case study

Accessibility to the Face

“Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.” -Jack Handey


Have you ever considered buying a new car and then started seeing that car everywhere you go? Or perhaps you learned a new word and it seems you started hearing it more than you ever did before?

Cognitive psychologists call this “apophenia.” It describes the way our brain makes connections in random data. It also explains how when we’re presented with any new concept, that concept becomes part of our mental pattern recognition system and begins showing up in our conscious mind.

I’ll get back to apophenia in a minute.

Now, let’s talk about accessibility from an academic perspective. Wikipedia defines the word thusly:

Accessibility is a general term used to describe the degree to which a product (e.g., device, service, environment) is accessible by as many people as possible.

If you work in IT, you may have first heard the concept from a marketing department in your company. In the mid 90’s, the concept was championed largely by corporations, who in their desire for lucrative government contracts, would attempt to adhere to “Section 508 Compliance.” A whole slew of consultants and articles came out of the woodwork, promoting the idea and informing the web development and design community all about this latest buzzword.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into Section 508 or the Rehabilitation Act or any of the rest of that stuff. It’s all about politics and has nothing to do with what I’m going to talk about.

Also, I don’t care about any of it.


The issues of accessibility are a daily reality for my family. For us, it’s not a political issue at all. Our oldest daughter, Ramona, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around.

Allow me to give you a glimpse of what this aspect of our life is like.

Last year, my wife and I took the kids to the Hogle Zoo here in Salt Lake. Before we left, my wife called the information desk to find out if the zoo train was an option for Ramona. Ramona loves to ride on trains.

Anna: “Is the train accessible to wheelchairs?”

The Girl: “Yes.”

Anna: “So how does that work? How do I actually get the wheelchair on the train?”

The Girl: “Well, you take the chair to the edge and then you would lift her out and into the train.”

Anna: “So it’s not wheelchair accessible.”

The Girl: “No, I guess not.”

The girl on the phone had never thought of a real situation. She just had a cursory knowledge of the concept. For her, accessibility was a policy.

A few months ago, Anna called ahead to an Italian restaurant we wanted to visit to find out if we could get inside easily with the wheelchair.

Anna: “Is your restaurant accessible?”

Host: “Yes.”

Anna: “So we won’t have any problem getting a wheelchair inside?”

Host: “Nope.”

So we arrived to the restaurant. I walked up a flight of steps and let the host know we had a wheelchair. He had us meet him at the back entrance where we walked through the kitchen and ran into a very tall step.

Host: “Oh, I guess there IS that one step. Sorry about that.”

Now, I’m a pretty big guy and after 11 years of lifting Ramona and her chair into all kinds of places, one step was not going to keep me from enjoying the evening. I eat steps like that for breakfast. That said, Ramona and her current (non-electric) wheelchair weigh about 170lbs. We’ve looked at electric (power) wheelchairs for her and the low-end from a weight perspective is about 150lbs. If she had a power chair, we would not have been eating baked ziti that night.

There are also a slew of places that are genuinely easy to get the wheelchair into but then the employees place obstacles like sales displays and other things right in the middle of the walkway. Some are worse than others and my wife has a phrase she uses a lot:

“Don’t even think about going antiquing if you’re in a wheelchair.” -Anna


I don’t tell these stories because I want sympathy. I don’t share them because I think it makes me a better, smarter, more compassionate person than you. These things are a fact of life for me and my family. And here’s the rub–examples like these and so many others are part of the life of anyone with a disability. In fact, this stuff happens so often that I forget about individual instances unless they’re really funny like the one at the zoo.

It’s not a sob story, but sometimes it really sucks. There are things that my daughter will never be able to do because it’s practically impossible for us to do them. There are rides at the local amusement park she will never be able to ride even though I know she would love them dearly.

Here’s my point–if your brother or sister had a disability, you would give a crap. But you don’t have to have a sibling in a wheelchair to genuinely care, even if it’s only in your work.

Empathy is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. We have an ability to imagine things the way that others see them and how it makes them feel. We don’t even have to have a disability ourselves.

And from my perspective, accessibility is about giving a crap.

Accessibility is NOT a checklist.

Accessibility is about usability.

Accessibility is a paradigm shift.

Accessibility is a personal issue.


The odds you’ll ever hear a direct complaint from someone with a disability regarding your work is low. So unless your boss has asked you to care (because your company is going after a government contract) or you have become interested for other professional reasons, you’ll likely never need to care.

You see, the people in the stories I shared are likely very nice, understanding and caring people. They didn’t INTEND to be ignorant about the issues of accessibility, because for them, the reality of the concept didn’t actually exist. It was just a word, a policy, an item on a checklist. And I know this because before I had a child with a disability, I was ignorant too. The whole world of disabilities had not opened to me. And here’s the funny thing–much of it is still closed to me.

Ramona’s disability is just one in a sea of disabilities and every one is different. A few days ago I sat down with a senior gentleman to walk through an application I had designed. As I watched him use the computer, I was starkly reminded of just how hard it is for some senior folks to use the mouse. He doesn’t have the same fine motor control he did when he was 20. Fortunately, I had once taught a course on basic internet skills to a group of seniors and knew how hard some of the things we take for granted can be for them. Because of my understanding, I had made the buttons on the screen fairly large. Because of that knowledge, the application was a success.

This gentleman didn’t have what we typically think of as a disability. Usually, we think about wheelchairs, blindness, missing limbs, etc. But live long enough and disabilities will affect you in one way or another too.

So how then, do we get to where we understand accessibility? How can we internalize it and have a real paradigm shift about what it really means?

My hope with this article is to make accessibility issues surrounding disabilities become real for the reader. The ideal response for me would be for people to think a little harder about the people using your product or experience and what it might be like for those who may not have all their faculties.


Ok, so back to apophenia.

I’m going to propose an experiment.

For the next hour or so, I’d like you to imagine you don’t have any hands. All you have are elbows and forearms. How would you scroll down on this article? How would you close the window or switch applications? When you leave your desk and get to a door, what would you do? When you need to eat your lunch, how would you do it? If you get an itch, how would you scratch it? Would you scratch it?

Do a similar exercise next time you think about the experience or product you design.

It seems silly, but putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is liberating. Understanding people and their concerns, needs and wants is a core part of what we do as designers but also helps us to be better people.

And we all want to be better people, right?

posted by Rob Foster on Tuesday, Mar 24, 2009
tagged with accessibility, face, to the