How we do our work matters: Accessibility and Inclusive Design

Written by: Derek Featherstone

Many people use accessibility and inclusive design as interchangeable terms. However, they are not the same thing. Accessibility is an outcome, and inclusive design is a process. As an outcome, accessibility is a thing that we measure — how well does a digital asset meet technical requirements such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines? How easy is it for someone with a disability to use? Can people with different disabilities complete tasks? Truth be told, you can achieve accessibility as an outcome in a lot of different ways:

  1. You can make something accessible by accident.
  2. You can design it, build it, find out it isn’t accessible, and then go back and fix it all at once.
  3. You can make a thing that is not accessible, realize the error of your ways, and then create a completely separate version of that thing that is accessible.
  4. You can release it, and then repair it, bit by bit, eventually ending up with something that is accessible.

All of those can result in a thing being accessible. But, exactly NONE of those require you to ever talk with, consult, or even test your solution with people with disabilities. Yes, that’s right. You could make a thing that is accessible without involving or including people with disabilities at all.

HOWEVER… You’d be very wise to include people with disabilities in the design process itself.

We call that inclusive design.

If you want to practice inclusive design, you MUST:

  • work with people with disabilities to explore the problems you’re trying to solve
  • talk with people with disabilities about a variety of possible solutions
  • engage in workshop activities to co-design and co-create solutions to the problem
  • ask and observe people with disabilities to find out which accessible solutions might be most valuable

There’s more to it than that, but ultimately these activities are NOT optional if you want to practice inclusive design. If you haven’t done them, or things like them, you’re not really practicing inclusive design.

Why? I’ve been saying this for a number of years, and others have too. We should be designing WITH people with disabilities, not FOR people with disabilities. Note the use of the word people — that’s plural. Not just one person with a disability. People.

When you’re engaging in inclusive design, you should include people with different disabilities. You should do this throughout the creation process, not just once at the end of the process in usability testing. And you should do this as often as you can, for every product.

And when you engage in this process and you learn a lot, you’ll get to a point where you think “We know enough about that group of people now, so we don’t need to ask them…” And that is the moment that you need to reframe things. Because you started to think you knew all there was to know.

This isn’t about knowing all the things there are to know. This is more about learning what there is to learn. And you’ll never run out of things to learn. Technologies change, people change, paradigms change. Never stop learning.

“We know enough about [disability X] so we don’t need to include them any more” is dangerous thinking.

Practicing inclusive design is not foolproof. You’ll still make mistakes. You’ll forget to include some people with certain disabilities. You’ll wish you’d started interviewing people with different disabilities earlier. You’ll take shortcuts because you already know some things. That’s all ok — you’ll be better and more inclusive next time.

Overall, inclusive design is a very effective process that goes a long way to helping you achieve the outcome of accessibility. The process is inclusive, respectful, and demonstrates that we value people with disabilities rather than tolerate or accommodate.

And in today’s society/world, I’m a believer that HOW you achieve the outcome you’re after is just as important as achieving the outcome.

(Article originally published on Linkedin)