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 at our 2020 web accessibility conference

Moderator James Moore – a columnist at The Independent – spoke to our panel about their day-to-day experiences as disabled users of websites and apps.

The insights were hugely valuable. With practical advice you can action today.

Get on-demand access to the Designing for disability panel via YouTube.

Or keep reading for all the highlights and key learnings.

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. Follow 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. Follow 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. Follow him on Twitter @uncannyvivek.

How to design for disability: TLDR

Our design for disability panel explored the daily frustrations of trying to navigate websites and apps with poor accessibility. It also looked at the compelling business case for accessibility.

Here are 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 affects how they use websites and apps.

And there are far more people who don't identify as disabled, but have a digital access need.

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 improve usability for a much bigger group of users.

(Check out this talk from Scope’s Krissie Barrick for examples of how accessibility benefits everyone).

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

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 design for disability effectively. And ensure your product is not just 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 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’.

(Check out some web accessibility examples of sites that are accessible and aesthetically pleasing).

There’s a myth that accessibility means making a game easy. It’s not. It’s just making it inclusive so that 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 does so much video content still lack subtitles?

I rely on subtitles. 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 it's good enough, but it's not always good enough.

Matthew Johnston

(Check out Scope’s overview of the best VOD services for accessibility).

To design for disability means giving your users control and options. 

A great example is providing different ways to contact a company. It benefits a huge array of people. From people with anxiety or hearing impairments, to those who’d rather get quick answers from a chatbot. Rather than join a long call queue.

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

So tech holds the most potential for people with access needs? And helps us design for disability?

'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. Captions for phone conversations would be a life changer.

Matthew Johnston

Ready to design for disability?

Our design for disability panel provides really important food for thought. And highlights the business benefits of consulting with real users with real access needs.

Head to our YouTube channel for more on-demand accessibility talks. And check out our accessibility consulting options for expert help with your accessibility journey.