Abled-Privilege and Accessibility

Do me a favor and go to Twitter’s page to sign up for a new account. Now go to your kitchen and put on a pair of oven mitts, sit down at your computer and close one eye. Try to sign up for a new account by only using the tab button but imagine you don’t know the location of the cursor.

If you’re newer to web design and you’re working on a freelance job, a common client question is, “When a form or link is clicked, an outline appears around the edges. Can we get rid of it?” to which the response is usually, sure.

If you don’t know, this is an accessibility issue, and it’s important to pay attention to. My personal connection to this issue is my dad who is disabled. He’s wheelchair bound and has limited use of his hands. So when we set

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:focus {
    outline: 0;
}

and don’t provide an alternative way to establish focus, it makes it almost impossible for a disabled individual to navigate a page using the keyboard. Many similar accessibility issues aren’t at the top of the list for web designers (and people in general), especially when you are first learning to code. I’ve termed this as abled-privilege.

When I walk up a flight of stairs, I’m rarely grateful to have working legs. I read at night in bed on my iPad at a normal font size and never ponder about how lucky I am to have perfect vision. Or when I browse through the pages of codepen.io, I don’t think about how hard it would be to use a touch screen if my hands didn’t work. It’s normal to think this way 90% of the time and it doesn’t make us bad people but we take for granted our non-disabled lives. Sometimes people act as if they earned it, when the fact is they were merely born that way. My perfect eyesight is not a result of hard work. It’s just there. However, if I were atom-for-atom my dad, I’d be disabled too. This is abled-privilege.

Accessibility is very important to keep in mind when we design ways to access content on the web. For example, my dad’s vision is affected by his disability so he uses enlarged text on his phone. I have noticed a lot of websites don’t properly format in this situation, probably because it didn’t cross the designer’s mind. He’s also sensitive to movement on the screen. Is there an easy way to stop a slider or keep the page static and still? This is also an important question for those who have motion sickness. Disability doesn’t have to just mean a guy in a wheelchair. Keep in mind individuals who are sensitive to bright screens, who can’t see monochromatic colors very well. Are there solutions to address these issues? What about those who are blind? Is your page structured the best way possible to optimize their experience when they use a screen reader? I’ve been guilty of not thinking about some of these questions too, but we should try our best to have their web experiences the same as the non-disabled public.

While there are many options for the disabled to browse the web, we should talk with disabled individuals and get an honest assessment about their experience with usability. In my experience with my dad, a lot of products designed for the disabled don’t work very well. I don’t think this is deliberate. People truly want to help, but there is a big disconnect between what manufacturers think the needs are of the disabled and what the disabled actually need.

My dad’s handicapped accessible van is a great example. They provide a way to get in and out efficiently but once you’re in the van, there isn’t an easy system to secure a scooter or wheelchair. There are rods in the floorboards to tether a scooter but this process takes a long time and is impossible to do on your own, especially if you are disabled. Asking someone who can’t use their legs to bend down and hook straps to the floor just isn’t reasonable. It would make sense to create a scooter attachment that clicks in and secures it from moving around while driving. What “scooter-attachments” can we come up with for the web?

We may not be able to solve every accessibility issue, but like the web itself, we can always improve.

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