Invisible Disabilities: How creating an accessbile web benefits all

This post was written as an article for net magazine, it can be found in issue 278 (April 2016). 

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were headed up to a high floor in a tall building…and the elevator was out? Fifteen flights of stairs later, you’re panting, out of breath and annoyed? Imagine yourself pushing a stroller or shopping cart and the entrance to your destination has no ramp, forcing you to awkwardly drag it up multiple stairs. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have the physical strength and capability to get up those steps in each situation, but what if you’re not? What if you’re in a wheelchair and stairs aren’t an option? Or you’re elderly and walking that many flights isn’t possible? What if you have a broken foot and can’t navigate steps on crutches? Situations like these can be a small nuisance for one person, but an immense barrier for another.

Similar to how everyone benefits from accessible physical spaces, such as curb cuts, ramps, and elevators, so too do users on the web benefit from virtual accessible spaces. When we build websites that do not consider accessibility, we are putting up barriers and excluding an astounding percentage of the population.

Too often, we only consider disabilities that are immediately noticeable, such as a blind or Deaf person, someone in a wheelchair or maybe someone missing a limb. But there are many disabilities that are a little more inconspicuous, those that we are unable to see just by looking at someone. These include, but are not limited to: cognitive or learning disabilities, color blindness, or other visual impairments.

And in fact, aside from those invisible disabilities, there is a plethora of situations in which a person can experience temporary disability. Temporary, or situational disabilities, can be anything from a broken limb to a new parent who is sleep deprived, and who only has one arm available because the other is cradling a sleeping baby. A cancer patient, for example, may be dealing with “chemo brain”, side effects from chemotherapy that include difficulty concentrating, fatigue, mental fogginess, a short attention span or problems with short-term memory loss.

Reducing cognitive load and presenting information in a clear, concise manner not only benefits the aforementioned but also those with a learning disability or whose native language is not English. As we grow older, many of us will deal with effects of aging that may include loss of fine motor skills, loss of vision or memory.

It is not unlikely that a large percentage of us will find ourselves or many of our loved ones in these situations.

It is imperative to take every type of user into consideration, never assuming we know exactly who our users are, what their limitations might be, and how they are using and navigating our sites. We need to consider as many invisible, situational and otherwise ignored disabilities as we can, building accessible websites from the beginning, and not as an afterthought. It is our responsibility as designers and developers to create a more inclusive, accessible web for everyone.

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