My boyfriend was shot when he was 15. His spinal cord was damaged, resulting in paraplegia (he can’t use his legs). He uses a wheelchair and is about as independent as anyone.
When my Dad met my boyfriend, he said this: “My girlfriend had knee surgery a few months ago and had to use one of those scooters to get around. It was really challenging, so I get it.”
My Dad thinks he’s empathizing in this moment, and we both know his intentions are good. But every time someone responds to my boyfriend’s disability this way, it’s really frustrating.
When people empathize, they often outsize their experience. They assume because they have experienced something like a temporary disability, they have insight into the disabled experience.
But a temporary disability is fundamentally different from a permanent disability.
Breaking your leg will make you more acutely aware of things like stairs. But someone with paraplegia due to a spinal cord injury deals with that every day for a lot longer than a few months.
And more significantly, that person is impacted by things like:
- Repeatedly having to do extra work for everyday things like buying tickets to a show (to ensure accessible seating) or boarding a plane (to ensure assistance getting down the aisle)
- Affording an adapted vehicle that costs twice as much as a standard car
- Finding a home that’s accessible or that they could afford to make accessible
In conversations like the one we had with my Dad, empathy matters — but it’s not about you. Instead of turning a conversation into an opportunity for you to prove you “get it,” use moments of empathy to listen. Then do something with what you learn.
Designing for Change
Last year, I decided take what I’ve learned about the importance of intentionally creating inclusive experiences to expand my own ability to design better products. I wanted to:
- Ensure my work works well for a spectrum of people in the real world
- Build the muscle of designing inclusive experiences from the start
I’m a person who loves creating structure to facilitate understanding, so I wanted to create a tool to give an actionable framework for the idea of “empathize and be more inclusive.” And since this needed to be lightweight for my fast-paced team, I created what I call “No Edge Case Cards.”
I thought through a few categories I wanted to actively consider more often. Here are some examples of cards from each of those category (you can see the full list here):
- Grew up low income (identity and background category): How would my products (which include making non-essential purchases) feel for people who didn’t grow up in an environment with disposable income?
- Nonverbal (environment and body category): Can someone who is nonverbal use my product? Does it require a phone call?
- Spotty wifi (technology category): How does using this product feel if I only have access to poor wifi? How many pages or images have to load?
- Repeat customer (product-specific category): Does my product feel right for someone who makes purchases with this business on a regular basis? Will they feel recognized and valued as a loyal customer?
- Limited cash flow (role-specific category): Does my product work for a business owner managing a very limited cash flow? Will they feel confident and secure about how they’re spending their time or money with my product?
I used these cards for the first time for a team bug bash, and I ended up filing the most valid bugs and improvements. It helped me see issues I’d otherwise overlook, and made thinking of these use cases more natural the next time I built something.
Want to make your own set? The doc is open for use (feel free to share), and you can copy it to add use cases that are important for the specific people you build for. Share your ideas in the comments!
Remember: this is a useful step for building inclusive design muscles, but it is just a step. Make sure to combine exercises in empathy with quietly listening to people with lived experiences.
Lastly, design inclusively because you seek to design for everyone. Not because you feel sorry for people. Not because it makes you feel good. Not because of the (significant) economic impact.
Do it because everyone deserves equal access to this world and the good things in it.