Umbrella and empty wheelchair overlook the ocean on a cloudy day.
philosophy, Writers/Editors

Why Universal Design?

Accessibility is a life-long interest of mine, starting with the more obvious physical barriers of automatic doors, wheelchair access, and alternative computer input technology. In more recent years, I’ve expanded my critical eye to areas where I had inaccurate assumptions. When it comes to websites and office documents, I’ve found there’s a lot of room for improvement.

I come from a journalism background and learned all the standard tricks for a visually appealing layout. But often this type of design is difficult for screen readers to follow. Alternative text for graphics is something I was sadly unaware of for a very long time. My tendency to use utilitarian designs has yielded documents and web pages that work well for people with ADHD or an autism spectrum disorder, but I’ve failed my visually impaired audience many times.

We can’t rely on luck. Accessible design should be embraced as a philosophy that is applied to any project.

My first big job as a freelancer involved putting together a procedure manual for grant staff. Using interviews to find out what would be most useful, I settled on three outputs: hard copy, interactive pdf, and website. Providing the manual in only one output would have made the end product useless to a significant percentage of users.

This process parallels the argument for universal design. Why put in the effort to create a manual that only works for half the staff? Why create a website that only functions for neurotypical, able-bodied visitors with good vision and hearing? A diverse society has diverse needs, and failure to include accommodations for all members can send a message that not everyone is valued or valuable.

Because needs aren’t universal across all abilities and disabilities, there will be cases where more than one version of the end product will be required (ie: audio for some but print for others). It may be a little extra work, but it’s worth it if we’re going to be a society that includes all its members regardless of how differently our bodies or brains may work.

For some excellent basics on designing websites for your entire audience, check out the UK Accessibility in Government blog article “Dos and Don’ts on Designing for Accessibility.

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