As we consider how designers and users with disabilities bring their experiences into the professional world, a particular question comes to mind: who gets to have a good experience with technology? When we can understand and relate to all users, the answer should be simple: everyone.
By designing with and for people with disabilities, we can learn a lot about what makes innovation inclusive.
But getting there can be complicated. Including everyone means trying to understand the countless, unique ways users interact with technology and what gets in the way. One area to consider is how tech makes itself accessible for all people. By designing with and for people with disabilities, we can learn a lot about what makes innovation inclusive.
Traditionally, an individual’s physical or mental characteristics have been what designers think about when it comes to accessibility. This medical model of disability fails because it sees the negative experiences of disabled people as a consequence of some trait they have rather than the result of systems and processes that weren’t built to include them.
In other words, the medical model doesn’t think about the full spectrum of human experience. It often leaves the real people impacted by design choices struggling to access an experience that was made for someone else. And it’s not just a binary problem. When designers only consider chronic, medically-minded conceptions of disability, they leave out people like:
Users experiencing situational disability, like the inability to access a computer because of a drained wireless mouse or heavy glare on a mobile phone screen.Users whose disabilities aren’t fully understood by designers who don’t live them. For instance, people who need to navigate screens with verbal commands instead of a keyboard.Users who can technically access an experience but have to do so sub-optimally. Such as those who don’t have fast internet at home, making it difficult to stream mobile videos.
So, how should designers and thought leaders address the needs of those with disabilities? A social model presents the best picture of how accessibility works in the real world. This framework sees disability as the mismatch between people’s needs and society’s considerations. It’s not a medical condition or physical characteristic that imposes inaccessibility on an individual. Instead, choices about how spaces, processes, and programs are designed to exclude people whose needs aren’t considered.
In practical terms, accessible design isn’t about creating something and then adding in a set of stopgap solutions for people with common disabilities.
In practical terms, accessible design isn’t about creating something and then adding a set of stopgap solutions for people with common disabilities. It’s about making sure that a piece of technology is used in ways that align with the broad spectrum of human ability.
What does accessible design look, sound, and feel like?
Accessible technology is as diverse as the people who create and utilize it. While meeting every need takes time and effort, it’s easy to see how small adjustments radically improve the user experience — for all.
Many of these benefits are intuitive in theory but often take a kind of mental muscle memory to develop as a habit in design.
Still, the payoff is well worth the effort — and not always for the reasons that might first come to mind! Let’s look at some key accessibility takeaways and how they create more positive experiences for everyone.
1. Add alternative text (alt text) for images
Simple but effective, creating a short snippet of descriptive text that can take the place of images allows blind or low vision users to understand what those images convey because the text is accessible by screen readers. It’s also helpful when poor signal makes loading images difficult and can improve a page’s search engine optimization (SEO) value because search engines prioritize more accessible content.
Example: You receive an email inviting you to register for your favorite conference of the year — and it even includes a coupon code for 75% off the regular ticket price. Unfortunately, the coupon was in the form of an image, and there was no alt text (or your images wouldn’t load on your phone), so you weren’t able to read the discount code and pay full price.
2. Include captions or transcripts for videos
Few pieces of media are more engaging than video content. Spending time to create accurate captions and transcripts ensures that everyone can access this high-value asset, including deaf or hard of hearing users and people in crowded, noisy spaces.
Example: There are two video promos to watch before you select which talk you want to go to; both have similarly non-descriptive titles. You are registering for the sessions in a conference hall, so it’s hard to hear the videos — captions would be more helpful to make an informed decision.
3. Use more than color to convey meaning
Color can be a visually appealing shorthand at first glance. Pricing packages, warnings, or positive and negative examples are often accompanied by particular colors to reinforce their meaning — but not everyone can rely on color alone to understand a message. Include blind and color-blind users by making sure that color coding is accompanied by text or other indicators. This also helps people dealing with screen glare, using low-contrast screen settings, or who simply have different reference points for a particular set of colors.
Example: The conference has different types of events, each denoted by a certain color — but there’s no way to know what each of the colors corresponds to, and it makes registering for the right types of events hard.
4. Allow interaction with any input device
The mouse is a trusty companion that’s always close at hand for many. But not everyone relies on the classic click to get around in digital spaces. Many users take advantage of alternative input devices that work better for their needs. By ensuring that your site, app, or portal works with any input device, you give everyone the tools they need to succeed. Double-check text boxes, buttons, and multiple-choice answer fields for compatibility.
Example: Your wireless mouse dies, and you have to navigate the website by using your keyboard/tabbing through fields. It is virtually impossible to use if the site isn’t set up for this.
Accessibility builds upward
By investing the effort needed to serve real people, not just a hypothetical average user, designers don’t just build better experiences. They create better relationships. When every customer knows that you consider their needs from step one onward, you can earn trust that stays with your brand beyond any one interaction. That’s the power of a social model of disability. It shows us that while we may unintentionally create the barriers that many users face, we also have the power to break those barriers down.
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