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BIMA Breakfast – Digital Design for People with Physical Disabilities

by Sean Greally | 17.05.2023

Did you know the vast majority of digital services and products continue to fail basic accessibility requirements? WebAIM Million’s March 2023 discovered 96% of the top one million web pages still fail to satisfy WCAG¹ (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). Digital services and products exclude over a billion people, with an estimated 16% of the world’s population living with a disability². 

With this in mind, how can we deliver genuine accessibility and inclusivity through digital products? 

Last week, Tug Agency and BIMA (British Interactive Media Association) hosted a breakfast panel to discuss designing for people with disabilities. The panel featured UX experts;

Striving to educate digital marketers on ways to make design more inclusive and accessible, BIMA invited audience members to ask how exactly they can improve their digital offering. Here’s what the audience wanted to know: 

What examples from your everyday life as a person with a physical disability highlight the issue of digital accessibility, both from a beneficial and negative perspective?  

Yahye Siyad answered and explored how assistive technology has transformed her life by providing accessibility to all kinds of mediums that were originally inaccessible. Siyad did also mention how the abundance of touch screens is also a negative: making simple tasks more complex. Swedish magazine Vi Bilägare (We Car Owners) discovered that car touchscreens are actually worse than buttons through a series of tests, pitting 11 cars against one another. 

What are the biggest practical challenges to getting accessibility right in digital specifically and businesses generally?

Speaking about the challenges posed by different cultures, habits, and behaviours, Paul Bepey explained how people are used to doing things a certain way, and businesses need to rethink their approach to drive accessibility. 

Meera Rao also identified several key blockers, including people working in silos. Some developers might not be confident working with accessibility tools at first, so be sure to speak to your people and be open to changing how you work. 

The panel also delved into how brands sometimes fail to truly understand disabilities and the power of choice. Insensitive memes such as the Alt Tag Twitter joke, adopted by brands like McDonald’s and RedBull, undermine visually impaired individuals who rely on Alt Text to understand the content on visual-heavy platforms. 

It’s also important to understand there are multiple barriers to inclusion. One person could have multiple disabilities, while another cannot afford assistive technology. Consider this when making digital content accessible.

When discussing digital inclusion and accessibility, privacy and safety are critical, because people with physical disabilities may be more vulnerable. Is this something taken into account? 

Accessibility and security should go hand-in-hand. According to Paul Bepey, it’s shocking that disabled people often can’t expect the same level of security afforded to those without a disability. Speaking from personal experience, Yahye Siyad emphasised how this shouldn’t be the case. Disabled people should always be able to experience accessible and secure tools.

Are there other common preconceptions about disability that need changing?

There isn’t just one disability. There are different types of disabilities, and people need to be able to select tools that work for them. A common misconception is that designing accessible and inclusive services is expensive. Often, businesses view accessibility as a must-have, but if they can’t afford it, then it isn’t a priority. Companies like this need to shift their thinking. 

Businesses should build assistive technology and tools from the ground up, not retrofit as you go. Making accessibility an integral part of the design process will save money and ensure it functions properly.

What practical things work to embed accessibility into digital design and practice, as well as create a culture of accessibility? 

There needs to be a societal mindset shift. We need to prioritise accessibility and inclusivity, making it everyone’s responsibility to change the behaviour and approach of a team. For an internal team, the introduction of an agency to introduce new ideas can be a good idea.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is quite pervasive right now – what do you think its impact on accessibility will be? Also, how can we avoid repeating the same mistakes from the past?

AI has plenty of potential, and businesses should explore its options. For example, if it can adopt mundane but essential tasks, such as writing alt-tag descriptions, then it can be a useful asset in developing accessible web pages. 

What principles and practical actions can designers and businesses take to ensure accessibility in their work? 

People resonate with stories that feel familiar. The more relatable we make accessibility and inclusion, the more people will get behind it. Take a fun and creative approach when creating these tools – there’s no need to be formulaic. On a practical level, always consider the following: is your product perceivable? Operable? Usable? Robust? Above all, nothing is unfixable; with dedication and investment, you can make products inclusive for all. 

If you want to learn more about the speakers, follow the link. 

All photo credits go to BIMA.