Designing for humans with disabilities

There are many things in life that I take for granted, like the way my body responds to the daily tasks required of it. With little thought, I can make a decision, carry it out, and achieve the result I was hoping for. For example, I’d like to take and Italian cooking class over a weekend, and all I need to do to make this happen, is jump onto Google, find a class, sign up, read the course content and then get myself there; nothing much standing in my way. .

But, what if I was living with a disability? I could be vision impaired and unable to focus easily on a form I needed to fill out in order to pay for the course. I might be confined to a wheelchair and the location of the course was only accessible by stairs.

What if all of the everyday tasks that I take for granted were turned into a series of frustrating challenges. How complex could this make even the most simple of tasks?

An Italian cooking class might never happen because of the frustration experienced by the complexities people living with disabilities are exposed to.

Our Brief

Last year I worked on a project with an objective to assess the capabilities of people with disabilities (PWD) to self manage their National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) funding through the use of technology. My client had a conceptual idea that would help people achieve this and wanted to use the expertise of Syfte to validate his proposal.

So how could we validate something that would be used by people with a wide variety of disabilities ranging from physical to intellectual?

One of the first things I did was contact Alastair Sommerville, a leading expert on sensory design and whose workshop (on sensory design) I had recently attended here at our Syfte office. Alistair said that, “in general, I spend much more time on preparation and priming participants; making sure they are in the right space cognitively to talk about the things we’re interested in”.

So this became an important part of our interview structure, and we quickly discovered that the more comfortable people were with us, the more open they would be to our questions.

One of the challenges we faced in preparing the interviews, was the need to structure our sessions in a way that could easily translate across the various disabilities we were going to engage with. This initially seemed quite difficult, but with some careful planning, we learnt to incorporate, as well as develop some simple techniques into our research.

How we approached the task

A common theme that we discovered, was learning by the use of repetition, so in preparation for conducting our interviews we decided it could be helpful to send out an email to all of our participants outlining what we would be discussing on the day. It was very important that we used language that could be easily understood, so we found that communicating through the use of a written/visual communication practice called ‘Easy Read’ would be a great way of getting our message across to potential interviewees. The idea behind Easy Read is to use one idea per sentence and to also represent this sentence with simplified images where possible.

For example:

Example 1

example 1

Example 2

example 2

This way of communicating would be a great way of implementing an initial ice breaker and could be accessible across all types of disabilities, as well as giving family members and carers the opportunity to participate. We also included photos of the researchers who would be conducting the interviews. The information would also be reiterated to them by our client, who had worked with a section of our participants previously; enabling us to build rapport, as well as familiarity.

When it comes to conducting an interview, it is always important to make the respondent feel as comfortable as possible before getting down to the purpose of questioning. The more comfortable people feel, the more open they will allow themselves to be in the interview.

The research was to be split into group sessions, as well as one-on-ones, and we were to include people with not just intellectual disabilities, but physical ones too, sometimes both! So from the ‘get go’, it was vital that we could connect with a diverse audience. No one should be made to feel isolated, particularly in the group sessions.

Our interviews would start with a fun word association game that was completely unrelated to anything that we were planning to speak about. Initially we were unsure what sort of response this would receive, but it worked really well. Humor and silliness proved great icebreakers and really helped to lower people’s defences.

In addition, we wanted to again utilise the accessibility of Easy Read, so that our questions were written up using a large typeface and then printed onto pieces of paper that we could then stick to the wall and read out as we asked them. Each one was accompanied by a related image.

example 3

We were trying to do as much as possible to connect to the people we spoke to in a way that was easily understood. In some of the larger focus groups we ran, we were lucky enough to have a volunteer available to translate our dialogue into sign language; this was a fantastic addition to the sessions and allowed people with hearing difficulties to easily engage with the entire room.

A potential pitfall was to overcomplicate the structure of our interviews. I had never been exposed to such a wide variety of disabilities and although what appeared daunting at first, came together by keeping our processes simple. A comment that really resonated with me was from a service provider who said “Try and look past the disability, speak to PWD in the same way that you would expect to speak to anyone, and always be respectful of the disability”. After hearing this I became very conscious of how I spoke. The way I communicated may of needed adjusting based on the disability, but the focus of my questions would remain consistent.

An excellent example of this was when I was introduced to a participant who had Cerebral Palsy, was confined to a wheelchair, as well as having high functioning Autism. He was not able to speak and his main means of communication with me was through typing on the keyboard of his small mobile phone. On the surface this might have appeared to be quite a challenging interview, but in reality, all I needed to do was be patient as the interview took more time than others. The content from this was incredibly rich and his mind was sharp and articulate, and didn’t seem to reflect his physical attributes.

The takeaways

What at first seemed to have the potential to be quite a difficult research piece, ended up being an excellent opportunity to learn about a different aspect of human interaction and communication.

The insights that we were able to uncover from this project allowed us to present a strong case to our client. His initial assumptions were correct with regards to PWD generally having a desire to self manage their NDIS funding through the use of technology; they just needed a chance to be heard.

If you’re interested in working with or learning more about diverse audiences, get in touch