I was 12 years old when I first saw the word accessibility. I had a Windows XP PC and I loved exploring all of the menus and settings.
I didn’t have any games installed and had no internet, so instead, I’d spend hours finding the perfect screensaver, drawing in Paint or opening every possible program to see if there was anything fun hiding within.
One day I was exploring the Accessories folder that contained a subfolder called Accessibility. I remember feeling very confused and asking myself: What is Accessibility with a capital A? The word was too abstract to mean anything to me at the time, and the options inside contained unfamiliar icons and names like Accessibility Wizard, Magnifier, Narrator, and On-screen Keyboard. I was seeing all of this in Italian, my native language, which made everything even more confusing.
In my explorations, I learned that a keyboard could appear on-screen and be controlled with a mouse. You could turn your cursor into a magnifying glass to see the pixels that made up each word and the UI. Most important, I learned you could activate high-contrast mode to turn your screen into The Matrix and pretend that you were a hacker doing very secret hacker stuff.
These were pretty exciting features for a young person to discover, but I just couldn’t understand why they would be tucked away, under such an abstract menu title. Why someone would want to use an on-screen keyboard, a magnifier, or a narrator?
Accessibility stuck with me as I grew up. I saw it over and over again while I attended university, when I started my first job, and at every job since then. Piece by piece, I began to understand the meaning of accessibility until it fully clicked while I was working for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. At the time, I was designing apps that were meant to help veterans and their families recover from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and live a healthier life. In this work, we focused on their needs and designed for access tailored to their constraints. I learned that behind the term Accessibility, there were people with real and unique challenges. The focus was on people all along, but we were using a term that was abstract, frequently misused, and sometimes ignored.
From then on, my goal was to focus on people. I began by working with blind people to design a wearable device that would allow them to experience the world in a new way. I connected with some amazing members of the accessibility (often shortened to a11y) community in the Bay Area to learn how I could support them through design. I worked with psychiatrists and patients with mental health issues to develop coping apps for war veterans. I failed a lot to learn a lot. I had to recognize my own biases and work through it to finally see and understand the people-centered solutions when designing for accessibility. Through this work and various projects, I’ve become an advocate for designing accessible products for people and feel that I should share some of the things I’ve learned with the creative community.
As I navigate designing for accessibility, I have learned to center the work around real needs. Let me introduce you to some not-so-imaginary friends and the products they use every day. These personas are inspired by real people I’ve met, and I keep them in mind whenever I’m designing something:
- Low vision — My name is Lauren. I’m 75 years old, and my grandkids gave me a new phone for my birthday last year. From time to time they ask me to try new apps, but the text is so small that it’s really impossible for me to read. I can use the rest of the features perfectly because the text is really big and it only has one button to go back, which is easy to find with my fingers even when I don’t have my glasses on.
- Color blindness — I’m Carlos. I’m 14 years old, and I’m color-blind. I love sports and video games. I always play online with my friends, but sometimes they say things like “Take the green one, and I’ll take the red!” without knowing that green and red are hard for me to differentiate. It makes it tough to enjoy the game. I like it when apps and games use very clear icons to tell me if something is wrong. If they only make the text red without icons, it’s hard for me to understand right away.
- Hearing loss — Hi, my name is Hannah. I live in New York, and I’m partially deaf. I’m a big movie fan and wish I could watch movies in theaters, but if they don’t have subtitles, it’s really difficult for me. Fortunately, all the apps I use have very good subtitles, whether it’s casual videos on YouTube or movies on Netflix.
- Limited mobility — Hi, I’m Luke. I’m a veteran, and I use a wheelchair because the left half of my body is paralyzed. I have a computer at home, but using a mouse has become a really complicated task. I like to use the Tab button to scan through websites until it ends up on the thing I’m looking for. Not all websites support this, but I’m so grateful for those that do!
I use these stories to center my work around the needs of real people. Reference points like these can help you identify your users, create personas, identify their struggles, and find solutions. Often when designing for accessibility, we tend to rush to identify the requirements we need to meet in order to just check a box. I want you to challenge what you know about accessibility and try to dive deeper into the topic, rooted in real-life needs.
Ask yourself, why do we need to contrast the text? Why do we need to be thoughtful about color and font size? What do I know about color blindness? What other disabilities are we overlooking? What can I learn from people with disabilities that would make me a better designer and ultimately a better person? As designers, we have a responsibility to create safe environments for all users to thrive in. How we do that is up to us, but always remember that accessibility is about more than just the contrast ratio — it’s about people.
The internet is full of resources to learn accessible design practices. I encourage you to explore and find the ones that resonate most with your learning style. Here are some of my favorites: