Chris Ashton

dai11y 04/01/2021

Your daily frequent11y newsletter, brought to you by @ChrisBAshton:

In a New Year special, I’m summarising not one, not two, but three articles today. It’s my attempt to clarify what seems quite a contradictory issue: whether you should ‘try on’ a disability to build empathy, and/or build better products and services.

As someone who has written a series of articles on using the web under various constraints, it’s a subject close to my heart and an important conversation to have.


Article 1: Why I won’t “try on” disability to build empathy in the design process (and you should think twice about it.)

  • Amelia Abreu describes how accessibility workshops that, for example, have able-bodied participants trying to navigate a high street with wheelchairs to gain awareness of shortage of ramps, can be counter-productive. A research paper concluded that short-term mimicking of the effects of a disability can a) result in fear, apprehension and pity, b) fail to account for diverse coping mechanisms people develop over time, and therefore, c) cause participants to underestimate the true capabilities of persons with disabilities.
  • Instead, Amelia suggests we build relationships with real people with disabilities. Get to know their diverse interests and accessibility concerns, and ask how you can be an ally for disability rights. Also, to draw upon your own experiences. In the wheelchair example, Amelia developed an awareness of the inaccessibility of infrastructure when she had to take her daughter around in a stroller.

Article 2: Going Colorblind: An Experiment in Empathy and Accessibility

  • This article appeared a month before the first, and on the same website! Sara Novak describes her colleague Peter’s deuteranomalous colour blindness, affecting 5% of men. It means he has a hard time differentiating greens from other colours. Sara admits she was sympathetic, rather than empathetic, so talked to Peter and decided to see what it’s like to be colourblind for three days, using Chrome extension See.
  • Sara realised she’d been colour-coding her responses in emails, and that this was difficult to decipher. She realised why Peter bolded important info in emails rather than rely on colour, and she started to do the same. She also encountered inaccessible web forms which used colour alone to convey error state.

Article 3: Get the Funkify Out: A Neat Accessibility Tool/Disability Simulator

  • Michael Larsen writes about the “Funkify Disability Simulator” Chrome extension, which attempts to simulate what it’s like to browse the web with dyslexia, astigmatism, jittery hands and high distraction (much like GDS’s own accessibility personas). With it, Michael was able to create a custom profile that makes a page look “very much like it would without my reading glasses”.

In conclusion, I’m not convinced I have a definitive answer. These were all useful articles and I learned something from each, but this is still a topic on which I’m uneasy and am keen to keep learning about.

Can I use a screen reader and know exactly what it’s like to be a blind person? No, of course not – there are all manner of lived differences.

Can I use a screen reader to test my product? Yes, of course – without testing, we’ve no hope of finding and fixing accessibility issues.

Can I use a screen reader to build empathy? This is more complex. In Sara’s case, it seems she did build empathy for her colourblind colleague through use of a simulator. Perhaps the key is that she didn’t empathise in isolation; she was engaged with Peter and able to ask questions and compare her simulated world view with his. In contrast, I can see how a first time screen reader user with no point of reference could be overwhelmed and unable to navigate, and in turn develop a misguided view of what a blind person is capable of doing.

These articles were hand-picked from various accessibility newsletters I’m subscribed to. If there are other articles that you recommend, please do send them my way!


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