It seems odd in retrospect that the challenges faced by people with disabilities weren’t always as frequently mentioned in public discourse as they are now. Of course, progress remains to be had, and going beyond conversations into creating actual products is important. But 15 percent of the world’s 7 billion people are disabled in some way, and now is as good a time as any to talk about design for them.

What many people don’t know is that many of the products we take for granted today were originally designed for, and often by, people with disabilities and only later seeped into mainstream use. And this is a good thing, because designing for people with disabilities can improve products in the present and create opportunities for new uses in the future. 

The Ceefax teletext service was originally designed for people with hearing difficulties to watch television with subtitles, which has now been fully adopted in the mainstream. Text-to-voice services for the partially sighted are now an integral part of services like Alexa and Siri.

Most of these services were developed by people who either were in close proximity to people with disabilities or were disabled themselves. How then, should designers in large companies create products that reach healthy fractions of the world’s one billion people with disabilities?

Richard Ladner, professor emeritus in computer science and engineering at the UW and pioneer in accessible computing, agrees with the idea that accessibility in design is important to build from the get-go. 

“If you’re building an airplane, you wouldn’t build only for good weather,” he said. Ladner, whose parents were deaf, also grew up around advancing technology for people with disabilities. When he moved away from home, he faced the problem of communicating with his parents effectively. 

“I could [only] communicate from a distance with my parents basically by mail [instead of] phone calls,” he said. “[It was] somewhat frustrating at times because the turnaround was weeks.”

But he had an early education in accessibility technologies when his father started using a teletypewriter (TTY), a type of electromechanical typewriter used to send and receive messages over various communication channels.

“My dad was a deaf leader and was one of the early adopters of the TTY,” he said. “You could see the power of technology.” Such experiences don’t come naturally to those who grow up mostly around able-bodied people. At the design level, then, how does society organize itself to design for accessibility? Ladner encourages people to look closer within families at aging grandparents, for instance. 

“Most people have a personal experience with disability,” Ladner said. “There’s a lot of natural empathy people have for their family.” On a larger scale, he suggests companies look within themselves to find examples of people with disabilities who are also employees and involve them in the design process. Ladner calls this “design for user empowerment.” 

“If it’s a big company, there should be employees with disability and their experiences should be brought into the fold,” he said.  

He identified Apple as a leader in accessibility design, with features like VoiceOver, Speak Selection, Zoom, AssistiveTouch, and Switch Control. Now companies like Microsoft and Google are joining in, making accessibility a core platform concern. Google, for instance, is working on navigational tools that use computer vision to triangulate a vision-impaired person’s position in a 3-D space.

The hope, of course, is not only that these design features are great from an inclusivity standpoint, but also that they have the potential to create new universal features in the future for everyone to use. But there has always been some tension created with respect to the cost overhead of putting additional features on a product that leaves accessibility features behind.

For instance, Twitter’s recent move to increase tweet length to 280 characters left some accessibility users temporarily out in the cold with the switch, rendering Twitter incompatible with accessibility tools. For larger companies, it’s pretty shocking that accessibility isn’t a core conceit of their platforms. Cost overheads are a consideration, but design has to consider at least some accessibility issues from the beginning. 

Ladner identified mobility, hearing, and vision as the three basic accessibility heuristics to always keep in mind. Furthermore, how a product provides affordances for people with disabilities also depends on the product itself. For a product in which vision is a major element of the product (like a television), compensation for visual accessibility would be higher in priority. 

The UW itself provides a raft of services to ensure more inclusive design for students, visitors, and faculty. The Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) Center focuses on making tech resources on campus accessible to everyone.

“A large part of DO-IT, through the Center for Universal Design in Education is making sure that education services are created with universal design in mind, and allowing individuals who have disabilities to access any and all education content,” Gaby de Jongh, IT accessibility specialist for Accessible Technology Services (ATS), said.

Like Ladner, she believes that accessibility in design is fundamentally good for all users. She gave the example of text-to-voice, which she claims helps not only the visually impaired, but also foreign language speakers, who are able to cognitively absorb the nuances of English better. 

This leaves us to discuss smaller companies and less well-funded organizations. In those cases, some space for accessibility should be made, whether for digital or physical products. It doesn’t cost much, for instance, to add proper bordering of forms, high contrast in colors, and high contrast between text and background.

It also helps to think in universal terms, which is to say that rather than having different designs for different groups, we can have one design for all groups. Examples of this include automatic doors, automatic faucets, low-floor buses, and gentle ramps instead of stairs in front of buildings. 

It’ll be good to have a world that doesn’t just leave that 15 percent out in the cold. 


Reach columnist Arunabh Satpathy at Twitter: @sarunabh

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