Part 2: Focusing In

Identifying Faults in Design, Part 1

My ultimate goal with this entire project was to learn how to see the world through the eyes of someone like my brother, who has felt forgotten by it. I’d like to briefly discuss a case study that illustrates this very well: the Robson Square Stairs.

An image of the infamous Robson Square stair / ramp combination. They are a wide set of stairs, with a ramp built into the stairs that goes from left to right at an angle. There are no rails for the ramp, and the steps are staggered to accommodate the ramp’s placement. Image Source: CBC/Radio-Canada

I first found these stairs in my initial visual research into accessible design, and I presented the image in my second week of my senior year. Many people (including myself) were impressed by this design, seeing it as both a successful way to implement a ramp and stairway together, as well as a means to bring further advocacy for accessible design thinking. These were certainly the stated intentions of architect Arthur Erickson, who wished to make public spaces more accessible. I showed the stairs to my brother and he said “there’s no rail.” Immediately the entire illusion of successful design shattered in front of me. This was not just an inaccessible design, but a dangerous one at that.

The “stramp” is a hotly debated topic in British Columbia. (I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I previously fell into the wrong side of this debate.) Local accessibility consultant Arnold Cheng, who advocated for revising these steps, spoke to this debate, saying that “there are two competing camps—people who think it’s beautiful and wonderful and people who don’t think it’s beautiful and wonderful. Quite often, one [camp] is people without disabilities and the other is people with disabilities.” What really got to me with regards to this is that it wasn’t just the lack of rails that Cheng took issue with, but also the lack of contrast between the ramp and the steps. He argues that the steps should include brightly colored stripes to help. He also takes issue with the steepness of the ramp, stating that “you need stamina” to get up the ramp.

Accessibility design such as this takes on the aesthetic of revolution without meaningful action. I can’t speak to Arthur Erickson’s true intentions, but what can be said is that this design seems intent on showcasing how thoughtful the architect must have been, but without actually solving the underlying problem for those affected.

I’ve had a thought since I began my research, that we should be designing for people with disabilities first and foremost. After all, we tend to make things work for us without much effort, so why not start a design by considering those who might struggle to use it the most, make it accessible to them, and only then begin to consider our own needs. The fault in my thinking is that this well-intentioned stair / ramp combo failed to accommodate for accessibility needs on all fronts. So let’s apply my prior thinking to this situation: as my brother said earlier, “if you want to learn how to accommodate for a wheelchair, just use one for a day.” Surely it wouldn’t have been hard to do exactly this on a small ramp made to be as steep as the ones in the drafted design, just to make sure things would work out. I still believe this is a correct approach to design, but with one urgent note—always invite affected users to the table. After all, there should be no question that the architect should have included people who use wheelchairs and other accessibility technology in the design process rather than assuming he already knew what would work.

If you are designing a website, ask somebody who is blind to come in for a user-testing session with their screen reading software. If you are designing a new theater, make sure to get feedback on the blueprints from people who are differently abled so you can avoid the situations my brother has found himself in. While I fully believe in grabbing a wheelchair and seeing how accessible your company’s storefronts are for yourself, that can only work when it is one step in a multi-step design process.

Understanding Someone’s Needs

If consideration of disability is the bigger picture, then making sure our designs work for those who need equal access the most is the obvious progression. The good news is that there are easy steps we can take to make things more accessible, ranging from easily implemented details to radical changes in how we approach design.

The ideal takeaway for any reader should not be to simply follow design rules I create. As I am an able-bodied person myself, I am just as likely to make a careless mistake as architect Arthur Erickson when he invented the stramp. Instead, I’d like to advocate for you, the reader, to begin to take a different approach to accessibility that will aid each project individually. I wish to avoid creating a new flawed standard, but rather to encourage each project to be approached with a single leading question in mind: how will our most disadvantaged user approach this?

The simplicity of this cannot be overstated, and it has directly inspired the methodology for my own degree project’s initial research. I asked myself the question: how would we design a space to be easier to navigate for somebody who is visually impaired? I started by researching the affliction, and I was surprised to learn (as briefly stated last chapter) that The National Federation of the Blind estimates only a 10% literacy rate for Braille among blind people, which means that including Braille is not truly accommodating to most blind individuals. Even for those who can read Braille, how will they know where signage is to begin to feel it? While many believe that blind people cannot see at all, this is usually not the case. Only 18% of people with significant visual impairments are actually totally blind, and even then many can still see the difference between light and dark. It is estimated that only 10% of those totally blind individuals cannot perceive light. On this note, many uses of Braille on signage are embossed onto signs with very low contrast difference to the wall they are printed on, and often the braille itself is not visibly different to the rest of the signage, with the expectation that someone will feel around until they find it.

The knowledge that visuals can still play a fairly significant part in a space for someone who is visually impaired changed the way I thought about this sort of design. I had a theory at this point that using strongly contrasting colors in an environment would be the best-case scenario, or at least one of many different approaches. I quickly realized that the best way to design for someone with significant visual impairment would be either to involve someone who is significantly visually impaired, or to simulate visual impairment myself. Given the current COVID-19 situation, I opted to create a quick demo in the Unity game engine to see if I could use it to effectively simulate visual impairment.

I started by creating a visual post-processing layer that blurs the player’s vision and lowers the contrast -99% (the lowest the engine allows before there is legitimately no visuals left). Here is how that appeared:

A 3D mockup of a grocery store made in the Unity engine. Everything appears grey, with only the most minimal shifts in color to give away the position of signage and aisles. While it is very hard to see these elements, they are technically visible.

While not my first test, this grocery store mockup was a quick and dirty way to visualize signage and navigational elements in a space. Here is the same view, but with my “Blindness Simulator” post-processing layer turned off:

The same 3D mockup of a grocery store made in the Unity engine, but without the “Blindness Simulator” post-processing layer we are able to see it clearly. It's aisles are a bright red, the aisle end-signs are a bright blue, and the typography on the signage is big and rather ugly—but easily legible.

I intentionally set this up to be the worst vision I could manage besides full blindness, and while it’s still hard to see things, they are visible. It’s even easier to see when it is in motion:

A motion gif of the previously shown 3D grocery store, showing the camera "walking" down the aisle to illustrate that it’s a little bit easier to see in motion.

This engine seemed to be working, so I began to think of other ways to implement my design thinking into it. For example, if so many blind people can still see some light, how might we use light as navigation? If I asked you to turn right under the conditions shown below, you might not trust that I’m not sending you right into a wall.

A hallway that splits in two directions, shown using the Blindness Simulator as described earlier. The left hallway is brightly lit, while the hallway on the right is not lit as well, and honestly disappears completely from sight.

How could we use strong color contrast to create more effective navigational signage? Perhaps a brightly contrasting line such as this could lead somebody to a help desk in a store with a complicated layout.

A floorplan, shown through the previously mentioned Blindness Simulator with a brightly contrasting line from the entrance onward, taking a sharp right turn. It is not easy to look at, but it’s definitely possible to see the line.

The above solutions were all created through my Unity experiment. I started to experiment with color, shapes, and light. I would occasionally ask my roommates if they could see elements on the screen (to avoid personal bias, having placed the elements there and being somewhat more familiar with the layout myself). When they could navigate, I knew I was on the right path.

My next step if I was to take this thinking forward would be to begin user testing. I’d turn off the “blindness simulator” post-processing layer and ask people who are visually impared to try and navigate through these rendered spaces. This is a point I will continue to emphasize—never assume you’ve done the job. Until you see the results succeeding, pushing a design out at scale is poor practice (and potentially hazardous).

That said…

Some Basic Rules for Accessibility

This isn’t meant to be a checklist by any means. Every project demands its own accessibility requirements. But certain things are tried and tested enough that I feel comfortable listing them.

A webform where an input asking for the user’s email address was typed improperly. The image is in greyscale, removing the red color that many associate with an incomplete form, yet the viewer is able to see text underneath the email saying “Hmm...that doesn’t look like an email address,” which helps with any colorblind users.

Never use color as the only way to visually convey information. The videogame journalist Mark Brown creates a series on YouTube called Game Maker’s Toolkit, and one of his videos heavily covers the topic of colorblindness and user interface design in video games. I highly recommend you watch this video, because 1 in 8 men, and 1 in 200 women have some level of colorblindness—in other words, roughly 4.5% of the population of earth. An overreliance on color is a quick way to alienate a large group of people. This mistake can be seen commonly in web sign-up forms, where a field is shown in green if it has been filled in properly, and in red if it has not been. Color works as a supplement to another element (perhaps an “x” for an incorrect input and a checkbox for those that are properly filled out), and can fall apart quickly without.

Ensure that information is prioritized over aesthetics. On the previously shown form, what question does “22” answer for, exactly? You see, the labels for this form are set inside the form in a way that disappears when you type anything. This can be problematic for those with mental health conditions that affect memory, such as alzheimers and ADHD.

The same form as before, now shown in color. The “age” input at the bottom is left blank, so viewers are able to see that it is not a separate label from the form (making it inaccessible).

This problem is incredibly common in web design, as are many other issues with delivering content. It’s common for people to misuse HTML markup language when they create a website, which confuses screen reading software used by people with visual disabilities. Writing accessible HTML is not very hard, yet as previously mentioned most of the web is not designed with accessibility in mind.

Typography is an area that can commonly suffer from this as well. It’s common for designers to be font snobs, and I’m certainly guilty of this as well as anyone else. When IKEA announced that they would be switching to the open-source typeface Noto for their brand, I heard nothing but complaints from my peers for the first minute. It wasn’t long until someone read the article rather than the headline, and told us that the Noto font family contains support for over 300 languages, something IKEA values highly as a global company. The complaints stopped.

I’m definitely a fan of picking the right font for the job, and I totally understand why designers value fonts as a major part of a design’s identity. However, the British Dyslexia Association says that the two most readable fonts are Arial and Comic Sans, both of which are commonly hated by designers. Their listed alternatives aren’t much more popular among font snobs, being Verdana, Tahoma, Century Gothic, Trebuchet, Calibri, and Open Sans. None of which are niche fonts that cost hundreds of dollars for a license, which I think is a good indicator as to why they’re so legible—they’re everywhere. People are used to reading Arial because they see it all the time, while they aren’t used to reading SangBleu, Neue Montreal or Dashiel Text (which are all great fonts that I love to use) because the average person will rarely see many of these boutique fonts.

Of course, there is a side-discussion worth having. Can a non-traditional typeface be more accessible if it is intentionally designed for legibility? There have certainly been attempts to do this, such as Dyslexie, a typeface designed by Christian Boer, who has dyslexia and wanted to make a typeface that was easier to read. There have been many attempts to create such a typeface, such as Omotype, OpenDyslexic, FS Me, and Lexie Readable. There are others who have attempted to create typefaces that are easier to read in general. Dashiel Text, which I mentioned just a moment ago, was created by “a devoted reader with lousy eyesight,” clearly intended for traditional serif text. There are others who have created typefaces for early education, intended to be easily recognizable to children who are still learning the alphabet. Typefaces such as Sassoon, Castledown, and ABeZeh. All of this lends itself to my next point:

Allow your design to accommodate the user’s needs. In 2018, the Internet Archive added a piece of code to their main website to find out how many of their visitors browse the site with a browser default font size other than the often assumed 16px. They found that 3.08% of their users have changed this setting in their browser, which is statistically equal to users who use Safari to visit their site. Clearly, this is a large enough group that websites should be designed to accommodate this need.

It is also possible to change the default font in many web browsers. I would like to suggest a possible future, where rather than assuming a font that is accessible to a majority of users, users could bring a typeface they know is comfortably legible to the party.

A meme template in which Jeremy Clarkson looks at a red ford (with the font Aktiv Grotesk placed over it), saying "This is brilliant," but then points to a white Volkswagen (with the font Comic Sans placed over it), saying "but I like this." Image Source: Top Gear

In the context of designing accessible spaces, my family has found that people often assume a lot about Zach’s wheelchair. He uses a fairly heavy-duty motorized wheelchair, which is taller than many wheelchairs are, and also cannot be folded without removing the back panel and cushioning (which would then need to be reassembled). What this means is that often when we’re being seated at a restaurant, they’ll have already moved a seat away from the table—a seat that is immediately requested to be brought back by our family since his knees would be scraping against the table in his own chair. He’s perfectly able to swap into a provided seat, but that’s a privilege not everyone is afforded.

When a separate experience is necessary for accessibility, design it too. On the web this commonly takes form as ensuring that alt text is written for any images with meaningful content. In case you aren’t familiar, alt text is a human-created alternative to visuals when a screen reader reads a website. For example, the first image in this part has the following alt text:

“A meme template in which Jeremy Clarkson looks at a red ford (with the font Aktiv Grotesk placed over it), saying ‘This is brilliant,’ but then points to a white Volkswagen (with the font Comic Sans placed over it), saying ‘but I like this.’”

This principle applies to any design. If someone needs to take an accessible route to a ride at Disneyland, they’ll be missing out on any theming the designers have put into the standard queue to entertain guests as they wait to ride. It’s important to ensure that every guest gets to experience what you’ve made in the way you intend them to (and to Disney’s credit, they do put thought into their park’s accessible entrances where many other theme parks do not).

Consider the scale of your design. Just because a wheelchair can fit doesn’t mean you’ve done your job. While 32 inches is technically enough clearance for a checkout aisle at a grocery store, it’s not enough space in store aisles, where crowds of customers will be shopping in the same spaces.

There are other rules that should be considered beyond these, of course. Many other authorities, more qualified than myself, have written extensively on the subject of accessible design. While it felt important to set a baseline, I’d rather focus on a broad view of accessibility. If there’s one thing I hope this book sparks more than anything, it’s discussion about a topic that has not gotten enough love. Rather than sticking to current rules, we should be innovating further to create the utopian future those less abled than us deserve.

Identifying Faults in Design, Part 2

If we’re imaging a perfect utopian future of design, then we need to begin to identify faults where we wouldn’t have previously thought there was one.

My girlfriend and I were recently out on a walk around Baltimore when we saw two people across the road on the other side of the crosswalk to ourselves—a mother and her young daughter, both blind. They did not know whether or not it was safe to walk, so we crossed quickly so we could tell them that they had the signal, and that there was still plenty of time left before the light changed. Both were factors that were not evident to them, as they could not see the pedestrian signal a hundred or so feet away.

So why wasn’t there a sound playing? It’s not like speakers would add that much cost to the already complex system of lights and sensors that make up the current traffic light control system. In fact, many crosswalks in Annapolis (in the bordering county just south of Baltimore city) have fairly high-resolution speakers that play a sound that lets you know that it is safe, and tells you to “wait” when you cannot cross safely. I think I’d advocate for an additional countdown to play for those just getting to the crosswalk, as well as some level of clarification about which side of the corner can cross and which cannot.

While a crosswalk being poorly designed could be potentially disastrous, what about those small moments. The ones that don’t end in disaster, but can help someone to feel more comfortable and welcome. I remember a very specific rainy day back when I used to work at a fast-casual restaurant chain. It was just my boss and I holding down the fort until the dinner shift came in to replace me, and a woman came to our front door to hold it open for her husband—a man who we would soon find out had not been outside of his house for over a year. Immediately and wordlessly we both knew what to do, as we each grabbed a chair and placed them at intervals between the front door and our seating area. Before he would get to his table, we both took his arms and helped him walk while his wife encouraged him. We struggled to get through the space, as it was fairly tight. Once he was seated, I took their order at the table, brought them their food, and brought them a “check” afterwards (our restaurant was normally designed to be an “order at the counter, pay in advance” type of place, but I improvised as best as I could to make sure this man’s wife didn’t have to leave him during such a big moment).

Look, there are a lot of things to unpack in this story. For example, the door. Why wasn’t it an automatic door, or at least far easier to open than the heavy glass monstrosity our location had. Why was there so much space between our door and our seating? Why was it so hard for three people to walk through the restaurant together?

This was not the first time I had an encounter with someone who was differently abled at this restaurant, of course. There was another time when a blind man’s seeing eye dog accidentally walked him around the front counter, so I just took his order from there without telling him. At some point he asked “oh wait, am I behind the counter? I’m so sorry” and both myself and the other employee immediately reassured him that we didn’t care at all.

If I had to define these experiences in a meaningful way, I’d say that they showed me just how fragile the socially expected normal can be when faced with literally any deviance. People aren’t normally allowed behind the counter, and on any other day we wouldn’t give somebody their food before they had paid, but both actions would have been unreasonable and cruel in these situations. We didn’t care about what was expected of us anymore, we did what was right.

When I asked my brother about his most memorable experiences with accessibility in spaces, he said the most memorable moments were actually not designed spaces, but when people went out of their way to get him into an inaccessible space. Once when he was taken through the back entrance and up a service elevator to get into a restaurant with large marble steps out front, and another time when we met the band we were there to see because their van was in the way of the venue’s back door. Moments when the actual intentions of the space failed, but people went out of their way to accommodate him all the same. Design should be approached with the same mindset, where we go out of our way to accommodate people rather than treating accessibility as a box that is checked off.