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Ditching the Ability Dichotomy

Accessibility, while a critical pillar of design, has become one of the hottest buzzwords in the design space - particularly in experience design. LinkedIn statuses, Medium think pieces, company blogs (yes, I know) all rave about ways to increase accessibility and keep it in the forefront of the design process. I would agree with a small caveat: let’s ditch the able v. disabled dichotomy. We certainly mean well when we “add some accessibility” like generous spice to our work, but our perspective could use a little iterating.

When I say “dichotomy” I’m referring to the inevitable and sometimes unintentional polarization of whole human beings based on two defining characteristics. We’ve handled accessibility in such a way that makes our users “other” from us. They are disabled, we’ve got to design for them; the blind, the deaf, the folks with less than 10 digits. We, the able bodied people need to reach over into the other side and help them. See how that sounds? That’s how we approach the topic of ability, we attack it from this able bodied vs disabled angle and it prevents us from viewing people holistically. We’re also ignoring the very real nuances of (less than perfect) human beings and overlooking situational occurrences that could be addressed when we design accessible products.

In reality, ability isn’t a fixed status, so what if we did away with the us vs. them mindset and started thinking of ability as a spectrum? That’s truly what ability exists on - a fluid spectrum on which we glide back and forth as life happens. Some of our abilities move across this spectrum more frequently than others but either way we’re constantly changing and evolving in small ways that force us to adapt. Take vision, for example and think about users who wear glasses; the ability to see alone has a wide spectrum from people with -1 to +9.75 prescriptions, to people with astigmatism, even nearsightedness to farsightedness. If the spectrum for vision ranges from perfect vision to complete blindness, I’m sure we can all identify ourselves on that spectrum and not just one side or the other. Despite our growth collectively as designers across the industry, we still have this tendency to view vision as “blind and not blind” and there’s so much more seeing than total blindness or lack thereof. Let’s move away from permanent vision and think about situations that temporarily affect vision. Eye injury, intense sun glare, eye surgery - these are temporal occurrences that also impact users’ ability to interact with a product.

University of Cambridge produced an inclusive design toolkit referencing Microsoft’s key accessibility research study from 2003 conducted by Forrester Research titled The Wide Range of Abilities and Its Impact on Computer Technology; that information is still relevant and can be applied today in our work. U of Cambridge outlines that “in order to better understand population diversity, it is important to challenge the polarised separation of ‘able-bodied’ and disabled.” They further re-iterate this by citing Microsoft, stating that “the concept of “disability” may have limited the understanding of the need for accessible technology … the IT industry must consider the wide range of people who could benefit” Microsoft (2003). This diagram helps us to visually grasp the range of ability as U of Cambridge neatly illustrates how diverse ability is through the lens of task difficulty. It’s easy to polarize ability when you view it as macro and quantitative as “yes or no” rather than as micro and qualitative as “how and when.”

Angil Tate_Pyramid
The pyramid model of diversity, University of Cambridge

I do believe we’ve come a long way, and as a baseline we acknowledge that designing accessible products is good for all…but why stop there? You don’t have to be a certified accessibility specialist to design inclusive products - honestly, you don’t even have to be a “designer.” Knowing enough to be dangerous and killing the dichotomy is a great start! Other ways to impact change and design products for diverse people include hiring people with ability levels that need representation, regularly auditing products and ensuring they’re up to standard, and being intentional about sampling diverse populations in usability testing. If you are a designer there are tons of resources to to add to your toolkit, such as Microsoft’s Inclusive Design methodology.

You may have gotten this far and wondered why this even matters, I won’t judge. TL;DR - real accessible design is birthed in our thinking, and we have to think of people holistically when we’re designing. Accessible design creates better products, has tangible impact, and increases usefulness. Let’s keep showing up and making the world a more usable place.

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Angil Tate

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