Accessibility is usability: why our users shouldn’t be coping

To create truly usable web content, we have to get out of the majority mindset.

I’m a coper.

This was a key phrase that stuck in my head from a conference that I went to last week hosted by the National Association of Disabled Staff Networks.

‘Unearthing the Hidden Voices: Intersectionalities in Higher Education’ examined the experience of people who identify as both LGBT+ and disabled.

It was a fascinating and thought-provoking day, and I think the reason that this particular quote chimed with me in particular was that it reminded me of one that came up in the work Headscape did for the University back in 2015:

They’re bright; they’ll cope.

(‘They’ being University students.)

Aren’t we all just coping?

People do and can cope.

But coping is exhausting.

Coping does not make for a good user experience.

And the key thing to remember is that different people can cope with different things. One of the keynote speakers, Dr Fiona Kumari Campbell of Dundee University, talked about ‘pervasive majoritarianism’ by which she meant the tendency of people to assume the majority experience is the one everyone has, and it’s so important to get out of that mindset when designing content.

Steve Krug talks about the ‘reservoir of goodwill’ when it comes to user experience – how much irritating behaviour people are willing to put up with on a website before they lose patience.

Explaining Steve Krug’s reservoir of goodwill – Antony J White blog

It might seem that people in some kind of minority have a smaller reservoir. As a disabled person myself, personally I’d  argue that we have a bigger reservoir than most – that’s part of coping.  But at the same time, the reservoir is more easily drained. Design flaws that the majority of people won’t even notice can cause pain – often physically – to a disabled user.

And you probably won’t hear about it. When disabled people complain, they are often told, or made to feel, that it’s their responsibility to solve that problem.

Accessibility is boring

At our Effective Digital Content training, many of the discussions seem to end with me saying “Yes, but it’s not accessible”. It can start to sound like a tired phrase dug out as a trump card; a limiter to innovation and creativity.

But if we’re going to innovate and be creative (and we absolutely should) it should be to enhance the user experience for everyone. And let’s be clear: accessibility and usability are absolutely the same thing. Something cannot be truly usable if it’s not usable by everyone.

It’s not for you

Dr Campbell – an inspiring speaker with an outstanding academic record – was actively encouraged out of academia earlier in her career, and she described many disabled people having the same experience, concluding that academic life is not for them. A poor digital experience interacting with university services is a part of what leads people to that conclusion.

Let’s not be part of that.

Effective Digital Content training – learn more about making your content usable

National Association of Disabled Staff Networks

Dr Fiona Kumari Campbell – profile – University of Dundee

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