking is a process for innovation and problem solving. There are five steps. The first is defining the problem and understanding its constraints. The second is observing people in real-life situations and empathizing with them. Third, throwing out hundreds of ideas — the more the better, the wilder the better. Fourth, prototyping: gathering whatever you can, whatever you can find, to mimic your solution, to test it and to refine it. And finally, implementation: ensuring that the solution you came up with is sustainable.” In short, what this means is that in order to design most effectively for a specific user population, you have to design with that population. One organization that exemplifies this practice is Open Style Lab, a program operating out of Parsons School of Design in New York City, which teams designers, engineers, and occupational therapists with individuals who have disabilities to design and develop wearable solutions that address the needs of those individuals. While there are standards that should be met, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in digital accessibility, it is not enough to simply meet the standards because doing so doesn’t mean that your site or application will be easy to use. “The standard is what you should regard as a starting point,” according to Andrew Kirkpatrick, Head of Accessibility at Adobe and Co-chair of the WCAG Working Group, because “there’s no accessibility standard that addresses every user need” (Accessibility NYC Meetup Recap: WCAG 2.1) due in large part to the pace at which digital technology changes.
What are some of the challenges in terms of more people incorporating accessible design?
Arguably, the biggest barrier to incorporating accessible design into more of the products and services we use on a daily basis is a simple lack of awareness on the part of designers and developers. Many people take for granted small or inconspicuous interactions such as glancing down at a watch or smartphone during a meeting to check the time. This use-case not only wouldn’t be so small or inconspicuous for someone who is blind or low vision, but wouldn’t be possible if the device they are using couldn’t interpret that visual content into something non-visual such as audio or Braille. I would argue that accessible design, by necessity, must be very deliberate. Many developers assume that it’s difficult and/or expensive to achieve. This only potentially becomes true if you try to retrofit accessible solutions to pre-existing websites, applications, or physical environments. If accessibility is incorporated from the earliest design and development phases, it is very easy and in the case of web development, often only takes a few extra lines of code. By not making a product or service accessible, companies are excluding a community that is considered the largest minority globally. Unfortunately, many companies don’t think about accessibility until they are sued. Again, this is when it can become expensive and difficult to implement.
As far as improving access to the internet itself, in the United States the solution is neither as straightforward nor as easy to arrive at as the design of products and experiences. Some say the internet should be treated as a utility just like electricity, sanitation, and clean running water, others disagree. The entire debate is often marred by political rhetoric. In an article published on Pacific Standard’s website, the author argues for internet-as-a-utility by challenging one of the opposition’s biggest arguments against it: that regulation is anti-capitalist and anti-free-market and thus stifles innovation. Interestingly, he does this by illustrating the ways in which the internet marketplace in the US was never truly a free market to begin with. Personally, I think and hope that treating it as a utility will make the internet both more ubiquitous and affordable, especially for those communities that have the most difficulty accessing it currently.
Products designed with and for people with disabilities that have become mainstream
Despite the challenges, there are numerous examples of products and product features designed specifically for people with disabilities that have become mainstream successes with the general public. One example of this is the OXO Good Grips line of kitchen tools, which was initially created for people who have arthritis, but has since become so widely popular and synonymous with good Universal Design practices that its vegetable peeler is featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Another example of this is the software feature Reachability, which is built into Apple’s iOS mobile operating system, which powers iPhones. This feature was designed to enable easier one-handed use of iPhones by offering a user-activated command that when initiated, pushes the content at the top of the phone’s display to the bottom. This has become increasingly useful to the general public as phone sizes have gotten larger.
People with disabilities are the largest minority globally, so it’s to everyone’s benefit to design with and for us. Although the term accessibility specifically refers to the idea of making things easier to reach, enter, or use by people with disabilities, accessible design truly makes hardware, software, and other products easier to use for everybody. This is because, ultimately, good accessible design means good design, period.