Everyone has disability

Accessible design isn’t just designing for a minority group who identify as having a permanent ongoing impairment. At its core, accessibility is about designing for diverse user needs and it benefits everyone, because everyone has disability.

A group of diverse people
A group of diverse people

With the increased awareness around user experience, most newly-developed products, applications and websites undergo usability testing throughout the design process. Yet, there is a significant limitation to this testing, if it’s not done across a diverse range of people.

Generally, usability testing is conducted in a testing environment – usually a small, quiet space with chairs and maybe a desk. The user is able to focus on performing the required tasks without contextual variables – and in this environment, the needs of users are fixed.

User needs are fluid, not fixed

However, outside of testing environments, user needs are not fixed, they’re not the same for every person, they’re not the same in every context, and they’re not the same all of the time. People’s needs are fluid – and among many things, they can vary depending on each person’s surroundings, activities or illnesses.

A user may be able to perform a task or perceive information in a certain way in one context, but not be able to in another. To illustrate this point, here are some examples:

  • Situation: Using your mobile phone while in the sun at the beach.
    Disability = Reduced colour vision due to sun glare.
  • Situation: Making a phone call while driving.
    Disability = Vision impairment as you must pay attention to your surroundings and cannot look at your phone.
    Disability = Mobility impairment, as you must use both hands to drive and cannot touch your phone.
  • Situation: Using your phone while standing on a busy bus or train.
    Disability = Mobility impairment, as one arm is required to hold on to keep balance.
  • Situation: Mother nursing a newborn baby while working on a laptop.
    Disability = Mobility impairment, as the mother must use one arm to hold the baby.
  • Situation: Making a presentation in a boardroom using a projector.
    Disability = Reduced colour vision, as projectors generally have lower contrast compared to computer displays.
  • Situation: Watching a movie late at night.
    Disability = Reduced hearing, as turning the volume up may wake other people in your household.

And here are some examples of temporary disabilities – which serve to demonstrate that the term ‘disability’ doesn’t always refer to something permanent or ongoing. Disability can be the result of illness, environment or an activity.

  • Temporary state: Light sensitive migraine.
    Disability = Vision impairment, as unable to look at a screen.
  • Temporary state: Broken arm.
    Disability = Mobility impairment as must rely on only one arm.
  • Temporary state: Ear infection.
    Disability = Reduced hearing or hearing loss.

These examples demonstrate that every person has disability, sometimes temporarily and differing depending on the context. Designing for accessibility allows users to overcome these contextual and temporary limitations through allowing them to interact with products, applications and websites in flexible ways.

Check out another recent article from Heidi Laidler – read Why accessible design is better design.


For more information on how to ensure what you’re doing online meets WCAG 2.0 guidelines for accessibility, you can check out the Media Access Australia services website, email the Media Access Australia team or call (02) 9212 6242. The team can assist your organisation with varied-needs usability testing, annual web audits, digital accessibility maturity assessments, document remediation, accessibility training and more.

You can also subscribe to the fortnightly MAA newsletter by filling out your details in the newsletter panel on the home page.