Overcoming Disability with Design: Putting Compliance at the Heart of Creativity
Imagine walking into a coffee shop and being told that it serves only one type of coffee—vegan latte with cinnamon and full-fat coconut milk. The barista tells you that sugar is mandatory. And while you’re reeling in shock, he drops another bomb—you must have documented medical history of lactose intolerance to be eligible for an order.
Simply put, the coffee shop has made itself inaccessible to a large population (even among its vegan customers!). Now replace the coffee shop with your website and put yourself in the shoes of disabled people trying to access your website. If your website is not disabled-friendly, you are making it inaccessible to a large disabled population.
You may have the most stunning design and user interface, but it means nothing to an audience that doesn’t have the sensory faculties to experience it. The bottom line is this ─ creativity has no meaning if it is not equitably accessible.
Designing with disability in mind shouldn’t be perceived as an obligatory compliance measure—but rather an opportunity to ask ourselves how we can engage visitors that challenge our habit of designing experiences around a single sense, like sight or sound. What would it mean if our audience was not assumed to be able-bodied and lacking in senses such as touch, sound, and vision?
The inclusive approach of designing with disability in mind can lead to a shift in our understanding of experience design, inviting totally new creative outcomes. This approach is not just about ticking the box, but about truly thinking expansively and universally. Reshaping the meaning of ‘access’ in this way can be a strategic business decision that can lead to better overall experiences and even brand growth. But how do designers successfully navigate the new accessibility paradigm?
Talk to your audience
You cannot create disabled-friendly experiences without consulting the people who are personally affected. No amount of second-hand research will simulate the lived experience of disabled people. That’s why so many disabled-friendly products and experiences were initiated by disabled people themselves. Make sure you give disabled people a seat at the table in every concept session. Recognize their design expertise and accessibility insights as foundational to successful design. This would redefine your criteria for good design, and substantially improve the quality of both your skills and solutions across the board.
See it as an opportunity
Creating accessible experiences should not be treated as a liability but as an opportunity. Shift your perception about disability from ‘responsible practice’ to ‘creative opportunity’. This will enable your creative team to envision this as a thrilling proposition and open them to the possibility of more exciting outcomes. In addition, this will also encourage your team to explore unique solutions, with consideration for multiple alternatives. Your team should imbibe a collective sense of empathy and ask – wouldn’t it be a meaningful pursuit to make the brand message heard, seen, and felt by as many people as possible? And wouldn’t it be more impactful, as a human-centred brand, to communicate the core message while also being inclusive?
Use a compliance toolkit
Integrating accessibility into the design process can refresh your creative process, and foster trust in your brand. But how do you go about starting that journey with your team? The good news is that there’s plenty of help available. Multiple disability activists and advocacy groups have already created and published guidelines on stewarding accessible events and experiences. One such group is RAMP. The group has organized auditing tools that make it easy to locate best practices for planning, presenting, and participating in accessible events. Some of the best practices suggested for experience-planning routines include selecting a wheelchair-accessible venue, hiring ASL interpreters for the day, and asking attendees to refrain from wearing strong fragrances.
Design multisensory experiences
Designing multidimensional experiences is not just good for brand image; it is also good for business. Recently, a global financial corporation announced its sensory branding suite so when a financial transaction is complete, customers can receive audible or visually-animated cues. This approach allows its customers to experience the brand in multiple dimensions, by letting them see, hear or feel it. This approach is proving to be highly effective. An early study revealed that brand perceptions for the audience experiencing sensory branding increased by nearly 15 percent compared to those who did not experience the sensory branding.
These are just a few steps to get your started in your journey towards creating universally accessible experiences. The bottom line is that you can turn disability into an opportunity. Make sure you adopt disability as a method to arrive at unexpected creative outcomes. For brands looking to make experiences that captivate, accessibility could provide a less traditional, and more innovative solution.
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