Look Sideways

6th April
6min read

If you had to picture disabilities in terms of design, you’d be forgiven for imagining the icon of a person of a wheelchair. After all, we see it everywhere; parking spaces, permits, inside buildings and out in public spaces.

Yet, we should remember that disability is not just limited to physical disabilities that require the use of wheelchairs. Other types of disabilities include cognitive disabilities, such as dyslexia and autism, and sensory disabilities, like deafness and blindness. These require different thinking than designing accessible spaces.

As designers, we often find ourselves unwittingly designing for the majority, able-bodied human beings who have easy access to everything; school, work, home, the internet, entertainment facilities, hotels etc physically, mentally and sensory. We do so, following the requests of our clients looking to reach their desired target audience, and most often, within the constraints of budgets. But what about the rest?

According to the World Health Organization, about 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. Locally, according to the most recent Maltese Census in 2011, 8.55% of the Maltese population have a disability. That’s about 42, 200 persons; not a small number at all.

Design and social change

Several minorities, including people with disabilities, pushed against social norms and fought for inclusion and acceptance in society in the late 20th century. As people became more socially aware, so has design.

In the physical realm, design has covered pretty much everything; ramps, interactivity and listening devices in public spaces like museums, Braille on medicinal packaging to name a few, and the digital world is a newer challenge for accessibility. iOS and Android increasingly develop accessibility features in their systems to improve accessibility whilst aiding developers to create apps for the needs of end-users with disabilities; it is now key to the success of an app in an increasingly saturated market. Web design too, is slowly catching up on the accessibility train.

Designing for the senses

A great example of simple design and easy gameplay, UNO has been a staple of board games for 48 years, for the mainstream populace. The problem? It took 46 years for Mattel to realise that one major flaw of this game is that for those who are colour blind to red and green, matching the colour coded cards is quite a frustrating predicament. In 2017, Mattel took a step towards inclusivity and created a colour-blind friendly edition by partnering with ColorADD, an organisation that created a colour identification system. This system consisted of universal symbols representing the different colours, and was applied to the cards in the pack.

Designing from personal experience

Reading and writing can certainly be challenging for persons with dyslexia, with several sans serif fonts and designed fonts recommended for use. Dyslexie in particular, is a font created by Christian Boer as a graphic design student, who drew from his own experiences diagnosed with dyslexia as a child after finding difficulties in reading and writing. The typeface has bolded capitals, each letter distorted to distinguish them amongst other characteristics, targeting issues he faced as a child. The core idea behind such fonts is that each character is designed so that they’re easier for the individual to recognise them. Despite the success of dyslexic-friendly fonts that have helped some with dyslexia, extensive peer reviewed research still needs to be carried out on their efficacy.

Designing simpler language

According to Sam Latif, P&G’s Accessibility Leader who is blind herself, Braille is the language of the visually impaired, but not everyone learns it and it takes years to learn. She designed the packaging for Herbal Essences Bio:Renew line to simply include raised stripes and circles for shampoo and conditioner respectively.

When we design for disability, we all benefit

The TED talk by Elise Roy is particularly enlightening, and pretty much revolves around design thinking, a process we employ with every project. Boiled down, the process involves defining the problem, observing and empathising with the user, coming up with lots of ideas, prototyping and testing, and finally, creating a sustainable solution.

The above are just a few examples how design can transform to start with people with disability, rather than accommodate for them later, as was the case with the UNO game. Persons with disability experience the world differently, offering a unique experience that informs solutions that are often more inclusive and better. Take text messaging for example; it was created for deaf people to communicate, but was adopted by the mainstream.

Great design is about removing barriers, allowing more people to enjoy and engage with products and in a world more conscious of minorities, we can all do better.

“Let people with disabilities help you look sideways, and in the process, solve some of the greatest problems.”