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Reader question: How can I help my team understand disabilities?

3 minutes read

Neil asked:

I work as a UX designer with a bunch of developers in a team. Every time I talk to them about accessibility and disabilities, I get blank stares and crickets back. I can't get through to them. To be honest, I'm a bit confused on disabilities and the more I read, the less I feel I know. How can I help my team, myself included, understand disabilities?

Let's break it down.

What are disabilities?

With over 15% of the world's population experiencing some form of disability, it's safe to say everyone knows someone with one. They just might not be aware of it, since not all disabilities are visible.

Usually when developers think of disabilities, they think of the most extreme cases people who are completely blind, completely deaf, or in a wheel chair. And while extreme cases certainly exist, they aren't a big percentage of the 15%.

You're asking the wrong questions

With all the different types of disabilities, there's no way for you to somehow "experience" them yourself so you can directly relate and empathise. I've seen (and tried) to do the most extreme experiments. I've tied a piece of cloth around my eyes and tried using websites with a screen reader. I've done no mouse days, where I refrained from using the mouse and only relying on my keyboard.

Trust me, you'll end up frustrated and angry, and not necessarily because of the inaccessible websites. But because it's something new and way out of your comfort zone. The few minutes you will last with a blindfold on will not give you any sort of understanding of what a blind person goes through every day.

I've never learned how to swim (and can't to this day). But if I tried to learn, I certainly wouldn't get together with other people who can't swim and say "alright, let's figure this out!" I'd go to someone who has the technique down.

Ask better questions

And you'll get better answers.

  • How does a blind person use a computer to navigate websites?
  • What tools does a person with dyslexia use every day?
  • What's it like for a person who can't use their arms to browse a website?
  • How do you use dictation software to fill in a form?
  • How does the lack of accessibility impact people on a day-to-day basis?

The best way to get answers to these questions is to speak with people with disabilities and learn from them how they tackle these challenges every day. Invite people with disabilities to talk to your team. Involve users with disabilities in your UX testing process to see how they use your own product.

Now you're learning to swim with the fish.

The key is, you shouldn't try to understand disabilities, but to relate to people. People care about people, not about abstract concepts or memorising a list of conditions.

The last thing I will say is that no one expects you to know everything about every disability. But having the courage to ask, be curious, accepting, respectful and to take this seriously is non-negotiable.

Did you enjoy this bite-sized message?

I send out short emails like this every day to help you gain a fresh perspective on accessibility and understand it without the jargon, so you can build more robust products that everyone can use, including people with disabilities.

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