Beneath the Surface: Visual Disabilities
The more you learn about people with disabilities, the more you too can be an advocate for change. Together, we can reframe the way we as a society think, build, and talk about inclusivity.
In the series of articles to follow, I will breakdown disability into 9 distinct categorizations . By dividing and conquering, we'll be able to gain a deeper understanding of the world. We'll spend time thinking about the challenges faced by real people. My hope is that in doing this is you will feel compelled to reexamine your own thinking and work to remove the physical and emotional barriers many people face.
I think that you'll find, as I have, new knowledge will cause a shift in how you see the world around you. You won't ever again be able to look at a website and not wonder if the color palette has enough contrast between the background and foreground. You'll analyze every piece of your writing for grade-level readability. More importantly. you'll have the tools you'll need to apply an inclusive mindset to everything you do.
These sensory disabilities are among the most common. I'm not talking about common visual impairments that can be corrected with a visit to an eye doctor.
I'm talking about more severe impairments. These can range from partial vision loss, to a sensitivity to certain colors, and decreased sharpness (acuity), to complete uncorrectable loss (blindness).
Affecting at least 2.2 billion people globally, blindness or a near complete loss of sight can be experienced with varying degrees of severity. These may include:
- A person with no ability to see
- A person with only the ability to perceive light versus dark
- A person with only the ability to perceive general shapes (reading or recognizing people is hard or impossible)
Consider the following:
You are planning on going out this weekend. You are hoping to pick up takeout from a restaurant, read the latest political coverage, and start your holiday shopping early. Now, put yourself in the shoes of a person who is blind:
- You want to order takeout but the menu isn't available online. You show up at the restaurant and the menu is posted as a hardcopy on the wall. There are no digital or braille alternatives available.
- You want to find out what's going on with the election because it's all that your friends are talking about. You want to know what each candidate stands for and whether or not they should receive your vote. Your local newspaper only distributes via the print edition.
- You are excited to get shopping for gifts since you know that shipping times might be a little longer this year with the pandemic in full-flight. You don't own a car and you do most of your shopping online.
If the three things you hope to do this weekend sound unnecessarily hard, it's because they are. These are real experiences that people are having to go through everyday. In 2020, it should be easy to eat takeout, read the news, and shop online. For millions of Americans, though, it can be almost impossible. Let's talk about how to make it easier:
- As a restaurant, being inclusive of all people means having a menu that's not just a sign on the wall. Publishing your menu digitally and/or in braille will allow more people to easily order a delicious meal.
- As a news publisher, you're doing yourself a disservice if you're not offering your content in a variety of mediums. Providing many mediums for consumption will give people a choice in how they consume your headlines. It will also enable compatibility with many assistive technologies.
- An accessible virtual storefront is something that benefits all your potential customers. Clean code, text alternatives for rich media, and easy interactions go a long way in creating an inclusive shopping experience.
People are unique. We all have varying opinions, values, and favorite foods. Believe it or not, we all see colors differently, too. When a person can't see colors the way a majority of us do, we say this person is color-blind. Medically speaking, color-blindness is due to a person lacking certain pigments in the cones within their eyes. This disability can make it especially hard to distinguish between certain color combinations.
- Red-green color-blindness
- Deuteranomaly - green hues tend to appear more red
- Protanomaly - red hues tend to appear darker and more green
- Protanopia and deuteranopia - its very difficult or impossible to distinguish between a red and green hue
- Tritanomaly - it's very difficult or impossible to distinguish between blue and green and/or yellow and red hues
- Tritanopia - colors may appear darker to this person. It's very difficult or impossible to distinguish between blue and green, purple and red, and yellow and pink hues
- Monochromacy - a person cannot perceive colors at all. This condition is generally accompanied by dulled sharpness and a general sensitivity to light.
Consider the following:
Have you ever wondered why stop signs are red and octagonal? Or why the bottom light in a stoplight is always green? Driving in a car can be a dangerous enough endeavor on its own. Imagine if we didn't all have a common understanding of signs and traffic laws. Cars might fail to stop at busy intersections, lack understanding of their location, and general chaos would ensue. The feeling of helplessness this mental image surfaces could be even worse for people with color-blindness.
- If the color of the stoplight was the only way to indicate to a driver that they should stop the car, we might see more accidents.
- If a sign's text and background lack sufficient contrast, it may be hard to read
The choices we make in our towns, cities, and on our highways aren't as arbitrary as they may seem. These standards help to decrease cognitive load and limit misunderstandings for ALL people.
246 million people or 3.5% of the world's population have some form of low-vision. This form of vision-loss cannot be corrected with glasses, contacts, medicine, or surgery. It may be hard for an affected individual to complete their daily activities. The use of magnification, higher contrast text and graphics, and changing the display colors can help make life easier.
Consider the following:
You're looking forward to voting in the upcoming election. Before submitting a ballot, you need register to vote on a website setup by your local government. You browse to the website and the text is very small. You attempt to enlarge it on your screen, but as you do, the text remains the same size, and the layout gets larger. Unable to read the text, you attempt to play the video at the top of the screen. You assume that this video will walk you through the steps to register. It turns out that clicking on the thumbnail doesn't start the video playback. The controls are visible but due to low-contrast, you can't tell which one is the play button. You're frustrated and hitting a road block.
This is a fictional example but something that millions of Americans experience everyday. When we fail to live up to our statements on inclusivity, we are alienating large groups of people. The people we are excluding, have perspectives that will benefit our society the most. Besides, government processes and technologies can be frustrating enough without low-vision. We can do better.
Today's world dominates us with visual representations of information. It's important that in our quest to capture attention and ratings, we don't leave others behind. Building accessible solutions isn't a choice to make but rather a persistent necessity. As you read the above paragraphs, did opportunities to be more intentional and inclusive come to mind? Becoming more aware of our impact, in our designs, or ideas, and own thinking, has the potential to change the world for many people in a profound way.