Disability-Minded Design

Before my cousin passed away, his arm was amputated and he was left to figure out creative ways to approach his old habits and hobbies. He quickly figured how to manipulate his video game controller with his toes, and soon thereafter discovered a one-handed game controller, which offered continuity–an opportunity to enjoy his favorite video games under the new circumstances.

Ever since childhood, I’ve been interested in the ways that products, buildings, websites, and processes are adjusted and rebuilt to accommodate those with disabilities. From walk-in bathtubs and talking crosswalks to knee walkers and chair yoga for seniors, I have always been fascinated by inventions that cater to disabilities. It is incredibly easy to focus on creating something that meets my own personal needs, but accessibility design requires perspective and extra layers of research.

The consideration of disability in design can be divided into two primary areas: inclusive design and accessibility. While inclusive design considers from the very beginning how something might be easily useful and enjoyable for as many individuals as possible, accessibility traditionally involves making special considerations for people with disabilities. Assistive devices fill the gaps left by exclusionary design practices, whereas inclusive design aims to evolve products beyond their conventional definitions, permanently altering out standards for products.

Simply put, accessibility design removes a barrier for disabled individuals, while inclusive design strives to fundamentally redesign a product so that the barrier does not exist in the first place. Assistive technology is reactive. Inclusive design is proactive.

By considering the disabled, we make products that are more intuitive for everyone.

Several years ago, I read an article about how the brand Tommy Hilfiger was releasing adaptive, disability-friendly clothing. I was deeply moved by the initiative years ago, and was thrilled to learn that it’s still going strong. According to the brand’s website, “For one in five Americans living with disability, something as simple as getting dressed each day can be a challenge.” They have thus designed modifications such as adjustable hems, one-handed zippers, side-seam openings, adjustable waists, and magnetic buttons to make the fashionable designs much more disability friendly. So, this is an example of accessibility design–something designed with certain disabilities in mind.

“When we design for disability first, you often stumble upon solutions that are better than those when we design for the norm.”

Elise Roy

Though the currently accepted standards of tricky buttons, snug pants, and lace-up sneakers work well for much of the population, it’s possible that offering loosely fitting clothing with simple closure mechanisms could extend its benefits beyond just the disabled. By considering the needs of certain minorities, we open up imaginations to the possibilities of boarder-scope application. The consideration of accessible design can be expanded and evolved into new ways of implementing inclusive design.

Perhaps the standing desk that was designed for individuals with sciatica pain can also benefit those able-bodied individuals who simply don’t want to sit quite so much. What if the coding game that was intended for children with ADD is simplistic enough that computer-illiterate adults can easily learn complex concepts, enhancing their skill set and employability?

“Questioning assumptions means taking what you think is true about your users—for example, that they’ll appreciate your funny, quirky copy, or that they’re sitting at home comfortably scrolling your website on a big screen—and then asking, what if the opposite is true?”

–Sara Wachter-Boettcher

What if your user isn’t interested in your brand’s story or the choice of ten different colors? What if all they’re looking for is a product that works, for themselves and their family?

The simpler a product, interface, or process is, the easier it is to use for all kinds of users. Thus, the key to inclusive, disability-minded design is to do a little and do it well, to benefit as many people as you can.

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