Why Accessible Products Are Better, and How to (Start to) Build Them

Read about why accessibility matters in product design and how you can implement accessibility into your practice

Jackson McConnell

Various stick people with different impairments standing in line

As product designers and developers, our mission is to build better products. But “better” can mean a lot of things. One way to define it is in terms of a product’s usability; we want to create products that can be used, and enjoyed, by as many people as possible. One of our challenges, therefore, is to build products with accessibility in mind.

But that is easier said than done. As I write this, Connected — along with the majority of product development firms — is a long way from operationalizing accessibility into every product that gets built. Getting there requires a deep cultural shift since it asks us to consider the implications of our decisions as we plan, design, and develop digital products.

In this article, I hope to explain 1.) Why accessibility matters so much to building better products2.) Where accessible products can have the greatest impact, and 3.) Some further reading will enable you to implement accessibility into your practice. This article is by no means a comprehensive how-to guide, but hopefully, it will point you in the right direction.

1. Why Accessibility Matters: Deconstructing Disability

The traditional framework for understanding disability is known as the “medical model.” According to the medical model, disability is understood as an impairment located in the human body. Any attempts to treat or mitigate the effects of disability within this framework tend to focus on how to “fix” the body of the individual, rather than on how society might change to reflect the varying needs of its members.

But in the 1980s and 90s, there was a shift towards what is called the “social model.” The social model frames disability as the result, not of individual or bodily impairments, but of the relation between an individual and society. According to the social model, a person is disabled when they encounter a barrier in the external world that prevents them from performing a task or participating in an experience. Barriers can be physical (e.g., a building without wheelchair access), digital (an app that doesn’t support switch access or VoiceOver), or attitudinal (subconscious bias or ableism in a job interview).

If under the medical model the emphasis was on how to treat the individual body, under the social model the conversation broadened to include what we can do as makers and shapers of our environment to remove barriers and include groups of people otherwise unable to participate.

The social model frames disability as the result, not of bodily impairments, but of the relation between an individual and society.

The social model both clarifies and raises the stakes of what we as designers and developers are doing when we make products. If disabilities don’t arise until individuals meet with experiences that exclude them, and the products we create contribute to that exclusion, then as practitioners we are in part responsible for the degree to which people experience disability in our society.

Accessible products are better because, as the social model reminds us, they allow more people to participate in society, act in the world more independently, and live their lives with equality and a sense of belonging.

2. Where to Make a Difference: Connected Devices

Fighting to broaden access to the Internet has been the terrain of accessibility practitioners and disability rights activists since the World Wide Web’s inception. While this work has been invaluable in bringing information and communication tools to those otherwise excluded, the challenge we face as practitioners today extends far beyond the web. Not only are there an estimated 2.4 billion smartphone users globally, but every day more and more physical objects are being embedded with computing power. Without accessibility, the ever-spreading reach of technology into our everyday lives threatens to deepen the digital divide that separates those who can participate in its services and those who cannot.

Yet this challenge is also an opportunity. Connected objects, precisely because they automate interactions between people and their physical environment, are uniquely positioned to facilitate independence for people with certain impairments. Companies that create products at the intersection of technology and our material world have the power to reduce the barriers that exist all around us.

Take HomeKit. HomeKit is an app that enables you to control a suite of in-home technologies such as lights, switches, outlets, plugs, thermostats, smoke alarms, sensors, security cameras, fans, locks, and garage doors. Because it was designed and developed with accessibility in mind, an app like HomeKit is able to dramatically impact the lives of people with varying types of ability. It demonstrates the impact that connected devices can have in enabling a more independent lifestyle for people with certain types of impairments.

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