When we begin to look at the issues surrounding accessibility design, I believe we should start by challenging the most recent Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design. These are essentially the bare minimum requirements for accessibility in design, as maintained by the United States Department of Justice. They are not updated very frequently—the last major revision was in 2010. This is the first fault, as in our ever-changing field of design the standards are simply failing to keep up. This is especially applicable to web and application design. As an example, I present the New York Times website from Sunday, March 21st, 2021, and from ten years ago (Monday, March 21st, 2011):
Okay, the 90’s monitor might be a slight exaggeration, but the standards of web design have changed drastically in the past ten years. It wasn’t until 2010 that responsive web design was first named by Ethan Marcotte, and it wasn’t until 2012 that Chrome overtook Internet Explorer as the most used web browser. The web has grown and shifted, and we aren’t growing with it. The WebAIM Million, an annual accessibility analysis of the top 1,000,000 home pages, shows that 98.1% of home pages had detectable WCAG 2 failures, including low contrast, missing alt-text, empty links, missing form labels, empty buttons, and missing document language. As this is not an exhaustive list of possible accessibility errors, it is fair to say that less than 1% of website home pages are likely to meet accessibility standards.
While I will be criticizing these standards as I do honestly believe they are not doing enough to uphold accessibility standards, it is important to first acknowledge that the reason they are so important is because they provide the minimum standard of accessibility that is required by our country’s law. There have been multiple lawsuits involving the ADA Standards—notably, a 2019 lawsuit involving the Domino’s pizza chain. They were sued by Guillermo Robles, a blind man who was unable to order pizza on their website or mobile app using screen reading software. His attorney’s argued that the ADA requires businesses with physical locations to ensure their websites are accessible to those with disabilities, and Domino’s took the lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court, who ultimately ruled in Guillermo’s favor.
I would make the case that Domino’s was interested in setting a new weaker standard for the entire industry by getting the Supreme Court to rule in their favor, which begs another question—wouldn’t it benefit a business operating under capitalism to allow more people to use their website to give them their money? Either way, one thing is abundantly clear—Guillermo Robles and his lawyers were correct in arguing that the ADA Standards were in their favor. This protection is truly important to disabled people’s rights, so it is important to me that it upholds a stronger default.
So what does the current default look like? Let’s examine it together:
The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design is a 275 page document—an amount of pages no creative will realistically read and take to heart. It could be argued that the legal department of a business would be responsible for understanding and upholding these standards, but many design firms do not have such a representative, and many companies expect that their contracted designers will have completed all of the work for them. This document is so hard to use, in fact, that the ADA provides a separate Guidance on the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design document for those who simply want to understand the changes that have been made—a document that is 165 pages in length.
Bear with me—I know this is a lot.
There are ten full chapters in this document. Much of the documents focus on spatial design rather than visual design. Thankfully, ArchDaily put together a brief guide on how to use the ADA Standards for Accessible Design (and yes, this tomb of a PDF genuinely requires a separate guide on how to understand its text if you aren’t familiar with this brand of legal text). I will be heavily paraphrasing from their write-up.
And that’s the end of the document. Obviously, this is a lot. It’s understandable that a document attempting to create equal access for people would be this long, but it is not written for the average person to be able to understand and follow its guidelines. This is not a good way to enforce standards, and is honestly rather elitist in itself both in length and language. The first two chapters manage to say very little while still taking up 67 full pages. The very notion of a chapter that assists you in reading the rest of the document is not accessible for many people—both those without higher education as well as those who speak English as a second language (or not at all).
If you require a higher education and mastery of the English language to understand a set of guidelines, they will not be universally applied. Long-form legal text relating to those without a law degree should be supplemented by a more digestible document that covers the basics, and it should be available in more languages than just English (even if made available with the understanding that the original English text is what would be used in any legal disputes). As is, the barrier to entry for this document is pretty high.
I also don’t really like the standards. Here’s why:
In Chapter 2: Scoping Requirements, Table 208.2 shows that only about 2–4% of a given property’s parking spaces must be reserved for accessibility, decreasing as the general parking increases. This may seem like enough to anyone who has not experienced needing an accessible parking space, but my family has often struggled to find parking for my brother on busier days.
In Chapter 7: Communication Elements and Features, much of the focus is on Braille—a language that is not read by most blind people. I’ll touch on this topic further at a later point.
In both Chapter 8: Special Rooms, Spaces, and Elements and Chapter 9: Built-In Elements, we see quite a few excellent considerations! Auditorium and theater seating, accessibility in hotels and public transportation, space requirements for checkout aisles and food service lines, and even equal access to the courtroom and holding cells. All good, simple accommodations. So why does my brother struggle so often? It is not uncommon for him to be unable to utilize a checkout line, or to navigate a store due to aisle width. Handicapped theater seating at our local theater requires exactly two tickets to be purchased—one for the disabled party, and one for someone who will be accompanying them—meaning that he cannot go to see a movie by himself or with a large party if he wishes to utilize the provided accommodation. Some of these are simply not enforced, and others are not truly accommodating to someone who wishes to move and live independently of external assistance.
Based on this, it’s easy to argue that the standards aren’t strong enough, and even when they are good they are applied inconsistently at best. At this point in the discussion, I feel unqualified to comment too much on how this inequality can affect someone by my own merit. I would like to take a step back and allow someone who is recently disabled, my brother, to tell his stories for a brief moment. He has been in a wheelchair since the end of 2017, and until then he lived for 19 years as a fully abled individual. A lot of the inspiration for my degree project was from my experience assisting him and talking with him.
Written by Zachary Poole, edited by Ashton Poole
The number of times that I have had to work around legally required accommodations that were not in place shows that the government doesn’t enforce ADA Standards nearly enough. It reminds me that the people who designed those spaces don’t care about people like me. A good example is the theater at my community college, where I often work the soundboard for play productions. The ramp to get on the stage is sloped in a way that is hard to ascend in my wheelchair, yet the college claims that it is handicapped accessible. One day I tipped and fell out of my chair and onto my back. While filing the accident report with campus safety, my teacher and I measured the ramp and found that it is about 50% steeper than it is supposed to be by ADA Standards. That is incredibly dangerous—I was in pain from the fall for a few months afterwards. Having slopes like that is fine for an abled person, but marking it as handicapped accessible is dangerous.
Speaking of theaters, the movie theater at my local mall has caused me many problems, both due to the theater itself and the attached mall. The ticket ordering system that the employees use treats the accessible seating like an afterthought, as Ashton already discussed. When we’ve asked managers to allow us to buy one seat, they said that the ordering system in place literally will not allow them to sell an accessible ticket by itself, and that there is nothing they can do. I am not able to go and watch a movie by myself without paying double, despite being physically able to do so. Another time when my family went to watch a film, we parked on the ground level of the mall and took the elevator to the theater on the second floor. Once the movie was over, we learned that the mall had started doing construction in the food court overnight, which was the only way back down to ground level besides the stairs. A theater manager had to unlock the gate to let us out through the mall because the only solution the theater staff could think of was to make us go through the hard-hat required construction zone—a hazardous route. If the theater made me feel like an afterthought, the mall didn’t think of me at all.
Since I wasn’t in a wheelchair for the first 19 years of my life, I’ve been able to see both sides of how American society perceives disability. Many either very obviously choose to ignore me, go out of their way a little too much to try and make me feel included, or glare at me in anger, implying that I am in their way. Because I am young, many who treat me with such contempt don’t believe that I am truly disabled. Unfortunately, it also seems that some are just angry that I am.
Shortly after I first started using a wheelchair, I was sitting in my college’s cafeteria and a student came up to me and asked “yo, who’s wheelchair are you in?” I obviously responded “mine,” and this guy just (for whatever reason) thought the best response was “no, that can’t be yours. Your legs look healthy!” I was a bit frustrated at this point I’ll admit, so I responded “it’s a condition that affects my heart when I stand, you idiot.” He obviously felt bad, and the best thing he could think of doing to improve the situation was to ask me questions about my disability to learn. He did come to the right conclusion by choosing to learn more about disability, but it’s still annoying that it fell on me to explain it to him.
As far as I see it, the major problems with how the world is built for people like me stem from a lack of education and general knowledge about disability. Many people perceive disability as being visible where it’s often invisible. If I wasn’t in a wheelchair, people wouldn’t realize I am disabled. Often when getting into my wheelchair from the car, I feel pressured to act like it is difficult so observers don’t see me and think I am faking it, which is ironically fake in itself. Based on reading other’s experiences, I am not the only one who does this. We’ve all seen that one idiot who thinks that they’re doing the right thing by confronting someone publicly who they perceive as “faking it,” and we deal with enough on a day-to-day basis already without drawing unneeded attention.
More discussions about how people can require accommodations without visible disability would help greatly as many of my personal issues with public perception stem from a lack of education and knowledge. Ashton and I have talked about how common it is for people to feel unqualified to design around disability, when that’s simply not true. Designing around disability is the easiest thing in the world to me. If you want to learn how to accommodate for a wheelchair, just use one for a day. It didn’t take long for me to see the flaws in how spaces are designed. I legitimately see every flaw in how a place is designed for wheelchair accessibility instantly, whether it’s that a ramp is too steep, or a space requires an abled person I am with to enter first and ask where the handicapped entrance is located. I am not a designer in any way, and Ashton hasn’t rubbed off on me that much. If I am able to design an accessible space better than people who attended expensive and prestigious design schools could, those schools failed them, and they’ve failed me.
Good design often tells a story. It captures the attention of those around it, sparking discussion from even those who wouldn’t normally care. While it is important that the story of an accessible never becomes more important than the users it is intended for, there is also a certain level of advocacy that can be provided by showcasing the ways we accommodate people. Here are two examples of this that I fell in love with early in my research:
Image Source: MoMA
The ClearRx Medication System was initially conceived by Deborah Adler as her thesis at the School of Visual Arts after her grandmother took her grandfather’s medicine. Her name was Helen, and his name was Herman, so both of their pill bottles had the same name: H. Adler. Her observation was that pill bottles are not designed for the end user, but rather for the pharmacist, and she aimed to create a bottle that communicated clearly who the medicine was for, and which medicine it was.
The end result, a collaboration between Deborah Adler and Klaus Rosburg, was purchased for the Target Pharmacy. It includes all of the most important information in a large, bold font on the top of the prescription label. As a secondary feature, each member of a household can use a different colored ring around the lid of their medicine, to help some people better distinguish their own medicine. As a final measure, individuals who had trouble seeing could request a free magnifying card that slots right into the label of their medicine bottles.
Target advertised the ClearRx system as a feature of their pharmacy, with a slogan that speaks to the story behind it all: “It all started with a strong dose of common sense.”
This design was unfortunately discontinued when the Target Pharmacy was purchased by CVS in 2015. CVS now owns the design, so it seems like it’s over. It’s a real shame, because this was a design that improved everybody’s experience in it’s goal to help those that needed it the most.
Image Source: Eone Timepieces
The Eone Bradley Timepiece was designed by MIT graduate Hyungsoo Kim when he learned that his blind friend was unable to tell the time without using an intrusive talking watch (which alerts everyone else to the fact that you are checking the time), a fragile tactile watch (wherein you raise the glass and feel the arms, which can easily break and shift out of time), or straight up asking a friend. He believed that there wasn’t a good enough option, and that blind people should have the right to discreetly check the time just like everyone else.
The watch uses magnetic ball bearings as a tactile way to feel the time without accidentally shifting or breaking the watch’s internal movement. If the ball bearings move out of place, you simply shake your wrist and they will find their way back to the proper time. A focus of the team was creating a watch that was not only functional, but also able to be worn as a fashion statement like a traditional watch.
Despite the accessibility origins of both of these designs, they effectively work for anybody as both a pill bottle and a watch. To the right person, however, either could be the most important part of their daily routine. These are designs that function exactly as expected, while also telling a story about their creation. The ClearRx system was loved by many (my family included) who did not need the features provided, but found it easier to use. I’ve heard of many who buy a Bradley Timepiece simply because it has such a unique story, and they love to tell it to people when they ask about the unique watch on their wrist. In this regard, successful accessibility design could also be seen as good marketing. I’d like to think that everybody cares about accessibility when they notice it. Advocacy through action, in a sense.
As I hope I’ve shown you, we need to rethink accessibility in a similar way to Deborah Adler and Hyungsoo Kim. We should never be satisfied with how things are, but we should instead look to the future—what things could be.
I’d like to close part one by looking at an example of this utopian future, and proof that it isn’t that far from us after all: a video game that can be fully beaten by somebody who is blind.
The Last of Us Part 2, the long-awaited sequel to one of the highest rated video games of all time, features more than 60 accessibility options. It features presets for vision accessibility, hearing accessibility, and motor accessibility, and allows you to customize every single setting on your own. The game assumes nothing of you, and allows you to make the game work exactly as you need it to work.
Steve Saylor, a blind gamer and accessibility advocate, cried when he first saw how many accessibility settings were available, saying “I was expecting to record a really exciting, hype moment showing the first time I see all the accessibility settings, but basically the second I started up the game, I was hearing a text to speech read off every single accessibility option. To be honest, the floodgates just kind of opened.” The game is so accessible that Twitch streamer and disabled gaming advocate SightlessKombat was able to fully beat the game without any sighted assistance, the first time he’s ever been able to do so with any game.