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Designing Inclusively: Creating accessible digital spaces

April 01, 2020

Eliza Lim
Office Volunteer, SFU Public Square

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University or SFU Public Square, or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

This post was originally written in December 2019 before the author completed an interactive design project with the Wavefront Centre for Communication Accessibility. The need for accessible spaces online has become even more apparent in the time of COVID-19 and Eliza has offered to write a follow-up post based on what she has learned about designing for people who are hard of hearing, deaf or deaf blind.

Technology in Our Day to Day Lives

After hitting the snooze a couple times on my phone’s alarm, I start my day browsing Facebook or Instagram before checking Google Maps to see if my bus is on time, then throwing on my latest Spotify playlist and rushing out the door. Only 45 minutes after waking up, I have already interacted with five digital applications, roughly one application every nine minutes.

Whether at home, work or even on vacation we’re in a constant conversation with our devices.

My routine appears to be common: 73% of Canadians spend at least three to four hours a day, and one in eight Canadians spend eight hours online every day. We send messages, check our email, peruse social media, shop and keep on top of current events. These digital experiences are convenient and beneficial for many, but they have moved many essential and non-essential services into the digital space and away from the physical. This impacts the kinds of services that we can access, the information we can receive and the actions we can take. 

What happens when these digital experiences aren’t accessible to people of varying abilities? Inequality rises. In response, design communities have developed the concept of Inclusive Design.

Equality in a Digital Space, What is Inclusive Design?

Inclusive Design is “design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference” according to the Inclusive Design Research Center at the Ontario College of Art and Design.

But the prioritization of inclusive digital design can easily be forgotten or considered a secondary priority in the world of tech.

To illustrate what non-inclusive design looks like, let’s reconsider my morning routine for someone who is vision impaired and relies on a screen reader to interact with their devices. A screen reader verbally reads out all the text and any descriptors of images on a webpage before the user decides what to press. As many apps and websites are not optimized to be screen reader friendly, this could easily add 30-45 frustrating minutes to someone’s morning routine. Imagine trying to pay an urgent credit card bill, only to find out that you couldn’t access the log-in form because it wasn’t compatible with your screen reader. Or what if the screen reader is unable to interact with a transit application and you miss your bus? 

Or what about ordering a commonly loved comfort food, pizza?

In 2016, Domino’s was sued by a blind man who could not access their online service with a screen reader. They claimed that they didn’t need to make their interface accessible for those who are blind or vision impaired. He stated that this violated his rights under the Americans with  Disabilities Act

While it may just be pizza, Dominos’ inaccessible service means potentially excluding 49 million Americans from using their platform. Their actions could set an example for other companies which may threaten to remove the fundamental right for those with disabilities to access digital services. 

These digital interfaces and services should be designed to accommodate all levels of ability as a baseline. This is especially important as our quickly changing technological world may leave this portion of the population behind, leaving them unable to engage with essential services.

As an aspiring user experience designer, this had me thinking. What role do designers have in creating ethical, accessible and inclusive digital products? Why is User Experience design important and how does technology influence how this functions? 

What Should We Do to Help?

I believe that this is an issue that should be addressed by all parties involved: designers, the public and companies. 

As a student, I find it difficult to balance learning the technicalities and details of how to design inclusively and what resources to use. This can result in inclusive design being pushed aside in class projects and group settings when a deadline is quickly approaching. I would love to see new ways to integrate inclusive design practices into course material and my design education. 

Looking forward into the working world, I want to better understand the role that inclusive design holds in the field, how I can better implement these practices into my work and how to create more conversations around this topic for people outside of the tech and design community.

We should support the rights of people with permanent disabilities within our communities. Our society was not built with them in mind, but you’d be surprised how even the smallest changes will make the world of a difference for them, and for everyone. “Designing for people with permanent disabilities actually results in designs that benefit people universally,” writes Microsoft’s Inclusive Design team.

You and everyone else should have the right to use and interact with any application, regardless of your abilities. So, be curious about the technology you use and express your concerns when you can. As a designer, it can be difficult to advocate for change in design if opinions and stories are not shared. Going forward, I hope to be empowered by the voices in my communities to include and address their many voices into the products I design and create. 

Resources

If you’re a designer, or employer in tech looking to implement inclusive design methods, you can take a look at resources like: 

https://www.microsoft.com/design/inclusive/

Or how to make your digital applications more accessible: 

https://www.ontario.ca/page/making-government-services-accessible

https://www.w3.org/standards/webdesign/accessibility

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