Acknowledgement: Emily would like to acknowledge that, being an able-bodied designer, she offers her perspectives on access and disability from a position of privilege. She works at Domain7’s Vancouver office, which operates on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples–Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lō and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Nations.
A few years back, User Experience Designer Emily Tso twisted her ankle while traveling abroad.
On her trip, she was visiting an art museum and wanted to see a culturally significant exhibit. The only problem? It was down a flight of stairs—and there was no elevator.
A sign hung nearby: “Strollers and wheelchairs cannot access Level B3. Sorry for your inconvenience.”
For Emily, it was a prime example of non-inclusive design. “How can I engage with this important piece of historical artwork and understand more about the world if I can’t access it?’” she asks.
The term “accessibility” is often limited to how usable a product is for someone with a disability.
But to truly create access to a resource, product, space, or digital interface, Emily says that the definition needs to be expanded to include other aspects of a person’s reality, such as their sociocultural and/or economic context. In doing so, designers can create more contextualized solutions that take into account people’s physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
If a left-handed person is trying to use scissors only designed for right-handed people, that’s inaccessible—not just because they can’t use the scissors, but also because of the distress of being excluded and the frustration of not being able to complete a task.
Emily volunteering at a community initiative.
Emily came to Domain7 in 2018, where she conducts user research and testing, helps identify user needs, and practices inclusive design. But beyond her day-to-day tasks, she has become an internal advocate for thinking about access and inclusion more broadly.
Her passion for access comes from time she spent creating brand experiences for intercultural and intergenerational communities.
“My previous work taught me that access isn’t represented by any one age, race, ability or gender, but intersections of all of the above and more,” she says.
As a designer, Emily sees this focus on access as critical for achieving products that work for people in their real, lived experience.
“We need to create more ways for anyone to participate and feel included,” Emily says. “If our goal is to humanize the web, for instance, then we must consider the social, cultural, and contextual connotations of our design.”
For her the question at the heart of this type of human-centred, empathetic design is simple: “How do we make people’s day-to-day better?’”
Here are her suggestions for prioritizing access in digital work.
(You can download Emily’s key accessibility questions to ask yourself and your team: get the pdf here.)
Go beyond compliance
Industry accessibility guidelines are important—but they’re not the whole story. Emily recommends seeing accessibility guidelines as a starting point, not an end goal.
“What happens is people design from a place of fear of not meeting the guidelines. But that’s too limited,” she says. “We need to go beyond guidelines to truly evaluate our intentions. It’s a mindset shift, shaped by the question, ‘What impact on people’s access will we have?'”
“For example,” Emily continues, “why focus on perfecting the font colour contrast on a government website if you’ve missed the fact that the people who need to access the information don’t speak English? When you consider the range of needs the people using your product might have—physical, emotional, psychological and social—you most likely will end up complying with the guidelines. But you’ll also create more paths for people to participate and feel understood as they do so.”
Emily points out that the Web Compliance Accessibility Guidelines are at version 3.0, and many are still trying to catch up. “But what will version 10.0 look like? And how do we design with version 10.0 in mind today?”
Never stop testing
The curb cut (the gradual dip in a sidewalk that creates a pathway level with the street) is a classic example of accessible design that allowed people in wheelchairs to safely leave the sidewalk. It also—happily—solved an accessibility problem for stroller-pushing parents and kids on bikes. But when pedestrians who are blind or visually impaired first came across them, there was nothing demarcating the end of the sidewalk.
Time for a redesign. Now, most curb cuts include grooves, gravel, or other texture to alert vision-impaired pedestrians that the sidewalk is ending.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘solved,’” Emily says. “We need to let ‘accessible’ be continually redefined and evaluated by the voices of those impacted.”
On a recent project, Emily created an accessibility testing plan with a municipality to gain feedback from community members with a range of disabilities about their experience accessing essential online services. This ongoing process will allow the city to continually improve the digital environment and, over time, create a diversity of ways for community members to engage with the city’s digital community based on the real users’ experiences.
Recognize the diversity of disability
Accessibility, at its most basic level, seeks to accommodate a person’s disability—but our definition of the word may be too narrow to lead to truly inclusive design.
Most see disability as a permanent physical condition. But most inclusive design advocates note that everyone will at some point face a limitation when interacting with a digital or physical environment.
Emily points out that when we broaden the definition of disability to recognize that every person faces limitations that affect their abilities, solutions for access can encompass a much broader range of people.
“Access is really about the experiences people have with things they interact with—consciously or subconsciously—on a day-to-day basis. This means words like ‘access’ and ‘disability’ can be multi-faceted, changing based on the context someone finds themselves in,” Emily says.
As a bonus, once you identify barriers to access for one person, you typically end up discovering shared points of inaccessibility for a much larger group of people you hadn’t considered. For example, making something accessible for a person who is deaf might also help anyone trying to use a device in a loud restaurant.
Diversify your test audience
Whether it’s due to lack of resources, time, or just imagination, designers tend to design based on what works for their own level of experience or ability. But when we include a diverse group of people in research and commit to testing with a range of perspectives, abilities and limitations, we can start to bridge that empathy gap and design for the lives people are living day to day.
“We have to involve relevant and diverse voices and work to understand their reality,” Emily says.
“If we don't take the time to respect and understand the people we’re trying to serve, we can’t create accessible solutions. In fact, if we don’t truly understand people or cultures, we can end up misrepresenting them, which can have long-term social consequences.”
For example, Domain7 recently worked with a major university on a new, complex website that included an Indigenous Territory acknowledgement. By actively consulting with Indigenous community member representatives and members, the team was better able to convey cultural respect through the acknowledgement, thoughtfully considering how elements like font size, presence throughout the site, and prominence on the page affected the overall message of inclusion.
Unlearn your bias
In addition to learning from others, moving toward access also means unlearning our own biases. “Unlearning the assumptions you bring to a project is critical,” Emily says. “We need to check our assumptions around who the average user is—and, importantly, expand the idea of what is average.”
She points out that even accessibility guidelines can reflect someone’s bias—which is why using feedback from those who actually use the product as the primary guide for continuous improvement is essential.
Most designers (or people, for that matter) don’t really understand how something is inaccessible until they experience it for themselves—something Emily was struck with many times while traveling with a twisted ankle.
One suggestion Emily has for beginning this “unlearning” process is to encourage people to reflect on moments when they too felt excluded.
“Only when people reflect on moments of exclusion they will be able to be creative about how to bridge gaps in the world,” she says.
Make it a team commitment
To start creating true access in the things we create, promoting an “access mindset” among your team is essential. A good place to start, Emily says, is to encourage everyone, at all levels of a team, to ask more questions: have we tested this with enough people? Have we listened to a diversity of voices from real people? What assumptions and beliefs have we brought to the design?
“I think there’s lots of room for asking better questions,” Emily says.
Make it the norm to bring considerations about accessibility into routine work conversations. “These simple questions can become a starting point for uncovering and even tackling more systemic access and injustice issues that seem way beyond ourselves.”
“Sometimes there can be a resistance to thinking bigger about access because of limited time or resources,” Emily says. “But more than one in five Canadians have one or more disabilities—and everyone experiences exclusion at some point. So we need to focus on creating a culture where creating access is the norm, not an afterthought.”
- Accessibility: The quality of being easily used, understood, appreciated, or operated, particularly by those with disabilities. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, for example, list the guiding principles for creating accessible digital experiences for people with disabilities as “Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust.”
- Inclusive Design: A design process that aims to create as many ways for as many people as possible to engage; where a product or interface is optimized to meet the needs of specific users—typically those whose needs might often be overlooked in a traditional design process.
- Access: The quality achieved when we go beyond accessibility guidelines to find solutions that take into account people’s lived experiences, physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
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