Both of us (Tom and Sam) have dyslexia and dyspraxia. Tom is more dyspraxic than dyslexic and Sam more dyslexic than dyspraxic. (Neither of us find that sentence easy to read.) These conditions affect us both in different ways. However, we both agree that it makes a massive and positive difference when people really think about how to make their designs accessible to those of us with learning difficulties. In this blog we want to share some of our experiences, challenges, and solutions, and get you thinking about the importance of designing for accessibility. We aren’t speaking for everyone with a disability and of course we aren’t experts or neuroscientists, but we are consumers, users, and humans, and these are our insights.
People are not always aware of the emotional element of conditions like dyslexia and dyspraxia. Negative feelings like fear, embarrassment, and self-doubt can often be heightened by such conditions. When faced with environments and situations that are new, cluttered, and full of sensory input, it takes a lot of emotional energy to stay positive and perform at a high level. Workshops are a good example of this. These are often in a new room with no natural light and brightly coloured paper, and participants are thrown into an unfamiliar social situation. By the end of the workshop we are often drained and need a rest, but at a whole day conference we might be in three or four of these sessions. This is not to mention networking breaks and lunches. The cumulative impact of this is that our ability to perform diminishes over the day: we become more withdrawn, anxious, and stressed. Luckily, the solution is a simple change in how the conference is designed. All we need is a little time to recharge. A quiet place with good natural light and where we don’t have a task to complete is perfect. We don’t need long - even five minutes is enough to let us gather ourselves and get ready for the next thing. The truly wonderful thing about this approach is that in reality it will help everyone get the best out of the experience.
Poor design can take a physical toll on people like us. For example, if we have to struggle through a website with small font on a patterned background, filled with flashing images, we end up physically tired. Even a small amount of time having to use a site like this exacerbates other physical symptoms of our conditions, impairing our coordination and motor skills. Again, solving this problem is not difficult. With a few simple features, websites can be made accessible. A website that is clear, broken down into blocks, and which has a built-in tool for changing font sizes and contrast is a pleasure to engage with, not a struggle. If you want to see a perfect example, check out The Scottish Commission for the Learning Disabled, with whom the RSA is currently collaborating, and see how well it can be done.
When design is done well, it enables people and extends their abilities. When it’s done badly, it excludes people and makes simple things more difficult. Social media is a perfect example of something that is made inclusive through the work of designers. It often takes a written form and requires that you respond quickly, if not instantly. This would be terrible for people like us, who can find reading, writing, and typing more difficult and need a bit of time to do these things. However, recognising this need, a host of speech to text apps have developed and integrated with social media platforms and mainstream devices. The rise of these services allows Sam, for example, to make full use of something from which she would otherwise be excluded.
There is no one size fits all approach to accessibility issues. The examples above serve to illustrate that good designs can - and do - solve problems, but they won’t work every time or in every situation. Innovation means that new products, services, and even organisations are constantly coming into existence and, as they do, it’s important to embrace the principle of prototyping. The best way to ensure that something new is accessible to everyone is to get lots of people with varying needs to test it and to adapt on the basis of their feedback. In fact, there are a host of companies that can help with this: they supply happy and enthusiastic testers with a range of disabilities to road test products and provide feedback on how they could be made better and easier to use.
So, why is inclusive design so important and why should you do it? What are the benefits?
If having read about our experiences and how much it can impact on our daily lives is alone not enough to convince you, then what about the fact that you will improve the design for all your customers/users? The truth is that the things that cause problems for those with learning difficulties also affect everyone else, just less severely. Improving these things makes it easier for everyone to access, improving both engagement and sales. What’s more, with more than 10 million disabled people in the UK alone, making your products and services accessible opens up a huge market.
At the end of the day, isn’t good design also accessible design?