Designing for Inclusion: Learning from the Ability in Disability

When we analyze our designs for disability, we spend so much time looking at the “dis” in disability and not the “ability” in it. This is because this is what the word is about - a lack of something. Indeed, the Latin prefix “dis” means “having… a negative or reversing force.” When we do this, however, we are missing valuable insights that can be gained by also looking to people with disabilities’ abilities.

In reviewing resources on inclusive design strategies, many articles examine how to conduct a needs analysis or cover evaluation techniques. The inquiries are into what capabilities are missing for people with disabilities to complete a specific task or to have a specific interaction take place.  But there is a gaping hole for research and techniques both into how to use their enhanced abilities (due to their disability) and into how we can use their adaptations and problem solving skills as design tools. Yet this is where some of the most valuable design insights can be gained.

First, many people with disabilities experience enhanced abilities because of their disability. For example, a blind friend of mine delivers speech after speech without any need for notes and hardly any prep time. She’s able to do this because her disability has created an exceptional ability - memorization. These are memorization techniques that many of us would never even consider if we did not ask. Think of how powerful these techniques could be to the design of algorithms for machine learning. Or perhaps they could also be used by web designers to create better information architectures to reduce memory strain on their users.

Second, people with disabilities must constantly problem solve and adapt to a world that is not designed for them. This information on how they adapt can lead us to design solutions. I “hack” my apps’ functionality to enable me to do things that the app was not designed for. This may involve mixing two different apps’ capabilities or figuring out how to modify an app to use it differently than its intended purpose. For example, I use a speech to text voice recognition app that was designed to be used in business meetings to transcribe sound clips on the web. It’s an awkward affair as the app works best by having a microphone placed right next to whomever (or whatever) is speaking. This requires me to hold my headset over my computer speakers (which can get quite uncomfortable after some time). But if the apps creators researched into how people were using and adapting their apps for different purposes, they would see ways to make their app apply to a larger market.

These two points also highlight the importance of using participatory design with people with disabilities. Participatory design is when we include people with disabilities not just as testers and people to observe but also as active contributors to the design stage of the process. Bringing people with disabilities in at this stage of the process is valuable because they will be able to see and make connections that we otherwise would never make. 

Hopefully soon there will be more research into the best methods for designers to use to ensure that they get insights not only from the negative part of disability but also from the positive part. Until then, to ensure you benefit the most from designing for disability, make sure you look beyond the “dis” and into the ability of those with disabilities.