Forget Accessibility – Design with Empathy Instead

Janis Yee  

How do we move on from thinking about accessibility as “design for them”, and start looking at it as “design for all of us”?

Accessibility (or a11y for short) is slowly becoming a new standard for design but fraught with so many challenges that it took a legal maneuver to elevate awareness and make it a movement. Having worked with digital product teams on many large projects, it was always an exploration on how far to go to make the product compliant.

It’s almost a guarantee that this isn’t just a challenge specifically tied to digital either. Last June, I attended a presentation by Mohsen Mahjoobnia, a real estate agent specializing in accessibility for homes in the GTA. He mentioned that in Germany, they accept it as something that is part of the architecture. Here in Canada, it is a specialized field to fill a legal requirement.

Accessibility should not be something that you simply ‘layer on’.

Let’s level set it here. We are designing for humans. Humans have varying needs and abilities at different times. Yes, we are all aware of the extreme cases such as those who have permanent challenges. What we hear less about are universal challenges that exist in the grey area. These are the cases where most of us have been and will be at some point as we age and life happens to us. Let’s learn more about those.

Grey Area with Sight

  • An everyday scenario includes driving. You must keep your eyes on the road for safety and can’t be distracted. About 9 people in the US are killed daily by Distracted driving.
  • Today, between Canada and the US, approximately 75% of the population require vision correction.
  • Some of the undocumented cases only wear glasses to read.
  • 1 in 12 men, including my own DH, and 1 in 200 women on the planet are colourblind.
    I’ve also seen cases of sighted users who also use screen readers. (Not just audio books in cars)

Grey Area with Sound

  • An everyday scenario where you have limited auditory usage include consuming video content in a public space. Many choose not to turn audio on and commonly use captions on to uphold peace in social situations.
  • Nearly 20-25% of the population in Canada and the US have some degree of hearing loss.
  • Noise pollution such as mass transit and persistently listening to audio at high volume can contribute to temporary or permanent hearing deficiencies
  • Attending a concert, or taking a flight can blow out your eardrums.

Grey Area with Mobility

Grey Area with Cognitive Ability

  • In the US, between 13.3 and 16.1 million individuals age 18 and over are afflicted with common brain disorders and diseases.
  • This might be obvious but fascinating nonetheless. 26% of the world population drinks alcohol, causing temporary cognitive impairment.
  • The definitions of cognitive abilities are extremely diverse, so it was difficult for my Google-fu to get any sort of global statistic on this. I am sure that most of us live with some form and don’t necessarily feel comfortable seeking medical help and therefore becoming part of the statistics.

If you actually look at the grey area by the numbers, anyone at any given time can be afflicted with any combination of those challenges at some point in their life. Issues like this tend to multiply as we age.

According to Statistics Canada, seniors will make up 21 per cent of the population by 2026 (one in five), compared to 13 per cent in 2000.

Don’t just design for extremes

I’ve spoken to a lot of people who only focus on extremes. These are the ones who ask “Why design for the 1% of the population who need that level of consideration when we can be putting our resources towards the majority who can use it as designed?” You can’t think like this since you’ll be designing based on assumptions, using extreme cases. We are so entwined with our perception of the majority that we forget who they actually are.

Consider the many tools used at companies that hold an equal opportunity hiring practice who presume this. “We don’t need to worry about people with color blindness for this internal tool. None of our staff has it.” This type of thinking is very pervasive, and I’m hoping that this article brings new awareness to the problem.

Inclusiveness means you include everyone. Instead of designing specifically for accessibility, let’s accept that it’s simply a part of designing with empathy.

WCAG is a great first step to guide accessible web, and the Government of Ontario here has been amazing for being the first in North America to enact an accessibility law.

Think for a moment: if we already were designing with empathy, would we really need it?

It’s not an afterthought

Please don’t layer on accessibility as an afterthought in your products or services. Don’t leave them as audits to your QA specialist. And don’t just do it to prevent legal implications. I encourage all makers and thinkers to reach out and really look hard at who your users actually are with an empathic eye. You might be surprised by what comes out of the user research.

When I was designing digital products for educators, they all appreciated something as simple as larger font size. These were young teachers, not Ben Stein’s interpretation.

At an RGD Accessibility-related event, they hosted a panel of some really smart people with extreme disabilities. One of the most frustrating experiences they mentioned are presumptions many people have about who they are and how far they can go in life. One suffered from a neurological disorder leaving her with very limited motor skills and partial blindness. She taught herself PHP and now does web design for a living. This could have been a story about any of us.

Imagine a future where we move on from thinking about accessibility as “design for them”, and looking at it as “design for all of us”.

Let’s simply design with empathy.

Be the first to leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *