Designing with accessibility in mind means including people who experience disabilities in all stages of the design process. It is easy to assume they are not part of your target audience, or worse, that there might only be one or two people and therefore not worth the investment of time and resources. People who experience disabilities are absolutely part of every target audience and must be included from the beginning of the design through the entire lifecycle of digital products for your solutions to be and remain accessible.
“Disability is studied; people with disabilities have been research resources. More than this, higher education has been built upon such research” (Dolmage 2017). In order to promote social justice in disability studies, it is important to understand “ableism.” Ableism is viewed as the norm. It favors power and privilege in navigating the physical world as well the digital. Ignoring accessibility in design (either unintentionally or intentionally), is a powerful form of oppression. Language becomes important in systems of oppression. Throughout this article, I use the term “people who experience disability” because of the belief that disability is socially constructed. In this belief, the products and environments that ignore accessibility work to create barriers of inclusion for approximately 61 million (1 in 4) people in the United States (CDC). The term “people with disabilities” is commonly used as person-first language. Identity-first language of “disabled” or “disabled person” is also used. It’s important to listen and reflect how someone identifies themselves. The simple technique of listening and honoring how people identify can lead to a more inclusive world.
Although there is not one source credited for “Nothing About Us Without Us” becoming the mantra of the disability community, it became more widespread in 1998 when James Charlton named his book Nothing About Us Without Us, Disability Oppression and Empowerment. In the book, Charlton compares disability oppression to that of racism, sexism, and colonialism, as he provides one of the first overviews of theory in a global context. Since 1998, the Internet has famously grown and infiltrated our lives in the first world. I cannot imagine being able to complete a workday without it. And yet, with over 70% of U.S. websites designed and developed inaccessibly (covering all industries from for-profits to not-for-profits), it is difficult to complete seemingly simple tasks for those who experience disability.
In 2016, a blind man named Guillermo Robles, sued Domino’s Pizza because he could not order a pizza using his screen reading software. You may be thinking, “Why didn’t he just pick up the phone and order?” According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law in 1990, this may or may not be considered “equal access.” It is up to the legal system to argue. In fact, the ADA does not allow for creating a more accessible Internet. It actually encourages only the bare minimum legal standards be applied. In this case, Domino’s Pizza didn’t even meet minimum accessibility standards for its website or app.
Domino’s is just one of the 70% of inaccessible websites. Their site was not designed or developed to work with assistive technology. While this may not have been intentional, the impact of ignoring the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and not fully testing for accessibility and usability created a barrier to use. Functionality was breached. In the Robles case the site did not work with a screen reader, and therefore inaccessible.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that Domino’s needed to make its website and app accessible in order to provide equal access; meaning, their physical locations (falling under public accommodations requirements of the ADA) and their digital experiences should match. In October 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Domino’s petition of the ruling, thereby upholding the lower court’s decision. People who are blind or experience other types of disabilities deserve to order pizza. It’s a civil right. This includes any means a company makes available to the general public including websites, apps, home assistants (such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant), smart TVs, kiosks, smart watches, cars, and social media. Did you know there were so many options for you to order a pizza?
Are you using the Slack app? You can order Domino’s Pizza.
Driving home from the kids’ soccer game? Tell your car to order Domino’s Pizza.
Feeling like Dick Tracy? Tell your watch to order Domino’s Pizza.
Former CEO of Domino’s Pizza, Patrick Doyle said on numerous occasions, “Domino’s is a tech company that sells pizzas.” During his tenure, QSR reports Doyle, “increased its share price more than 2,100 percent while returning $3.4 billion to shareholders.” This is important not only because Domino’s Pizza has now taken the lead as the largest pizza retailer in the U.S. (as of 2019 when it surpassed Pizza Hut), it identifies as a tech company first. A tech company that has produced, and continues to produce, inaccessible digital products. This is just one example among millions of inaccessible digital products. It’s significance has not yet reached the masses.
Bridging the gap between digital access and compliance is a critical need. Designers and developers of digital content wield a lot of power, and this power can be dangerous if real users (including people who experience disabilities) of these systems are not brought into the design process at the beginning of a project. Too often, testing with people comes too late (or not at all), and we are left with mediocre designs that are not accessible.
Last summer, I was part of a team that interviewed several tech firms offering services in web design and development for Iowa State University. We created a request for proposal (RFP) that encouraged companies to apply to bid on contracts, telling us what areas in which they specialized, and asked several other pertinent questions.
Our intent was for the procurement department to then invite companies to campus, and assign contracts to several as approved vendors for the university. This vetting process allowed us to offer several different vendors for all departments on campus to utilize for future web design and development, hosting, and user experience. On a large campus, this means departments are spared the tedious and long process of vetting companies one-by-one for each project. This process identified several key strengths of each company for future matches to be made.
We included the following areas on which we would award contracts:
○ Ability to meet specifications/requirements
○ Quality of references and past experience
○ Data security practices and compliance
○ Exceptions taken to the RFP terms and conditions
○ Hosting, support and training capabilities
○ Development practices
○ Areas of specialization and staff expertise
Of the eight companies we invited to present on campus, six made it through our process and received contracts as service providers. Included in our contractual language is much attention to the above listed areas including accessibility. We expect each vendor to outline their processes for creating and testing accessibility in their products. Iowa State University has established a procurement process to include our university culture of “accessibility in mind” to create and procure products that are “born accessible.”
During our interview process, we found we needed to educate each company on our expectations of accessibility and define a process to follow. None of the companies included testing with users beyond their own design and development teams, even when claiming focus on user experience. Each and every company admitted to not testing their products with people who experience disabilities and did not feel it necessary to manually test beyond common automated accessibility tools and browser plugins. Only one company talked about their attention to underrepresented groups in their design and user-experience process. However, their underrepresented groups did not include disability, nor accessibility testing. Another company openly blamed their clients for not wanting to pay them to produce accessible solutions, and expressed they needed to learn more about accessibility and perhaps we could teach them.
After we made clear our expectations for accessible products, all eight companies seemed open to testing with users who experience disabilities if we were willing to help them. All asked us to provide a pool of users for which to test their products. They did not offer any discount on their services, or payment terms for us to conduct this work for them. We then challenged this as potential exploitation of students who experience disabilities as free labor for their expertise with assistive technologies and ability to offer recommendations.
Accessibility should not (and cannot) be an upcharge. Yes, I believe that tech companies need to be compensated for their work, their time, and their ideas. I also believe these companies are to be held responsible for inadequate and poorly produced products that do not achieve full compliance with WCAG 2.1 AA. If the industry continues to view accessible design as an add on service, then it’s no wonder we are still producing 70% of websites as inaccessible and incomplete.
When inclusive design is done well, it can be innovative, creative, and growth fostering, not to mention it can make a positive economic impact. For design studios and tech companies, a simple/easy start to prioritizing inclusive design is to hire people who experience disabilities as full time employees. I would recommend more tech firms and design studios actively recruit people with myriad disabilities that have expertise in using assistive technologies in their daily lives and pay a fair wage. The unemployment rate for those who experience disability hovers around 10% nationwide and is approximately three times higher than the general unemployment rate.
Including digital accessibility standards as evaluation criteria is a must for design educators. Teach Access is an organization that connects academia with industry to promote advocacy through education. They provide many curricular resources for including accessibility in the classroom. The Teach Access Tutorial is available freely and includes resources related to writing code and design principles. Going further into inclusive design in industry, Kat Holmes author of Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, writes about designed objects as mismatches between person and environment. She describes how designers create products designed for people, instead of with people.
Search the AIGA Design Teaching Resource for inclusive design and accessibility. Helen Armstrong, Associate Professor of Graphic Design at North Carolina State University, specializes in many areas related to accessibility, such as experience design and user experience. Her Accessible Interface Project is a stellar example of inclusive design with accessibility in mind, using experimental methods and includes space for exploration. The project incorporates machine learning based on predictive algorithms and asks students to gain introductory knowledge of these systems.
Finally, it is our collective responsibility as design educators to educate ourselves in areas of ableism and how we have contributed to non-inclusive design. Reading articles and books by people with disabilities can be incorporated into the curriculum of design programs, as well as evaluation criteria for design projects based on accessibility best practices. If not us, then who will do this work? Below are some resources and references to get started.
Inclusive design for communication technology considers digital accessibility through a comprehensive set of guidelines called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The current version is 2.1, with version 2.2 to be released early 2021 . Entities receiving federal funding must include reasonable accommodation (or equal access) as stated in sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0/2.1 are not legislation, however, they adhere closely to the federal legislation with particular attention to digital accessibility. WCAG 2.0/2.1 includes all screen-based design (apps, websites, self-service kiosks, and smart TVs, are among the most widely used).
Cyndi Wiley is the Digital Accessibility Lead at Iowa State University and former Associate Professor of Art & Design. She is a person who experiences disabilities and is frustrated when encountering inaccessible designs, often turning to humor and parody to point out this disparity. She began her career in the late ‘’90s in St. Louis, Missouri, working as a graphic designer and creative director, running a business, and developing a deep love of cats. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art from the University of Missouri-Columbia, Master of Fine Arts degree in Graphic Design and a PhD in Human Computer Interaction from Iowa State University. She resides in Des Moines, Iowa, with her partner, two dogs, and four cats.