Designing with accessibility in mind: a conversation

At TechCrunch Sessions: Justice, we examined the importance of ensuring products are designed to be accessible from the beginning. And how building the expertise of disabled technologists and advocates into the DNA of your company from the start is vital not only to produce better products but also in the pursuit of a functioning and more equitable society.

On the panel were Cynthia Bennett of Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute; Srin Madipalli, who founded accessible travel marketplace Accomable (which exited to Airbnb); and Mara Mills, associate professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University and a co-founder and co-director of the NYU Center for Disability Studies.

On a defining accessibility

Any nuanced discussion on designing for accessibility first requires a definition of accessibility. What do we mean by accessible products and how should founding teams and those involved in designing product frame internal thinking about accessibility.

We learned that on one level the notion of accessibility is very simple: making products that everybody can use. However, from a company-building point of view, it’s also important to think about accessibility from an internal tooling and processes perspective. It’s not enough to have accessible products for your users. If the software tools or ways of working at your startup exclude people with various disabilities, it’s infinitely harder to design accessible products anyway, as prospective or existing employees with disabilities will be prohibited from doing their best work.

There was one other caveat, too: Disability is not an umbrella category, and what works for one group may not work for another. And in fact, some accessibility features or culture and process changes might even be inaccessible to a specific group, and in this sense there isn’t a quick technological fix and you’re done.

Madipalli: It’s just simply a way of designing products and services to make sure that anybody could use them regardless of disability. And it’s a very simple level. And, of course, there are nuances to that, and to what specific things one needs to do in order to achieve that. But at its most basic, it’s just making sure that we design things that everybody can use. (Timestamp: 1:24)

Bennett: Accessibility is not just about making sure that the products that leave the door are accessible, but also the tools and the processes, and the cultures are accessible. So if the products are accessible, are the tools used to create those products able to be used by everyone. (Timestamp: 2:18)

Mills: It’s important to remember that access technologies are not inherently accessible themselves, whether we’re talking about software or a physical ramp, they have to be affordable, they have to be discoverable, people need to know that they exist, they often require training to use… they have to be employed in welcoming settings, the culture has to be there too. (Timestamp: 3:04)

Mills: Disability is an umbrella category, and it’s really internally diverse. And we sometimes see access efforts that work for one group, creating new forms of inaccessibility for other groups. And I think that’s been really true in this moment of video conferencing where certain tools like Zoom work for certain groups and then they don’t really work that well for deaf and hard of hearing people or they haven’t before automated captioning became available. So just keeping in mind the diversity of disability and the diversity of access needs. (Timestamp: 3:51)

Medical and social models

Entrepreneurs like to fix problems, they’re wired that way. But what is the “problem” you’re trying to solve. This is where it’s useful to take the time to understand different models of disability, namely the medical versus social models.

The social model, which has overwhelmingly been adopted by disabled people themselves, says that a person isn’t made disabled by their medical impairment alone but by the way society is often arranged, including how the world is designed but also the societal attitudes toward people with disabilities and the barriers to inclusion this creates.

This means that disability is everybody’s problem and that the solution is to fix society, not the individual.

Mills: Disability activists in the 70s, were pushing back against what you just said, they’re pushing back against this dominant medicalised perception of disability, that they called the medical model, which imagines disability only as a so called defect or a disorder, something that requires a cure (Timestamp: 6:19)

Mills: According to the social model of disability, the intervention required is not medical, and it’s not individual, it’s a matter of social justice. So things like new architecture, new designs, new laws, new software. (Timestamp: 7:27)

What’s the right time to begin thinking about accessibility?

If you’re a founder or product team aiming to bring a new product or service into the world, hopefully by now you’re already wondering when the right time is to start thinking about accessibility. The answer, of course, is now. If there’s pushback within your organisation, you’re missing the opportunity to build a best in class product and remain competitive in just the same way that you wouldn’t neglect things like being mobile-friendly, security or designing for privacy etc. And, of course, leaving money on the table.

Bennett: It’s never too early… If we say no to accessibility, which sometimes might be said explicitly, and other times it might be said implicitly through the technologies we design not being accessible, you are kind of deciding that a swath of humanity is not going to be able to use whatever you’ve developed. And that to me should never be okay. (Timestamp: 9:38)

Madipalli: It’s an opportunity rather than a problem, it is something that actually, if it’s baked into the very beginning, and it’s seen as part of the workflow of building a product, doesn’t have to be of a different challenge. (Timestamp: 12:32)

Madipalli: It’s really important for founders to not see this as a problem to be solved, that this can be something that is just part of making our product or service kind of usable by our customers and delivering a great customer experience. And, and again, at a fundamental level, a startup can only survive by building a product that customers like, and I would see making sure the product is accessible is central to that in the first place. (Timestamp: 13:26)

Nothing about us without us

The need to involve disabled people in the design process, both as internal employees but also externally, was a recurrent theme of our discussion. “Nothing about us without us” is a political slogan used historically by the disability rights movement and its simplicity acts as a useful reminder of the importance of co-design. And while the aim of accessibility is simple, in practice designing for accessibility is nuanced and can often be imperfect. Luckily, our panelists shared a number of practical tips, such as using flexible language or feature or disability aid specific when recruiting for user testing.

Mills: Nothing about us without us is like this century-old political slogan that was taken up by disability activists in the 80s, and the 90s. And if you think about that phrase, initially, the goal behind it was inclusion, and self representation. So like wrenching discourse about disability away from rehabilitation specialists who weren’t disabled and centering disabled people in discussions of disability. (Timestamp: 14:57)

Bennett: Part of bringing everyone to the table is recognizing that we all come to the table with histories. And it’s likely that when we work with people, they’ve probably tried to solve the problem that we think they have, in many different ways. And so sometimes, that is amplifying a solution. Or sometimes it’s recognizing there might not be a solution. But we’re here to listen, and design can be kind of an amplifier of this tension or conflict that is probably unsolvable. But that we can kind of chip away. (Timestamp: 17:53)

Bennett: People with disabilities need to be in all positions of power in these processes. They’re both people on the inside, but you know, also people who can give that fresh perspective from those of us who might be on the inside and remember, kind of outsider or more diverse perspectives.
(Timestamp: 18:37)

Bennett: I am a disabled person, and I’m very proud of that identity. But not everyone who experiences discrimination based on the way their body or their mind works, uses that language. So often, when I’m trying to talk to folks, I’ll use terms like chronic illness or impairment or mental health condition or the deaf community. And so I try to have educated myself and I’m still learning about the different words that people use. (Timestamp: 19:00)

Bennett: When you’re looking to reach out to folks I also sometimes specify the type of interaction I’m looking for. So for example, you might recruit blind people to kind of take part in a design process with you, when really maybe what you’re looking for is people who use screen readers or people who use Braille or people who use magnification. Being specific about the interaction technique or accessibility feature can help you make sure you get the more specific group that you’re looking for. (Timestamp: 19:36)

Madipalli: It’s really important to make sure disabled people are at the table in that decision-making process, from the more kind of entrepreneurial or the industry perspective, it also just makes really good sense to make sure that the people that you are building solutions for help you co-create those solutions in the first place, just as a fundamental efficiency. If you’re trying to make your product better for disabled people, you can do that so much better if disabled people are helping you build that in the first place. (Timestamp: 20:17)

How do companies avoid paying lip service to accessibility?

Talk is cheap, so how do we avoid just paying lip service to accessibility? The answer is deceptively simple, have accessibility be “non-negotiable from the top down”. That includes resourcing accessibility efforts properly and incorporating it into performance reviews. And by doing this from the get-go, you have the opportunity to build an inclusive design and company culture that can scale and will last.

Bennett: [By] putting material commitments and money toward this, having accessibility be non-negotiable from the top down, I’ve talked about kind of incorporating it into performance reviews, like when people are being great allies, and are incorporating accessibility, that should count and there should be consequences when that’s not happening. So I’m really into like, putting the power and the money and having consequences when it’s not happening. (Timestamp: 27:36)

Madipalli: There are decisions that can be implemented from the get-go, that does create a more inclusive culture from the beginning. And when you do have that buy-in from the very top from the beginning, this doesn’t have to be the afterthought. And if it is there from the beginning, hopefully that is embedded. And as the company and organization scales, this is just something that is ingrained into into the organization. (Timestamp: 28:42)

You can read the full transcript from this session here.