Accessibility in Design

As the sister of an individual with severe autism, I’ve witnessed the transformative effect that enhanced accessibility has had on my brother’s life- and in turn, on my own life. What seems like a minor additional text field with alt-tags or the simplification of layout, almost negligible in the larger scope of development, has the ability to reach a completely new and equally deserving user group — individuals with different abilities.

What is accessibility?

In layman’s terms, it is giving a blind person the ability to read. It is giving a deaf person the ability to watch television and know what is going on. It is the ability for a person who can’t speak to talk to the world around him. How? Through technology. In essence, accessibility is about designing digital solutions for users with a spectrum of disabilities. Such disabilities develop from birth, aging or accidental or health-related incidents.

What impact does accessibility have?

When we talk about impact, it’s important to put into words how the impact of accessibility isn’t just shaping the life of the individual with the disability but families and relationships and whole communities. Dillan is an autistic boy who seems intellectually challenged and cannot express how he’s thinking or feeling. People just go off of what they see on the outside and assume that he lacks intelligence. But with access to technology, he was able to type out words and sentences, like he was being freed from his mental and physical prison as he finds his “voice’. His therapist, who once felt helpless unable make progress or understand his needs, watched as Dillan typed out his appreciation for her months worth of struggle and compassion.

Girl with Cerebral Palsy creating a movie on her computer
Sady Paulson — Video Editor with Cerebral Palsy

Take John, a blind man who mastered using assistive technology on his devices. He was hired at Disney in 2003 and has since, worked on projects where he provides personal insights on how to make Disney’s technology more accessible. His enablement can in-turn enable others- it’s the ripple effect.

How can we, as developers and designers, make a difference?

By starting with accessibility ground up in the development process, what we don’t realize is that we are allowing the 1.3 billion people with a disability to contribute their strengths to society. It gives them the opportunity to fill their life with purpose and embrace their differences rather than shy away from the world that favors the fully abled.

“I wish for a world that views disability, mental or physical, not as a hindrance but as unique attributes that can be seen as powerful assets if given the right opportunities.” — Oliver Sacks.

And who provides those right opportunities? We do.

Firms like Apple and Microsoft are beginning to embrace the idea of reaching the wider audience through assistive technology. They’ve begun to notice that accessibility isn’t just an enhancer of functionality, but allows us to tap into every individual’s latent potential. It’s a movement. It’s a revolution in the way we approach our systems. It’s an equal understanding that technology is meant to break barriers down, rather than, in the process, create new barriers for a group of individuals who struggle in so many other aspects of their lives.

As Tim Burners Lee, the founder of the world wide web, said “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect”

That is why I am currently pursuing Interaction Design. I believe it is essential that we build accessibility design thinking into the UX process. Technology should be constructed with accessibility at the forefront in order to provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with diverse abilities. Not only is it a human right- in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities- but it is also it is a known fact that improving accessibility benefits all its users.

How can companies all over implement such change? It all starts with people. Empathy and awareness seem to be lacking in the tech industry.

To quote Don Norman, “The problem with the designs of most engineers is that they are too logical. We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we would wish it to be.”

For that, we can’t turn a blind eye to a major portion of the user group who have some form of disability. Bringing that empathy to the table is instrumental in bringing about widespread change in not just the workflow structure, but in the fundamental values of individuals in the workforce. For teams to begin to prioritize accessibility, it needs to be engrained in the development process, and given importance in minds of the engineers, managers and designers. Rather than considering accessibility an “extra” or optional component that can be postponed to the end of the creation cycle, it should be considered an integral part of the ethical and empathetically driven development process.

“How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives just by doing our job a little better?” ― Steve Krug
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