Profiles in Accessibility: Temporary and Situational Disability

March 15, 2023

A lack of imagination

One of the major challenges of accessibility work is a lack of imagination. This is true in the sense that it’s natural to design for yourself. (And most users are not tech-savvy digital professionals using two large monitors on a Macbook.) But even when we have accessibility in mind, we tend to focus on the most conspicuous examples of disabilities. 

But disabilities are far more common than we realize. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard businesses claim to have no users with disabilities. And while everyone deserves inclusion, understanding the ways in which we can all experience disabilities at times can improve digital UX for everyone. And isn’t that what we are all trying to do as UX and design professionals?

We’d like to share some disability situations you may not have considered.

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Disability in an aging population

All of us are aging one day at a time! And as we age, we are all likely to experience some reduced vision, color perception, hearing, dexterity, or fine motor control. 

There are a lot of senior citizens among your audience. Take into account that most countries are rapidly aging and you’ll see that seniors will only grow as a percentage of your customer base. This is one of the reasons why the CDC estimates that 26% of adults in the US have a disability!

Disability is contextual

From a design perspective, disability is not merely (or always) a health condition. It is a mismatch between use cases and abilities. And while technologies can help create opportunities for adaptation, they can also create new scenarios that can exclude people.

For example, the transition from bank tellers to ATMs initially made it harder for blind or visually impaired customers to access banking. Similarly, telephones created new opportunities for communication over distances but in a way that excluded deaf people. 

Temporary disabilities

Even disabilities that do stem from health conditions can affect all of us at one point or another. Anyone suffering from a carpal tunnel syndrome flare-up can surely appreciate how using a keyboard can be less painful than relying on a mouse. Similarly, when I had my dominant hand in a cast from a broken bone, I found using a mouse challenging and relied far more on keyboard navigation.

Situational disabilities

Have you ever had trouble reading your phone in direct sunlight? You may not think of it this way, but it is a context-dependent disability. As a new parent, I ran into situational disabilities all the time. Staying up late holding a newborn requires you to do a lot of activities one-handed. And I certainly came to appreciate closed captioning when watching TV with a baby screaming in my ear. And that doesn’t just apply to new parents. Closed captioning can make it easier to follow a movie while on a loud airplane or to watch a video with the sound off on a bus or train.

Accessibility features benefit everyone

Curb cuts

Of course, up until now we’ve considered how accessibility features benefit people temporarily in need of assistive technology (defined broadly). But this doesn’t account for the ways that everyone can benefit. The classic non-digital example is sidewalk curb cuts. These are intended to make it easier for wheelchair users to navigate from a sidewalk into the street and back up again. And they do! But anyone with young children in strollers surely appreciates the same features.

Sidewalk curb cut at an intersection
By Nick-philly - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84618901

Ramps and elevators

The same goes for ramps and elevators, which are often mandated as part of building codes. At worst, it can be nearly impossible for stroller or wheelchair riders to access certain spaces. But even in a best case scenario, it’s a pain to carry a stroller up the stairs (and depending on the number of stairs you may need to unbuckle the child, carry them separately, and then buckle them back in). And of course, while many people can physically walk up and down six flights of stairs if needed, elevators make life more convenient for everyone.

The swivel peeler

You may be familiar with the OXO swivel vegetable peeler. The inventor’s wife had arthritis and found using traditional peelers painful. The large rubber grip handles were designed to be comfortable for arthritic users in consultation with the American Arthritis Foundation. But anyone who has used an OXO recognizes that it is a superior user experience to any peeler that came before it.

Finding the opportunity (and risk) in accessibility

All of our examples so far are in the physical world, but the same applies digitally. Your business website or app can stand out by focusing on this underserved population. And as we’ve shown, thinking carefully and inclusively in your design and development process can benefit all of your users.

Conversely, take into account the ways in which any one of your users or visitors might have even temporary difficulties using your site. If you can’t serve these users, they may find another site or app that can do a better job.

Usability is a spectrum

In the US, it’s common to approach accessibility from an ADA compliance perspective. And that’s valid. But reframing the question around usability makes it easier to see that it can be easier or harder to read or use a website.

Your site may be highly usable for colorblind visitors but hard to use one-handed. Ultimately you’ll want to address both scenarios, but you can celebrate these improvements and make a big difference for your users. More accessible is better than less accessible!

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