Convincing clients that their products need to be accessible will often require that you make a good case for it. This is because accessibility requires an investment in the form of time and money and some businesses may not think that investment is worth it.

We’re going to look at why accessibility is crucial to a successful design and hopefully help you make a better case for investing in it in the future.

People with disabilities are one of the largest groups of users in the world

The United Nations published a report in 2011 that showed there are an estimated 1-1.3 billion people with disabilities around the world. To put things into perspective, that was about the same as the population of China in 2014 and about 4 times the United States’ population in that same year. As a matter of fact, disabled people are the world’s largest minority.

People can develop disabilities from birth, aging, or other accidental or health-related incidents. On average, people over the age of 70 will spend about eight years as people with disabilities. As “baby boomers” have been aging, we’ve seen an increased need in providing users with accessible digital solutions.

Using personas when considering accessibility

Personas are crucial to UX design projects. Having personas with disabilities is a great way to implement accessibility design thinking into the UX process.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is the United States’ leading national public health institute, and they say a disabled person may have difficulty with:

  • thinking
  • vision
  • movement
  • learning
  • memory
  • hearing
  • communicating
  • social relationships
  • mental health

Here are some examples of personas with disabilities:

  • A 21-year-old female college student who suffers from multiple sclerosis and has muscle weakness with her hands.
  • A 42-year-old female immigrant who has been in the U.S. for less than two years. English is her second language and she needs more time to read and write in English.
  • A 63-year-old retired man who suffers from diabetes and as a result, from vision loss.

Two models for how society perceives disabilities

How we define disabilities varies and we base our definitions on models of disability. The Michigan Disability Rights Coalition is a non-profit organization which listed nine models of disability. This article will look at the two dominant ones: the Medical Model of Disability and the Social Model of Disability.

The Medical Model of Disability – the person is the cause for the disability

The Medical Model of Disability places all burdens and responsibilities on the disabled person. They are the problem, or they own the problem. It is harsh and uses keywords such as “disadvantage,” “abnormality,” and “lack of ability” to describe people. This model applies the medical world’s view that people need to be cured or fixed in order to be normal, functioning people.

In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) published the International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities, and Handicaps manual. Its purpose was to classify what each disease’s consequences were and how they impacted people’s lives. It defines disabilities based on the Medical Model of Disability.

According to the manual, here is how diseases for persons with disabilities are described and progress:

Impairment: In the context of health experience, an impairment is any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function.

Disability: In the context of health experience, a disability is any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.

Handicap: In the context of health experience, a handicap is a disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or a disability, that limits or prevents the fulfillment of a role that is normal (depending on age, sex, and social and cultural factors) for that individual.”

As previously mentioned, these definitions are pretty harsh and they place the burden on those suffering from disabilities.

The Social Model of Disability – society is the cause for the disability

The Social Model of Disability doesn’t place any burdens or responsibilities on the people who suffer from disabilities, but instead on the societies they live in. It describes people’s disabilities as a consequence of environmental, social, and attitudinal barriers that society places in front of them.

Instead of curing of “fixing” a person with disabilities, it is society’s duty to remove barriers for them to improve their lives and offer them equal chances to live their lives just as anyone else does. As such, this model is more understanding and accepting of disabled people.

The disabled community’s reaction to the Medical Model of Disability and WHO’s manual was immediate. Three years after the WHO published its manual, Mike Oliver, a British author and disability rights activist, coined a new model which he called the Social Model of Disability.

Oliver wrote a paper called “The Individual and Social Models of Disability” in which he contended against the medical model:

“The simple answer to this is that disability is a social state and not a medical condition. Hence medical intervention in, and more importantly, control over disability is inappropriate. Doctors are trained to diagnose, treat and cure illnesses, not to alleviate social conditions or circumstances.”

This model no longer places the burden on people with disabilities but instead on society. Instead of trying to cure of “fix” disabled persons, society must work toward integrating and accepting them. As UX designers, it is our job to consider environmental, social, and attitudinal barriers and strive toward bringing them down in our designs.

For example, a common environmental barrier for users is their ability to see screens in bright sunlight. This barrier affects both visually impaired people as well as those who can see just fine. Taking this barrier into consideration means designing solutions with large and easily readable fonts and strong color contrast.

The United Nations (UN) and the rights of disabled people

The social model’s idea of barriers has been adopted into global policies for digital accessibility, with the UN as one of its international catalyzers. The UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2006 and signed it into effect the following year. The CRPD is the 21st century’s first major human rights treaty and it bases its philosophy and definitions on the Social Model of Disability.

This is the UN’s official definition for disability:

“The term persons with disabilities is used to apply to all persons with disabilities including those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various attitudinal and environmental barriers, hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”

Here is an example of an environmental barrier from the UN:

“A person in a wheelchair might have difficulties being gainfully employed not because of her condition but because there are environmental barriers such as inaccessible buses or staircases in the workplace which obstruct his or her access.”

Here is an example of an attitudinal barrier from the UN:

“A child with an intellectual disability might have difficulties going to school due to the attitudes of teachers, school boards and possibly parents who are unable to adapt to students with different learning capacities.”

How the convention is adopted worldwide

As of July 2015, 157 nations had ratified the convention and 159 had signed it. As a result, it began protecting about 80% of the entire world’s population. As of July 2016, however, the U.S. had not yet ratified it as some lawmakers contended that the U.S. already had regulations in place for accessibility. The two main regulations in the United States are the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which passed in 1990.

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) accessibility

Article 9 of the Convention for Persons with Disabilities is the section on accessibility. It mentions accessibility needs for physical environments, transportation, and digital information and services. The convention uses ICT as an umbrella term for all digital devices or applications. The sections has two parts.

Article 9 – Accessibility, Part I

The first part describes the types of public infrastructure which are to be considered unde the convention.

“To enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas.”

Article 9 – Accessibility, Part II

The second part lists what appropriate measures should be taken under the convention. Promoting access to new information and communications technology such as the internet is one of the required measures.

“Promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet.”

How ICT accessibility impacts UX design for the web

All UX designers need to consider ICT accessibility when designing for digital devices or applications. The web is a huge component of ICT and we’re going to look at how accessibility considerations impact UX design for the web.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international body which develops web standards. It follows the principles of Tim Berners-Lee, the W3C director and the inventor of the web, and it considers accessibility a fundamental requirement for web design.

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” – Tim Berners-Lee

The W3C follows the principles of the UN convention and it considers access to ICT as a basic human right. As such, in an effort to improve accessibility, it launched the Web Accessibility Initiatives (WAI) in 1997. The WAI provides us with standards, techniques, and guidelines for improved accessibility.

The WAI provides three main guidelines for the web:

  1. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

These address the information found on a website, such as text, images, video, forms, etc.

  1. Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG)

These address the software used to create websites.

  1. User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG)

These address web browsers and media players and are related to assistive technologies which help people browse the web.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the four layers of guidance for UX designers

The first iteration of the WCAG was published in 1999 and it was updated to version 2.0 in 2008. The last update it received was to version 2.1 in 2018. It is a crucial source of reference for many international policies, legislations, and standards. Additionally, it serves as excellent guidance for UX designers who want to learn about designing accessible websites.

The WCAG provides a great set of design principles, techniques, and guidelines. It is aimed at UX and web designers, developers, and content creators, and the principles and techniques within it can be applied right away.

  1. Principles – this is the top layer of guidance, and it provides us with four principles that are the foundation for web accessibility:

  1. perceivable – information and UI component need to be presented to users in a way they can easily perceive
  2. operable – UI components and navigation need to be operable
  3. understandable – information and the UI need to be easily understandable
  4. robust – content needs to be sufficiently robust to be reliably interpreted by all manner of user agents, including assistive technologies

  1. Guidelines – the 12 guidelines outlined in the WCAG provide the basic goals which designers should work toward when trying to make their designs more accessible to people with various disabilities. These guidelines aren’t testable, but they offer a framework and overall objectives that help designers understand the criteria for success and better implement the techniques.

  1. Success criteria – each guideline has testable success criteria to verify a web app or website’s accessibility. Each of them has three levels: A, AA, and AAA, with A being the minimal level. In the United States, companies generally strive for AA compliance, which covers most legal regulations.

  1. Sufficient and advisory techniques – each guideline and success criteria have a wide variety of techniques that fall into two categories:

  1. sufficient for meeting the success criteria
  2. advisory

Final thoughts

As successful designers, we have a duty to plan for and design with accessibility in mind when working on our UX projects. We have a responsibility not just to our profession, but to our users and to society as a whole to design accessible digital solutions which anyone can use.

One easy way to include accessibility in our UX work is by using personas with disabilities. Another way is to follow the WCAG guidelines.

As a community, we have the power to eliminate discrimination against disabled people and uphold their rights to be equal members of society. In doing so, we make every product and service accessible, and everyone wins, not just people with disabilities.