From grocery shopping to school to concerts, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced almost all activities online. This makes the need for digital platforms to be accessible for people with disabilities more critical than ever. “It’s not good design if it’s not accessible,” says Kate Kalcevich, head of services at Fable, a Toronto-based company that tests digital products to ensure they’re accessible to people with various disabilities.
For Kalcevich, who is hearing impaired and uses hearing aids in both ears, involving people with disabilities in every step of the product research and design phase is crucial. This needs to include people with various disabilities, because needs differ depending on disabilities. Kalcevich uses captions when she uses videoconferencing platforms, for instance. And because I am legally blind, I require a screen magnifier to read the captions and chats on video calls. When it comes to accessibility, there isn’t one size fits all.
Employment is key to people with disabilities having full participation in society, but it can be hard to achieve. Research conducted by MaRS with support from CIBC found that 55 percent of persons with disabilities surveyed say their workplace is not currently accessible. While the increase in work-from-home arrangements due to the pandemic has alleviated some concerns about transportation and built environments, it’s also highlighted the need for digital environments to be accessible for consumers and employees with disabilities.
Kalcevich spoke to MaRS about how to include people with disabilities throughout the design process and how hiring designers with disabilities can benefit businesses.
Did COVID-19 change the importance of digital accessibility or did it just make it more obvious?
It just made it more obvious. A lot of times people with disabilities would have to go in-person to get services if they couldn’t do it online. With that in-person avenue being removed, it just made it that much more obvious to people who were offering services that they needed to provide the option to people with disabilities.
Is good design enough in and of itself to make something accessible?
It’s not good design if it’s not accessible. People with disabilities are a huge group. If you leave out customers with disabilities, you’re leaving out this giant market share that you could be tapping into.
If we think of the process of developing something digitally, you start with planning — putting together your project team — and doing your research. Then you go into your design. By the time you get to your design, you’re already three steps into your process. Accessibility should really be part of it — even farther back, in the procurement. It needs to involve people with disabilities at every stage in the process.
How do you best engage people with disabilities in the planning stage?
Make sure you have people on the team who are experts in accessibility and make sure if they aren’t, that they get the training they need to understand it.
Why is it important to work with people who have different types of disabilities?
Sometimes people can think, “We tested it with a screen reader user, so we got it covered.” But there’s a whole bunch of things you are going to miss. You’ve got people who are navigating by voice or by keyboard-only, or people who have low vision and they need everything magnified. You want to try to get as much variety as possible when it comes to testing. I recommend doing a prototype review design stage.
How can you involve people with disabilities at the user research part of the process?
If you are recruiting users, make sure you’ve got a percentage of users who have disabilities. If you look at the percentage of people in the population who have disabilities, then your research group should reflect that. If you’re doing that, reach out to people with disabilities, either through organizations that support people with disabilities, or making it very clear in your recruiting that you are looking for people with disabilities. Not asking them to disclose what their disability is, but often framing it as, “Are you an assistive technology user?” You never really want to ask people what their disabilities are. People’s private health data is not something that you ever need to disclose. The most important thing is that you never want to have people with disabilities working for free. If you’re going to use somebody to test your product, they need to be paid a fair wage.
Is it possible for someone to make a product that is 100 percent accessible to 100 percent of people?
Sometimes what makes something accessible for one person makes it inaccessible for someone else. Customers need to have multiple ways of accessing your goods and services, even if we think beyond accessibility and go into being digitally inclusive. Sometimes people aren’t really good with technology or can’t afford technology. Someone may need to use the phone because they can’t get it to work on the website. You should have a process in place for that. The more you can make the website and your applications flexible, the better.
At Fable, you specialize in usability testing for and empowered by people with disabilities. What are tips for engaging well with people with disabilities?
Sometimes people get nervous about saying the wrong thing and how to have a conversation with someone who has a disability. The important thing to remember is that you’re talking to another person and you just need to be respectful, and listen. Have patience, too. Sometimes, people using assistive technology might need more time; not trying to rush someone and letting them use their technology the way they use it is important.
What are some of the biggest challenges you see for making the digital world accessible for people with disabilities?
The complexity of development has changed. When I started designing 20 years ago, websites were really simple and static. Now they’re so dynamic. A lot of people are using frameworks that don’t have accessibility built-in. Rather than writing all the code from scratch, companies are using something that’s already pre-coded and just assembling all the pieces. You don’t want to pick a framework or a platform for your website and then go and build it and do your accessibility testing at the end — which is not when you should be doing it — and then find out that the whole thing is not accessible and you’ve invested tons of time and money. Anything that’s really accessible will have an accessibility statement or information about accessibility. If you look at a framework, and you look for the accessibility information and it’s not there, it’s probably not accessible.
Does AI present any specific challenges?
If you’re not very cognizant of eliminating bias, it can sneak in there. If you build things for people on the edges, you usually end up building something for everybody. Build for your edges, and you’ll accommodate everyone. Build for your averages, and you’ll accommodate very few people.
How do you make digital workplaces accessible?
Make sure whatever you use for collaboration, for videoconferencing, for document sharing, is going to work for people with disabilities — even if you don’t have anyone currently working for you who has a disability. You don’t want to create a barrier for hiring someone in the future.
Plus, someone could have a disability and you could be making it harder for them to do their job if you’re not considering accessibility. You can’t always tell if someone has a disability, and you can’t ask them to disclose. Some of the challenges I’ve seen is that people make assumptions based on behaviour. If someone behaves in a certain way, they may think that a person is rude, or they’re not very smart. I got that a lot as a kid: people would think I was dumb because I didn’t hear what they said and I might look at them with a blank stare because I didn’t know they were talking to me.
For you, what does it mean for a company to have a pro-accessibility culture?
It’s about having a willingness to accommodate. If someone wants something like a different tool it can be really hard to do that. But if that person was your CEO or head of your company, you would just do it. You have special processes for VIPs, so just treat your employees with disabilities as VIPs, and you’re fine. Employees with disabilities bring diversity of thought and ideas and innovations. People with disabilities have a lot of determination and are very good at getting things done and not giving up where a lot of people would.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The MaRS and CIBC Inclusive Design Challenge is looking to address major barriers faced by people with disabilities in finding meaningful work. Find out more about the project here.