Designing for disability: dos and don’ts

By Nicholas Weber

Design for disability and you improve usability for everyone. This was a key takeaway from a lively panel session we held in June 2020 at CXcon: The Accessibility Edition, a virtual web accessibility conference from Inviqa. 

Moderator James Moore, a columnist at The Independent, spoke to his panel about their day-to-day experiences as disabled users of digital products and services, and asked how inaccessible websites and apps impact their daily lives. 

What ensued was some eye-opening conversation, as well as some great accessibility advice that you can implement today.

You can access the full ‘Designing for disability: dos and don’ts’ panel session on demand via our YouTube channel, or keep reading this post to get some of the key takeaways from this CXcon conversation.

Our panelists for this session were: 

  • Matthew Johnston: a technical delivery consultant specialising in inclusive technology, captioning and subtitling, financial services, and CX. Matthew has been profoundly deaf since birth. You can find him on Twitter @MatthewExplorer.
  • Glen Turner: a visually impaired blogger and YouTuber based in London. He posts about his experiences as a disabled person, London, and other things he enjoys. Find him on Twitter @well_eye_never.
  • Vivek Gohil: an assistive tech consultant and freelance writer. Vivek was part of the team that first tested the Xbox adapted controller. He lives with haemophilia and Duchenne. Find him on Twitter @uncannyvivek.

Designing for disability: TL;DR

Our ‘designing for disability’ panel explored the daily frustrations of trying to navigate websites and apps with poor accessibility, as well as the compelling business case for inclusive design, and the universal benefits of digital accessibility.

Here are some of the key takeaways from this conversation:

Your audience DOES have access needs

A lot of businesses seem to be under the impression that their customer base doesn’t really have digital access needs – especially where they target a younger audience.

This is simply not true, as our panel was quick to highlight.

We can all be disabled at any point in our lives. You could have a broken arm and find that you’ll struggle with a lot of these services. Disabilities aren’t just permanent.

Matthew Johnston

22% of people in the UK have a disability that impacts how they use websites and apps. But there’s a far wider pool of people who don’t consider themselves disabled and yet still have an impairment that impacts how they use digital products and services.

These needs can be sensory, physical, or cognitive. And they can be permanent, temporary, or just situational. 

This diversity means that when you design for disability, you will improve usability for a far wider pool of users.

(Tip: check out our web accessibility checklist or this CXcon talk from Scope’s Krissie Barrick for further examples of how accessibility benefits all users).

A London Underground seat with the words: not all disabilities are visible

We love this London Underground signage – an important reminder that not all disabilities are visible.

Accessibility requires empathy and understanding

Technical compliance is a good place to start your accessibility journey, but you need to consult with real customers with real access needs to ensure your product is not only compliant, but actually usable for your disabled customers.

Businesses need to engage with us more to really find out what we need, and engage with a wide range of people to get a good spectrum of what people need, because all of us are different.

Glen Turner

Our panel agreed that poor accessibility is down to lack of awareness. ‘Businesses don’t consult with disabled people, says Glen Turner. ‘Some people think disabled people haven’t complained, so there can’t be an issue with our site. In reality, we haven’t complained because we’ve just gone somewhere else’.

Accessibility audits were highlighted as a great place to start your accessibility journey, but, alone, they’re not enough.

Some businesses think they’ve done enough because they’ve done an automated test online and fixed the things it told them. Spellcheck is great for typing up a novel, but it doesn’t mean your novel is any good.

Glen Turner

You don’t have to get everything right

Accessibility is an ongoing, iterative process, and you don’t have to get everything right from day. But, as our panel stressed, you’ll make life far easier for yourselves and your users if you think about digital inclusion from the outset of projects, rather than trying to retrofit accessibility.

‘Consider accessibility from the outset when designing things’, says Glen Turner. ‘It’s harder to retrofit things later, so planning accessibility from the start makes things a lot easier in the long run’. 

It's a sentiment echoed by accessible gaming consultant Vivek Gohil:

'The Last of Us Part II’ was designed with accessibility in mind from the outset, in partnership with accessibility consultants. I would like to see more developers open to this. Many of them have never even spoken with disabled gamers.

Vivek Gohil

Accessibility myths are, well, myths

Another point of frustration for our panel was the prevalence of accessibility myths, which many people fall victim to, as Glen explains: ‘There are myths like accessibility ruins aesthetics, but you can have a perfectly good-looking site or app that’s accessible as well’.

(Tip: check out our web accessibility examples blog post for examples of sites that are both accessible and aesthetically pleasing).

One of the biggest problems I have is game developers who say accessibility ruins aesthetics, or that the game hasn’t really been developed for you. There’s kind of a myth that accessibility means making the game easy, but it’s not; it’s just making it inclusive so everyone can experience the game.

Vivek Gohil

Why are subtitles still missing?

Subtitles benefit everyone, whether you’re hearing impaired, on a noisy train, or trying to keep the TV down so you don’t bother your neighbours.

So why then does so much video content still lack subtitles?

I rely on subtitles and my bugbear is that a lot of videos don’t have them, which means I miss out a lot. Automated speech recognition is not always accurate. People think 'that’s good enough', and it’s not. It’s not always good enough.

Matthew Johnston

(Tip: on the topic of subtitled content, check out charity Scope’s overview of the best VOD services for accessibility).

In a similar example to subtitles, providing a number of different ways to contact a company benefits a huge array of people, from people with anxiety or hearing impairments, to those who’d rather get quick-fire answers from a chatbot than join a long phone queue.

And yet it’s ‘surprisingly common’ how often brands only provide a phone number for customers looking to get in touch, as Matthew explains:

A huge bugbear for shoppers with hearing impairments is when sites provide a phone number as the only means of contacting them, when many of these people can’t use the telephone. This is surprisingly common.


Matthew Johnston

Voice control and subtitles hold huge potential

When asked about which tech holds the most potential for people with access needs, our panel was quick to highlight voice control and future applications for subtitles.

'Voice control is useful for everyone', says Glen Turner. 'Having a reason not to use your screen and strain your eyes is useful for the whole population'. 

The one thing I’m really looking forward to is phone calls. I can’t use the phone, but if captions could be enabled for telephone conversations, that would be a life changer.

Matthew Johnston

Wrapping up

Our ‘Designing for disability: dos and don’ts’ panel provides really important food for thought and highlights the business benefits of consulting with real users with real access needs.

Get the full CXcon playlist on demand via our YouTube channel, and do check out our digital accessibility report and web accessibility design and consulting pages to help kickstart your accessibility journey.