A few more things to consider about digital accessibility

Last year a lady in Arkansas walked to her car to find a “faker” note left on her windshield. She was parked in a handicapped parking spot and was being called out for using a handicapped sign while appearing to be just fine. What the rascal didn't know was that she had a rare disease which symptoms were invisible. This example represents one of the many misconceptions we have about people with disabilities - let alone those that have disabilities that are invisible. These misconceptions not only affect how we view certain disabilities in our day to day life, but they can also trickle down and affect how we approach and view accessibility on all levels of product design.

It’s reported that roughly 1 in 5 Americans have a disability, but it’s unlikely that this number includes those living with disabilities that are temporary or invisible. By definition, temporary disabilities are physical or mental conditions that limit a person's abilities for a short period of time. Examples include pregnancy, injured limbs, and anxiety -- which many of us, if not all, are going to experience.

An invisible disability is a little trickier to identify -- let alone relate to. As mentioned earlier, with the parking lot example, most people don't recognize these types of disabilities because you simply can’t see them. Invisible disabilities are physical, mental or neurological conditions that limit a person’s movements, senses, or activities that are unseen to the onlooker. A few examples include dyslexia, color blindness, and multiple sclerosis.

By incorporating this broader definition of disability, we’re starting to close the gap between ourselves and the separate “user group” we put people with disabilities in while designing. Since it’s estimated that we’re all going to experience some form of disability within our lifetimes - whether physical, temporary, or invisible -- designing for accessibility means designing for everyone.  

With this broader scope of disability, it’s not only valuable -- but very important to create accessible experiences. That being said, how do we get everyone on board -  both stakeholders and designers - to create a landscape that allows everyone to interact with the digital world around us.

Form a stakeholder perspective, it could potentially prevent unnecessary legal expenses and help to foster innovation.

Target, for example, in 2006, was sued by the national federation of the blind for not making their website accessible. Prior to getting sued they received many complaints from this community but made no effort to fix the issues. And, if you can believe this, they fought against the case - although they ended up losing.

In the first half of 2018 alone, over a thousand plaintiffs filled suites against companies for inaccessible digital products and services. Companies are - at an increasing rate - finding out the hard way that inaccessibility is a federal offense that comes with a huge price tag. Despite this, once companies start looking further into accessibility, they may be surprised with what they find.

Accessibility also has a strong link to innovation. Did you know that the typewriter was invented as a writing aid for a blind woman? The story goes she was dating the inventor and wanted to send him letters but couldn't operate a pen and ink. He created the typewriter as a way for them to communicate (A modern day love story!).

The typewriter was originally an assistive technology that went on to become adopted as a mainstream commercial product that went on to inspire word processors and the very keyboards we use today. There are countless examples of similar stories.

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By considering stakeholders goals and objectives, we can then begin to build a case for accessibility that not only adds to a companies innovation efforts but also creates preventative measures for unnecessary expenses.  

Now, how do we make sure that we, as designers, are doing our part? Counterintuitive to what some of us might think - design patterns and the basic building blocks of good design already cover a lot of ground in ensuring that we’re incorporating accessibility into our products and services.

The basic elements of good UI design -  which, to name a few include: plain language, clearly defined hierarchy, minimizing clutter, the use of whitespace, and good color contrast - are keys to making interfaces usable and effective. They’re also keys to making interfaces accessible.

For instance, clearly written content with a defined hierarchy and logical structure makes your content easier to understand and aids in scannability. This allows the user to scan and find sections they're interested in. This specifically helps those with low vision or that have cognitive or learning disabilities because it allows for clarity, consistency, and ensures that different parts of a product or site are easy to locate and identify.


To take it a step further, the use of established design patterns also aids in ensuring that were designed for accessibility. A large part of what makes successful interaction design successful is the use of these patterns. All humans - regardless of having a disability or not -  are hardwired to recognize patterns. By using these we’re playing into this natural human tendency by reinforcing what the users have learned to expect - when interacting with technology.

These established patterns not only communicate function but also intent. From an accessibility standpoint, the use of these patterns helps the cognitively impaired by reducing their cognitive load as they would expect search to behave like search and buttons to look and act like buttons.


We can also build a basic level of accessibility our reusable component libraries. By doing this, we're not only taking advantage of the benefits of design patterns but also - from a development standpoint - we’re ensuring that basic accessibility is baked our process. This approach may require more effort upfront, but in the long run, as development scales, we no longer have to fret over if we have basic level accessibility within our products.

Facebook does a good job of this. They’ve created a component library whose primary goal is providing their developers, across all product teams, components with basic accessibility support. Some of this basic accessibility includes:

  • Keyboard focus (this allows users to navigate the pages using the keyboard alone)

  • alt text (this provides a text alternative to non-visual content)

  • Aria (aids screen readers when distinguishing between different types of content)

By recognizing the benefits of incorporating accessibility into our design and development approaches, we're ensuring that we're designing for inclusivity.

Whether we’re Incorporating accessibility as a preventative measure to a lawsuit, fostering innovation, or rounding out our design and development toolkits, we’re helping people participate more fully in the digital landscape.

So, the next time the next time you find yourself in a parking lot, or on a bus, and you see someone occupying a handicap space where it may not seem justifiable, stop and think because there could be more than meets the eye. Or, it could just be some lazy bastard. :)

Erin Newby