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3 December 2021

Accessibility is not a feel-good activity

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Hippo

My first Teacher for the Deaf in primary school knew only very basic British Sign Language. It was his job to ensure that D/deaf* pupils received equal education to their hearing peers. But he only knew the alphabet and some colours. Unsurprisingly, he was not very successful.

My local audiologist (doctor for deaf people) shouts out their patients’ names at the beginning of appointments. Let that sink in. A doctor for deaf people shouts out their deaf patients’ names. Occasionally, for good measure, they also get annoyed when no-one responds as if we are the simpletons.

And how are D/deaf people required to get in touch with audiologists to make appointments? Yes, you guessed correctly — good ol’ telephone. The same applies to GPs and a whole host of other healthcare services.

When I did work experience for a charity for deaf people, not a single one of the department’s employees were D/deaf or hearing impaired. D/deaf people needed to be supported by capable hearing people. That was the whole premise of their jobs. Removing barriers through design so that a D/deaf person can become autonomous and unreliant on charities? No, thank you. We’ve got jobs to keep.

These are just some examples of why I know accessible and inclusive design is important. My D/deaf and disabled peers and myself have been dealing with the matter all our lives. It is what makes me care about the how.

So just imagine my surprise when I enter the user research world, fresh faced and perhaps a bit naive, it turns out trying to convince people why we should design accessible services is considered a part of the UCD job. Personas, empathy training, slide decks with screenshots of the WCAG homepage, fun quizzes to guess how many disabled people are in the country, and finally, the one that bugs me the most… moral arbiter quotes such as ‘Be kind… It’s the right thing to do… Empower disabled people…’

Controversial statement incoming… trying to persuade people to be empathetic and design accessible products because it’s the right thing to do is tiresome and quite frankly, in my opinion, a waste of time.

  1. It indicates people with impairments are deserving of pity and the quality of their service is a moral choice, as opposed to treating it as a constitutional procedure required by law. (Hello, Equality Act 2010!)
  2. It makes the assumption shareholders and stakeholders need to be convinced or ‘made aware’ of the importance of accessible design in the first place. Either through personal experience or someone we know, we are all aware of the negative effects of barriers created by design.

In my experience, most people are good people who have nothing against accessible and inclusive services and are all for it. They just don’t know how, nor do they have the means, time or motivation to find out.

Only so much can be achieved from changing a person’s viewpoint if they can’t do anything with their newfound perspective.

Wouldn’t people be more likely to design accessible services if it was common knowledge, embedded into the process and easy to do? Don’t we, as UCD designers, have a primary duty to put in place a legislative and administrative framework of procedures and guidance designed to provide effective deterrence against excluding groups within our society?

If we invested more time in creating and implementing these frameworks and pragmatic accessibility training courses detailing the how, and less time with the empathy and accessibility awareness training courses, wouldn’t we see more constructive change?

There are many progressive and innovative organisations out there who are doing exactly this. For example, the Accessibility Manual by DWP. This is a framework created by the DWP community which covers:

  • Accessibility law
  • Guidance on how to incorporate accessibility depending on your job role
  • Best practices for accessibility testing, design and development, ways of working and creating documents
  • Tools and resources to help improve the accessibility of your product or service
Screenshot of the guidance page in DWP Accessibility Manual
DWP’s Accessibility Manual ‘Guidance for your job role’ page

Guidance is important and so is the follow-up. An example of this would be NHS Test & Trace, which creates checklists for front-end developers to go through to make sure they’ve covered all angles from a technical accessibility perspective and that the codes are marked up correctly. Additionally, following up by conducting audits and acting on these audits in a timely manner (and not sticking it on the backlog to die) is crucial.

Another invaluable part of the how is ensuring user research is conducted with a range of participants with access needs and that usability testing includes assistive technology. As a people-centred design consultancy that place users at the heart of our service and work on multiple government projects, this is something Hippo does a lot of. It is also why we are developing our Centre of Excellence for Inclusive Design.

In the same way we fill up our cars with fuel and pile our trolleys with groceries — not blinking, or wondering why — we should treat accessibility the same. It is something to be done, not something up for discussion.

*The Difference Between D/deaf and Hard-of-Hearing https://www.ai-media.tv/the-difference-between-d-deaf-and-hard-of-hearing-2/

Special thanks to Kate Every for being an accessibility brainbox and Ben Webster for being a content wizard.