I usually begin this conversation with two quick thought experiments. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to introduce them to you now. Stop reading, get up from your computer, and go grab a sticky note and a sharpie. I mean it! I’m a designer, these are the biggest tools of my trade.
Got it? Great. Now, sit down, put a 2min timer on your phone, and design a wheelchair ramp. I’ll wait.
All done? If you’re like me and many of the people I do this with, you’ll come up with something like this:
Beautiful. Sometimes, if you’re ambitious, or you’re thinking ahead, you may even add some considerations — Make sure it’s wide enough for someone to comfortably go up? Add an auto-opening door? Guardrails?
Great. Not take that drawing you just lovingly worked over, and crumple it up. Throw it on the floor. It’s useless to you now.
Now, if you’ll indulge me, I’ve got another one for you. Put another 2min on your timer, and grab a fresh sticky note. Now, I want you to design a better way for both wheeled and walking people to enter a conference hall.
How did that feel? Even when I’m not doing this with designers (spoiler: designers aren’t the only ones with ideas!), I get much more interesting responses:
Robot arms! Beautiful garden entrances! Swoopy ramp-stair hybrids!
How did that feel? What differences did you notice in those design prompts, and how they inspired you to work? I like to note a few crucial differences between the two prompts:
The first prompt tells you what to do. The second prompt gives you the desired outcome, empowering you to decide what you will design.
The first prompt gives you an object. The second prompt gives you a user and a need.
With three words — “wheeled and walking” — the second prompt offers you a range of access needs and an idea of the breadth of people who will be using what you design. It also, of course, centers the humanity of a person using a wheelchair, not the object.
These subtle differences vastly improve the quality of design work — or at least, imagination — that comes out of the two prompts, even just in quick, 2-minute sketches.
They also teach us a crucial truth: it is not enough to just be accessible. As we make things for real human beings, out in the world, we have to beware the “compliance” mindset. That’s how we get some really bad ramps that no one really uses — or maybe, are even able to use.
I’ll give you some examples of what this looks like in the real world. Consider this image:
According to compliance standards — i.e., the first prompt — this is accessible! A wheelchair can use this to enter a building. But it’s also terrible — hard to find, difficult to navigate, potentially dangerous, being so out of the way...it’s not a terribly appealing option for anyone.
In contrast, consider this building:
In blending the stairs and the ramp, kadawittfeldarchitektur (the very German architects who designed this) made it so that any access to the building is easy to find and use. This turned out to be helpful not only for people using wheelchairs, but also for new moms with baby carriages, commuters on bikes or scooters, and all manner of different people and transportation styles. By accounting for the breadth of needs, they created something far better than focusing on one thing.
There’s another thing about this design that I want to point out. Do you see it? It’s not only much more usable — it’s beautiful. One of the most insidiously dehumanizing things about a compliance-minded approach to accessibility is that beauty is taken completely off the table. But beauty is so core to the joy of being human. Beauty cannot be a privilege of the able-bodied.
So why is it like this? If you look at the world around you, you’ll begin to notice many aspects of our physical built environment is horrendously inaccessible — or accessible, but horrendous.
Le Corbusier’s Le Modulor | Image from Icon
Let’s talk some history.
In the early 20th century, a famous French modernist architect named Le Corbusier created the fictitious character Le Modulor—an able-bodied man, of what he considered “average” height and dimension, around whom Le Corbusier believed standardized design should revolve. Le Corbusier went on to be hugely influential to modern architecture, particularly the universal modernism of the 50s, when New York and Chicago were being developed.
As a result, whole cities were designed by the able-bodied men on which Le Modulor was modeled. This false “default” created cities where citizens can’t access their courts of justice, or get to their money, or sometimes, even, get off of the street. The old broken medical model of thinking says that these people are somehow impaired, but the reality is that it isn’t the people who are impaired, but the environment that was never built for them in the first place.
You can understand the response: protesters took to the streets, smashing curbs with sledgehammers to make curb cuts for themselves. One group of activists went out pouring concrete in the middle of the night, building access ramps for themselves under the cover of darkness.
Protesters smashing a curb to protest that lack of access to sidewalks.|Image from the City of Portland
Even in just this small example, the hard work these activists did to create spaces for themselves benefited a wide variety of people, from travelers rolling their suitcases down the street to catch a cab to the airport, to parents strolling a neighborhood with their kids, even to those cool / controversial rideshare scooters we’re starting to see everywhere. Full inclusion is better for all, not just a small subset of people.
But much like the people above who were being shut out of services from their environments, people are being shut out by the digital environment as well. The same “default” style thinking and a lack of knowing how to address different access needs have led to a bleak digital world. Ever tried to pay a traffic fine online? How about petitioning for your rights? Court and civic service systems are notoriously impossible to navigate. The consumer world is hardly better — Morgan Stanley recently updated their banking software in such a way that made it unusable by a blind man, resulting in a lawsuit — and they’re not the only ones.
People smashed curbs to demand the access they deserve.
It’s time to do the same with inaccessible software.
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