The Impact of Accessibility: Exclusion, Opportunity, and the Need for Inclusive Design
The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies 4% of the global population as being visually impaired. About 1 in 4 people in the United States alone have some type of disability. More than 6% of the world suffers from deafness or hearing loss. When I first started doing research for writing this article I was shocked by the statistics. I discovered that more than 1 billion people worldwide need additional accessibility to engage with technology. These numbers will only grow due to the rise in noncommunicable diseases and people living longer.
Despite the fact that disability affects so many people, many of those experiencing disability still remain excluded from fully participating in social and economic opportunities due to the lack of a proper physical environment and technology infrastructure. As problem solvers and creators, it is imperative for us to create inclusive experiences that cater to the diverse needs of all users.
What is Accessibility?
Disabilities can inhibit people from fully interacting with technology. No two users are the same. This is where accessibility comes into play. Accessibility is the measurement of a user’s ability to use a service and the extent to and ease with which they can meet their goals. It is about making information available to everyone, regardless of their capabilities or situation.
Sudhanshu Kanth , Senior Designer at Dimagi – As a designer, I need to consider and correct for user diversity in order to create accessible designs. It can be for the wide range of abilities, backgrounds, cultures, and preferences among users including users with disabilities such as visual, hearing, mobility, and cognitive impairments. When I design, I also need to think about users with different language skills, literacy levels and cultural norms before I can publish a graphic.
Let’s take color blindness or color vision deficiency (CVD) for example. It is a very common form of disability which affects around 1 in 12 men. In spite of how common it is, a significant majority of products and infrastructure do not adjust for CVD when being designed. When I first started out as a designer, I too was guilty of not accommodating assets for CVD. However, as I started designing for more users and taking feedback fon my work, I soon realized the importance of inclusive design. Now, whenever I finalize an asset I check for colors, contrast and textures to make sure that people can now view my designs without a problem.
If you’re not sure if you have CVD, you can take a quick test to check.
But why do we need to be accessible?
The knock-on effect of inclusive design and accessibility is that nearly everyone benefits. Apart from making sure that my service is reachable to all audiences, accessibility also has many business benefits. Studies have shown that accessible design enhances user satisfaction, loyalty, and retention.
Thinking proactively about inclusion drives innovation and can save time and effort in the long run as retrofitting accessibility features to an existing design is often time-consuming and costly.
I feel that it is also an ethical responsibility to create products and services that are inclusive and do not discriminate against individuals. A well thought-out offering ensures that no individuals are excluded or marginalized due to their disabilities.
Fun fact: Did you know that text messages were originally developed for people living with hearing impairments so that they could use cell phones to communicate?
Similarly, at Dimagi, we’ve been designing and iterating CommCare (our platform for impactful frontline work) with a focus on making it usable for everyone – regardless of internet access, literacy levels and other barriers. And as a result, CommCare was able to beat out competitors in the market during Covid-19 in part due to the user-friendly nature of our solution.
Error State in Form Fields: Which one is easier to decipher?
How do we design inclusively?
For me, understanding the diversity of my customers is the first step towards accessibility. This informs my decisions and allows me to cater to as many individuals as possible. I also check for the following functions in my design:
- Perceivable: Can the content be consumed in different ways?
- Operable: Can it function without confusion and without the use of a mouse or complex interactions?
- Understandable: Can a user understand how the user interface of the site functions and the information on the site?
- Robust: Can different assistive devices (screen readers, for example) understand the website?
Another skill critical for accessibility is empathy. By putting myself in the shoes of users with disabilities, I can better understand their needs and create designs that suit them.
A good example of accessible design is when Apple’s team realized early in 2005 that using a touchscreen device might be difficult for visually-impaired customers, and developed the VoiceOver screen reader in response. The screen reader was popular and earned Apple a commendation from the National Federation of the Blind. It also paved the way for smartphone softwares to keep accessibility at the forefront when being designed.
At Dimagi, we have always believed in inclusive design and our rebranded color palette was chosen with accessibility top of mind.
Can AI help me in designing for accessibility?
After using Dall-E 2 for design inspirations, I started wondering about how much of a role Artificial Intelligence can play in improving accessibility. Turns out it’s a lot! AI has the potential to significantly impact accessibility by providing innovative solutions that cater to the needs of users with disabilities. Technologies such as machine learning, natural language processing, and computer vision can enable designers to create more inclusive experiences by automating tasks and making intelligent recommendations.
For example, AI can be used to automatically generate alt text for images, provide real-time captioning for videos, and create personalized user interfaces based on individual preferences and abilities. It can also help designers identify and address biases in design by analyzing data and patterns that may perpetuate exclusionary practices.
Accessible design is all around us— from the spectacles that I wear to accessible sidewalks to braille lettering on elevators. Le’ts find inspiration in these designs and build towards a better future for all of us.
While it may not always be possible to design one product to address the needs or goals of the whole world, we have to strive to find the balance between successfully serving customers and trying to help as many people as possible. Designing for accessibility may not be easy, but it is undoubtedly worth it.
*Please note that this section has been written with the help of ChatGPT
Accessibility in design resources
Here are some resources I often use to help improve my designs. I hope you will find them useful: