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When we design for disability, we all benefit

Robert Collings

May 16th, 2017

5 min read

Written by

Robert Collings


World of WYSIWYG

I recently stumbled on a remarkable TED talk by Elise Roy called, "When we design for disability we all benefit." If you are a product designer or manager, you should watch it. In the talk, she put forth a personal and universally applicable premise: Designers who take into account users' disabilities almost invariably improve their project. Designing for disabilities forces you to be more creative and develop a product that is not only more inclusive—it’s more innovative, period.

Roy has been deaf since the age of ten. As a disability rights lawyer, she championed for a more open, accessible world. Her career has now progressed from legal advocacy toward design. During her talk, she shows how unproductive and unhelpful it is to think of designing for users with disabilities as a matter of "making an accommodation" for a particular group. Because when we design products for the disabled, everyone benefits.

Artisans of every stripe—from poets to chefs—will tell you that creating within constraints sharpens your focus and forces you to stand outside your original plan and examine it from a new perspective. It forces you to consider deficits in your original design that perhaps until now nobody even considered.

Roy invokes an anecdote from early in her design career. While studying for her master's in social design, she became interested in woodworking. She discovered that her peers would know when a tool would backfire because it would make a unique sound just beforehand. Roy, of course, couldn't hear the auditory warning. As a result, she designed the Pitch Alert Safety Glasses that could respond to changes in pitch, translating the aural cue into a visual signal.

Pitch Alert Safety glasses designed by Elise Roy

Pitch Alert Safety glasses designed by Elise Roy (source)

"Why hadn’t tool designers thought of this before?" she asks in her TED talk. These audio/visual safety glasses provide a valuable lesson for designers of all persuasions. They are not "better for Roy." They're simply a better design. They provide a holistic solution: safety goggles that double as warning tools, and there's built-in redundancy for the hearing-abled in case the room is too loud. It's an elegant solution arrived at by necessity, and applicable to everyone.

The examples continue: She mentions a potato peeler, which was designed with an improved grip to facilitate ease of use for arthritic people but became universally popular. She observes that text messages were introduced to allow deaf people to communicate via cellular phones, and are now, ubiquitous.

OXO Good Grip Peelers

The grip on OXO peelers was designed with universal access in mind (source)

"What if we started designing for disability first—not the norm? When we design for disability first, we often stumble upon solutions that are not only inclusive but also are often better than when we design for the norm." — Elise Roy

Disabled people are not only model users—you can and should actively involve them in the design process itself. It is reductive and unfair to consider life with disabilities as a hindrance or handicap; instead, Roy argues, they provide one with a different way of perceiving the world.

"I get to experience the world in a unique way," Roy said. "And I believe that these unique experiences that people with disabilities have is what's going to help us make and design a better world for everyone—both for people with and without disabilities."

Designing not only for—but with—the disabled is the logical extension of one of the fundamental touchstones of design: It is necessary to bring together people from multiple disciplines to consider a problem in all its facets and to empathize with as many of the potential users as possible. Collaborating with disabled designers allows your team to expand its multiplicity of perspectives and see roads not yet taken, sniffing out new possibilities to consider.

"Out of the box thinking" is a buzz-phrase that has been hammered into a meaningless pulp—but then what is a disabled designer but someone who doesn't even see the box? It is precisely this new perspective that Roy refers to, with no small pride, as "magic" and "alchemy."

"The energy it takes to accommodate someone with a disability can be leveraged, molded and played with as a force for creativity and innovation," she says. "This moves us from the mindset of trying to change the hearts and the deficiency mindset of tolerance to becoming an alchemist, the type of magician that this world so desperately needs to solve some of its greatest problems."

If innovation and designing the perfect product does not move you, here are some more reasons why it makes sense to design for the disabled.

Reaching new customers

Designing for accessibility (a11y) can potentially expand your customer base by allowing more people to use your products. In the process of creating new accessibility tools, you will possibly develop new, lucrative patents.

A more inclusive product will also help to limit liability for potential lawsuits. Admittedly, "avoiding lawsuits" isn't very inspiring and it's a shame that we've come to consider many of the features of accessibility as nods to compliance with the law. As Roy personified in her own career leap from law to design, designers—not legislators and attorneys—should be leading this charge. Not through litigation and law-making, but with superior design thinking.

Spend now, save (a lot) later

With cash-strapped startups, I understand that it can be difficult to justify the cost of designing for people with disabilities since they make up a small fraction of the user base. Consider that trying to graft a solution for disabled users onto a product after you build it can be far more onerous and costly than designing it from the ground up with the disability in mind.

It's the right thing to do

If you remain unconvinced, there is the boost to your brand from "doing the right thing." Removing the barriers between the user and their objective is not a need limited to disabled users. It's the goal of all great design.

Ephox develops our products with disabilities in mind. Our WYSIWYG editor are built from the ground up to follow the relevant best practices set forth by the WCAG 2.0 and Section 508 standards. We also have built an accessibility checker which assists content authors using our WYSIWYG editors to create content that meets accessibility guidelines.

The accessibility checker is a premium add-on for TinyMCE and as a feature in 2.0. Elise Roy's TED talk reminded me that we need to go beyond the guidelines to involve more disabled users, and designers, in our development process. If you are interested in helping improve web content creation for disabled users we would love to hear your suggestions.

byRobert Collings

Marketing Director (Sep 2015 - Jan 2020), Robert directed a global team of marketers across several timezones, as well as created and executed marketing strategies, and secured several growth achievements include net new revenue +80% and +43% new customer growth.

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