We all need accessibility features, whether we know it or not



January 18, 2019

crowd of men, women and children holding hands

I do a lot of drawing on my computer and I enjoy it. It is also a part of my job. Like a lot of people in 2019, my work is mobile. My tools go where I go. As great as that is, there is a huge problem. On my laptop, you have to press on the trackpad with a fair amount of force to do something like drawing a curve in Adobe Illustrator. It is really aggravating. Did I find anything helpful in the trackpad settings? Nope! The solution, it turns out, is in accessibility settings. Enable dragging without drag lock and I’m off to the races!

I’m certainly not unique in taking advantage of accessibility features that I supposedly don’t need. It turns out that there have been a lot of things that were initially created for people with a disability, and they're are now ubiquitous in our daily lives.

Many things designed for people with a disability are used by us all every day

  • Your potato peeler was originally designed for people with arthritis
  • The curb cut makes navigating sidewalks easier for us all
  • Text messaging was originally developed for people with hearing difficulties
  • Predictive text was originally an accessibility feature

By solving accessibility problems, we have come up with solutions that benefit us all in very practical ways. A big part of accessibility is about removing barriers. It’s important to keep in mind that barriers come in all shapes and sizes. They also come and go throughout our lives.

There is a tendency to think of a disability as a permanent thing. Sometimes it is. Often though, the barriers we face are temporary, or situational. You may find several times in a day where you benefit from an accessibility feature that you don’t need under a different circumstance a few hours later. You may have had your hands full and used the wheelchair access button to open a door. On a crowded bus, you read the subtitles in a video that were intended for people who have difficulty hearing. I often find myself tabbing through websites because it is more ergonomic for me to keep my hands on the keyboard.

Examples of permanent, temporary and situational disabilities

Disabilities can be permanent, temporary or situational

As people move through different environments, their abilities can also change dramatically. In a loud crowd, they can’t hear well. In a car, they’re visually impaired. New parents spend much of their day doing tasks one-handed. An overwhelming day can cause sensory overload. What’s possible, safe, and appropriate is constantly changing.

- Microsoft

These temporary and situational barriers are important to keep in mind. We have a responsibility to talk to our clients about the big picture of accessibility. It can help put things in perspective.

Accessible design is beautiful design

We are human and we typically experience the world through our own set of biases. This has come up often when making decisions about web and other multimedia projects, usually related to cutting costs on a project. “Oh, we will forego the subtitles on the animation, most of our users don’t use them”. Statements like this are unethical, and wildly inaccurate, being based on biases instead of research. You can be pretty much guaranteed that at some point people are going to need to use some accessibility feature of your product.

The value we bring when we make our digital projects accessible is value for everybody. It strengthens our communities by making them more inclusive. We are sending a message to everyone: “yes, I care about you and I value your participation”.

We need to be mindful of accessibility when we design things. Tools we build have to be usable and our information, comprehensible for everybody. There’s a spin-off benefit to this. Accessible design is a good design, it’s so much more than a WCAG checklist. It can be graceful, beautiful and functional. Building websites that every member of our community can use, benefit all of us.

This is part one of a three-part series we will be doing on a Barrier Free Canada during January 2019.

  1. A barrier-free Canada is for everybody! Things to consider before your next site launch
  2. We all need accessibility features, whether we know it or not
  3. Inclusive design is a moral responsibility