Inclusive design lessons from the RNIB

Covid-19 exposes inequalities in a digital-first world, Accessibility Specialist Elisabeth Ward of Scope on how to redress the balance

Scope's Elisabeth Ward on screen at TechShare Pro 2020. Words beside her read 'the social model'Accessibility Specialist Elisabeth Ward of Scope says it's time people appreciate how they are disabling people through poor design.  

“The social model of disability says that people are disabled by barriers in society and not by their impairment or condition,” said Ward, an upper body amputee from birth.

Barriers are physical but often are attitudinal. “They can be caused by people's attitudes like assuming that disabled people can't do certain things, or not considering or including disabled people at all.

“The social model helps us to recognize the external barriers that make life harder. Working together to remove these barriers creates equality and offers independence, choice and control,” said Ward, adding that “Everyone needs to take on the responsibility of creating a more inclusive society.”

Exposing inequalities in a digital-first world

Digital technology has transformed the lives of many disabled people, said Ward. She referenced the 78% of disabled people who say technology is “helpful” or “very helpful”.

Ward is part of Scope’s Big Hack program, which collates data and first-hand experienced from disabled people. 

Unfortunately, as we increasingly rely on digital technology, it exposes the barriers there. “Organizations create more barriers by not making that websites, products, or services are accessible. Disabled people are over 50% more likely to face barriers to accessing digital and online services than non-disabled people,” said Ward.

These shortfalls have been particularly acute during the Covid-19 crisis. 

“Now that we've been forced into a digital-first society, many disabled people are reliant on digital to access their healthcare services and benefits to understand what they need to do to protect themselves and to get the basic necessities to live through this pandemic,” said Ward.

She continued with some examples of the challenges people have faced. “..trying to access benefits in a panic state, after losing a job while using a screen reader, having a device that is out of memory and not knowing how to fix it so that you can send a photograph to your doctor, not being able to access your usual supermarket online [and] not knowing how to look for other ways to get food and essentials, finding the other supermarket websites are inaccessible....”

“We know that 59% of all deaths involving Covid-19 in England and Wales between March and July, were disabled people, it is more important than ever that information is accessible and can be easily understood by the people who need it.” 

The Big Hack will publish specific data on supermarkets in the coming months. 

Challenges faced by disabled people during Covid-19

Scope has researched with disabled people during the pandemic and has discovered that while technology has helped, there have been challenges, too. People with learning and behavioural impairments, for example, found the shift to online difficult. “Others struggled with navigating new websites and technology like using Zoom, digesting information and completing online forms,” said Ward.

Participants with physical, visual or hearing impairments said that they struggled to participate, citing video calls with low-quality sound.

The pandemic highlights the importance of having clear and understandable information, but the research found that disabled people said information is unclear and confusing: 

•    63% said the information is confusing
•    49% said communication is unclear
•    47% of disabled respondents had experienced technological challenges during the pandemic 

Organisations, charities and public services weren’t ready for the change, says Ward.  

“Many were not accessible and continue to exclude disabled people by not making accessibility a priority. Many disabled people have been forgotten and have not had the support they needed when they needed it the most,” said Ward. 

Inclusive design is key to driving change

The key to driving change, says Ward, is to stop thinking about disabled people as separate and to create Inclusive Design that works for everyone. 

“We need to inspire transformation and everyone's attitudes towards disability, accessibility and inclusive design. We need to stop thinking of disability as different and the few and start thinking of it as everywhere and everyone. We need it to be universal accessibility, not a disability minority. We need to be included as a core consumer group.”

That way, everyone benefits. “We need to close the digital divide and get what we're calling disability game-changers to help influence, inspire and revolutionize the next wave of digital innovation,” she added. 

Involve disabled users in the process

To deliver means involving disabled people in the process. “It's not; it's not just about box-ticking or consultation it's involving and prioritizing disabled people's needs and the very core of the solution itself. We need people to look beyond their own barrier, engage with the barriers during the process and then actively work to remove them.”

Often, it’s a process that’s retrospective but involving people earlier on will transform digital experiences for all.

“You will face these barriers. So, the question is when that happens, do you want to sit there cursing those who didn't take on the shared responsibility of making their service or product accessible? There can be some barriers to implementing accessibility, such as budget and time, but try to break them [and] embed as many best practices as possible.

"Do user research and testing with disabled people. Give people easy ways to tell you about the barriers that they're facing. Keep learning, iterating, and improving, and make sure that you have processes in place that make it easy for everyone to take on that responsibility and be confident with accessibility live and breathe accessibility in your work.”

It's a great message for all of us involved in creating a digital world accessible to all.