Individuals talking into a microphone with Captions on screen

Why Designing for Accessibility Helps Everyone

When Congress passed The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 it didn’t just help the 58 million plus disabled Americans it helped us all and continues to help us all. Good legislation.

Why Designing for Accessibility Helps Everyone

When Congress passed The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 it didn’t just help the 58 million plus disabled Americans it helped us all and continues to help us all. Good legislation.

How do we help disabled people get in and out of buildings safely? Automatic doors. Once just a clever Sci Fi trick on Star Trek now everywhere.

“Ramps are part of the normal fabric of malls now being used by everyone not just those in wheelchairs.”

Automatic doors can also save businesses money – they open only when needed, they cut down on energy waste which directly implies a reduction in heating costs plus no fingerprints on the doors either so no need for extra cleaning.

Accessibility via elevators is not just used by people in wheelchairs – parents/carers with children in prams/pushchairs and toddlers, older people perhaps with health issues or mobility aids, shoppers using supermarket trolleys to take their shopping to their cars, even young people needing to check their mobile phones etc. all happy users.

New York City expects the number of elevators in subways to increase to 144 by 2020. How helpful will this be for all of us as well as those in wheelchairs as we able bodied people with suitcases/pushchairs/bad knees battle the stairs?

Almost every mall you visit now has ramps. Trust me, it isn’t to beautify the building or help toddlers enjoy running up and down them. The ADA guidelines compel public places to provide ramps so people in wheelchairs can access into and within the building. These ramps are part of the normal fabric of the malls now being used by everyone not just those in wheelchairs.  Foot traffic moves steadily and delivery workers with heavy lifting can just roll in and roll out.

Inclusive designing has revolutionized communication.

Much of our daily communication has been influenced by ideas originally designed for people with disabilities.

Vinton Cerf, the computer scientist at Google, was hard of hearing. In the 1970s he was part of an initial research team trying to find ways to share documents with colleagues without talking on the phone. Their 1981 network led to our sophisticated internet.

SMS texting was invented by Finnish inventor Matti Makkonen with two other Finns, Seppo Tiainen and Juhani Tapiol. They figured out a way for deaf people to communicate with one another without speaking. But global communication was transformed when it was revealed that text messaging presented a more effective solution for saving Telecom bandwidth. Now text messages are universal. Stuck in traffic? Running late for a meeting? Need to make dinner reservations? Just text. It’s in writing. It can be accessed when you have time. It is able to be read and understood easily. It can even be ignored. “Oh I didn’t get your text!”  Even popular instant messaging services like WhatsApp and Telegram were inspired by text messaging.

Captioning is the way forward

Ever tried to learn a new language? It’s not easy. Well, it just got better. Try bilingual captions for movies. Since the passage of the ADA, captions are used to assist people who are deaf or hard of hearing but can be used for those trying to learn a second or third language too.

Captions have been widely adopted in movie theaters and cinemas to aid non-hearing moviegoers to have an enjoyable movie experience. But that’s not all it has done. Many non-deaf moviegoers would rather watch captioned movies. A 2006 research study by UK The Office of Communications (Ofcom) showed that 18% of the entire population (7.5 million people at that time) used closed captions and of that 7.5 million only 20% or 1.5 million people were actually deaf or hard of hearing. They all enjoyed it more with captions! The report noted that captions helped if the dialogue had accents, mumbling or background noise. Captions also help those with learning disabilities, attention deficits or autism maintain their concentration.

Captions are invaluable in noisy and quiet situations e.g. restaurants, gyms, airports, airplanes, waiting rooms, doctors offices, libraries, trains, buses, ferries etc.

Website accessibility is a win for all

The Web is fundamentally designed to work for all people, whatever their hardware, software, language, location or ability. Thus the impact of disability is radically changed because the Web removes barriers to communication and interaction that many people face in the physical world. History shows us that inclusion spurs innovation.

In the physical world, businesses and organizations include wheelchair ramps, Braille signage or audio signals, standardized door widths, grab bars and more. Yet websites, applications and other digital platforms often exclude potential users and visitors who have disabilities. None of us tend to hang around a website that is difficult to use, doesn’t work well, or is confusing to operate whether we have a disability or not.

“The Web removes barriers to communication and interaction that many people face in the physical world.”

When accessible features are incorporated into your website, like alt text for images and captions for video, it optimizes your Search Engine.  Search Engine Optimization (SEO) increases the amount of visitors to your website by obtaining a high ranking placement in the search results page of a search engine like Google. Users trust search engines and having a presence in the top positions for the keywords the user is searching, increases trust in your website – a good PR and marketing tool. Using high-contrast colors for foregrounds and backgrounds will benefit users with visual impairments and it will also assist others without them needing to squint or experience eye fatigue. If animations are used with flashing frequencies between 2 and 55 hertz (about 3 flashes per second) it can trigger seizures in susceptible individuals, and it has also been shown to be rather distracting and annoying to others.

When the ADA was passed in 1990, the terminology “access barriers” was understood to mean actual, literal physical barriers like stairs in buildings, but in 2010 the US Department of Justice (DoJ) issued an Advanced Noticed of Proposed Rulemaking announcing their intention to amend the language to apply to information, specifically websites.

The United Nations estimates that one-in-ten of the world’s population lives with a disability. According to figures released in a 2012 Census almost 19% of the US population have some type of disability.  Users with mobility disabilities, including repetitive stress injuries and arthritis, may not be able to use a mouse or trackpad but can access content through the keyboard by pressing the “tab” or “arrow” keys. If your site isn’t keyboard accessible these users will find a site they can access and take their family and friends with them to that competitor.

Accessibility allows any user to access content using the widest range of devices and multiple abilities – including but not limited to, mobile phones, smart watches, smart TVs and other devices with small screens. Baby Boomers continue to challenge Web designers with changing abilities due to ageing. Some people have temporary disabilities i.e. broken arm or lost glasses, others may have situational limitations i.e. bright sunlight or in an environment where they cannot listen to audio. People using slow Internet connection or who have limited or expensive bandwidth also need to be catered for. People with dyslexia may wish to use the text to speech functions rather than just the text, as well as those who like to listen while multitasking. People with lower computer skills or reduced dexterity benefit from any site where the communication can be customized for them.

Inclusivity will provide relief for all in disaster situations

The USA was thrown into a pensive mode in August 2017 when heartbroken photos of some disabled aged people with floodwater up to their waists in Texas, waited helplessly to be rescued. While they were rescued, the unfortunate incident left an indelible reminder in our minds that disabled victims hit by natural disasters are endangered more than anyone else and they require rapid response.

Thankfully, recent court rulings seek to rectify this problem. In 2013, a New York court acknowledged the need for swift evacuation of disabled people in cases of natural disaster and ruled to rectify it with a new disaster plan. The interesting part of this new plan is that it will not only cater for disabled people but also for everyone else who might require evacuation assistance in a disaster situation. Accessibility helps everybody.


Tim Berners-Lee an English engineer and computer scientist best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web wrote in 2006 “The power of WWW is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” He also said  “I think, in general, it’s clear that most bad things come from misunderstanding, and communication is generally the way to resolve misunderstandings – and the Web’s a form of communications – so it generally should be good”. The way to make that communication good is by including everyone regardless of their ability or disability. As I grow older and my eyes don’t focus as well as before just give me a bigger font – my disability will then disappear. A small change in accessibility reaps enormous benefits for me. Just think what a larger change in accessibility would do for others.

Accessibility ADA Automatic Captions Captions Closed Captions

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