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Inclusive and Accessible Design: More Than Just the Wheelchair Symbol

3 weeks ago by

In the realm of accessibility, the discourse often revolves around familiar images: a screen reader user or the ♿ symbol. But the true essence of accessibility goes much deeper, encompassing a wide range of experiences and needs that often escape mainstream conversations. The question “How many people in our user group are disabled?” was a recurring theme in my work on accessibility. I understand why people ask it; I don’t judge them. But often, it’s a way to defend work we thought was good but turned out to be inaccessible or to downplay the importance of accessibility. Perhaps it’s time to start asking: How many individuals with disabilities have we inadvertently excluded from accessing our services?

Disability and Accessibility: A Shared Experience

Accessibility, at its core, is about making things easy to use, see, and reach for everyone, regardless of ability. Even if the terms “disability” or “accessibility” don’t resonate with you now, chances are they will someday.

Screenshot from Oxford dictionary, define the word “accessibility", a noun, as “how easy something is to reach, enter, use, see, etc.”

“Disability is part of being human. Almost everyone will experience disability at some point in their life. An estimated 1.3 billion people – about 16% of the global population – currently experience significant disability.” — World Health Organisation.

Disability is, itself, normal. Nor is it a fixed identity. From infancy, we rely on others, and throughout life, after surgery, injury, during pregnancy, or as we age, we may need extra help accessing things. Accessibility is a universal concept that touches us all.

Yet, many fail to recognise their own potential future accessibility needs, including myself. One day, I woke up with a painful throat and couldn’t speak. It was a frightening experience since it had never occurred before. I panicked, urgently needing to schedule an appointment, and the only option available was to do so by phone. At that moment, I felt utterly helpless.

Now, imagine being deaf and encountering a website instructing you to call for more information. It’s a subtle yet exclusionary message that can evoke feelings of not belonging to society, especially when it’s a government service. Accessibility goes beyond merely adding ramps or captions to videos; it’s about cultivating a feeling of belonging and inclusion.

Shifting perspective and challenging stereotype

Traditionally, disability has been viewed through a medical lens, focusing on individual deficiencies and limitations. The World Health Organization redefined disability as not just a personal health condition but a reflection of mismatched human interaction—a consequence of systemic barriers that hinder full participation in society. This shift to a social model of disability is profound, portraying disability as a societal issue intertwined with beliefs, attitudes, norms, and values. For example, many individuals with a strong Deaf identity do not perceive themselves as disabled. Some embrace their identity as part of a distinct cultural and linguistic minority, using sign language as their primary mode of communication, while others may not. Deaf people exhibit diverse communication preferences, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and additional disabilities, all of which influence their interactions within their environment. 

Recently, a compelling advertisement created in honour of World Down Syndrome Day has made waves in the media. The ad depicts individuals with Down syndrome encountering obstacles and inhibited growth due to those presumed to be ‘able’ underestimating their capabilities. As designers, we often fall into the trap of our ability bias, based on what we know. We then apply these frameworks in an attempt to improve the lives of others. However, relying solely on our skills as a baseline can result in solutions that only cater to some individuals, leaving many others overlooked. To create truly inclusive designs, we must challenge our deep-rooted assumptions and engage directly with individuals with diverse needs. Perhaps it’s time we break the happy path and consider scenarios where things might go wrong, particularly to aid those who face challenges in accessing services. Rather than assuming what users with disabilities can or cannot do, let’s engage directly with them to understand their needs and perspectives.

Poster for World Down Syndrome Day featuring a diverse group of individuals with Down syndrome standing together. The text on the image reads: 'Assume that I can, so maybe I will.

Designing for inclusion

With 7.4 billion people in the world, a one-size-fits-all approach to design is simply not feasible. However, therein lies both the beauty and the challenge: by engaging directly with individuals and integrating their insights into the design process, we can create solutions that genuinely resonate with their unique needs and experiences. As designers, we play a crucial role in shaping accessibility as not just an afterthought, but as a fundamental principle guiding our interactions and experiences. In the words of George Dei, a prominent educator, researcher, and writer “Inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists; it’s making a new space that didn’t exist before.”

References:

About the Author

Anh Duong wears multiple hats in all her roles. Practising in different disciplines has helped her see how accessibility ties into every part of the product lifecycle. Anh is passionate about helping others and is always looking beyond the rules and standards of UX or WCAG to find practical ways to create awesome accessible web designs. She has delivered web accessibility training and audits to many clients and actively participates in creating and maintaining a culture of accessibility and inclusive design throughout the company. Anh is proudly made in Vietnam with a healthy obsession with Banh Mi and Ca Phe Sua Da.

Register for Anh’s workshop ‘Creating Accessible & Inclusive Digital Design‘ coming up on 12 June in Pōneke.


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