Wendy Chisholm

Stairs make the building inaccessible, not the wheelchair. Co-author of Universal Design for Web Applications. Strategist for Microsoft. @wendyabc at twitter.


with 4 comments

I had a great lunch with Dylan on Friday and he tweeted afterward: “UX and accessibility both have empathy as a core value. So why don’t UX and #a11y work together more?”

Empathy is “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Yet many designers and developers who I have worked with  do not have enough information to have empathy for the various ways that living with a disability influences feelings, thoughts and attitudes. Or it’s more accurate to say that the information they do have clouds their ability to experience empathy for someone living with a disability. There is too much stigma and too many fears.

Aimee Mullins’ 2009 TEDMed Talk digs into the definition of the word disability in a beautiful (and painful) summary of issues that have been prevalent themes since the beginning of the Disability Rights Movement. She reads a definition from a dictionary then says, “I was born into a world that perceived someone like me to have NOTHING positive whatsoever going for them.”

Even when we use the Trace Usability Screening Kit with designers and developers, the  experience that I’ve seen people consistently grok are the various low vision and color perception goggles. My sense is that there is a shared experience with color blindness tests that most U.S. kids receive in elementary school. People can also grok captions because there is enough use of them in noisy bars and pubs that people have some unconscious awareness of them.

But living with blindness, physical disabilities, hearing disabilities, cognitive disabilities and speech disabilities are beyond most people’s common experience. I have often been part of someone’s first conversations about making a web site or an app accessible. I have lost track of the number of times I have heard a person ask, “but…how does someone who is blind use a computer?” or “Why would someone who is blind want to use this application?” Watching someone like Steve Gleason interact with a computer via eye tracking software blows their minds. The feeling that I pick up is bewilderment and pity, not empathy.

Another common theme in DRM is that people with disabilities are either viewed as superheroes or children, not everyday, empowered people. We need more exposure of Murderball, Push Girls, and Tommy Edison–to name just a few examples of people being open and “out” about being people–who want to work, learn, play, date, compete.

That’s the lack of awareness bit. If someone becomes more aware and begins to move towards empathy, the next barrier is fear. People who have not interacted with a person with a disability are often afraid of saying the wrong thing, of being offensive. I love the Lean Startup/Lean UX movement because it gets people out of the building and into the field. Yet, how many people with disabilities are they meeting in the field? Not many. Some folks don’t know where to go, others are afraid of saying the wrong thing.

So, UX folks, just as you are encouraged to fail in prototyping, I encourage you to fail in interacting with people with disabilities because you will learn a bunch. You will learn what not to say and what people care about. You’ll learn about where the obstacles are–both the designed, physical barriers and the constructed emotional ones that exist within yourself. Start with this article, “Interacting with People with Disabilities: The Basics” and this list of accommodations for faculty, to learn about any accommodations you might need to have in place to invite someone with a disability into a lab.

If you don’t know where to go, look to the variety of organizations that support people with disabilities in your area. In Seattle alone, here’s a sample of some of the organizations you could contact. One of the best ways I’ve found is to write an email of what you are building and that you are looking for people to test your product. Provide contact information and let the organization send it to their subscriber list. Or ask if there is an upcoming event where you could set up a booth.

So, UX folks, get out there and fail, because “if you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough.”



Written by wendy

April 14th, 2014 at 8:13 am

Posted in musings

4 Responses to 'Empathy'

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  1. I love this! I’m the daughter of a legally blind, paraplegic. As we worked together in the family business, I’ve spent quite a bit of time with him just moving through life. Having this experience gave me a unique perspective that I carry with me always.

    As a web developer, I completely agree that more needs to be done for websites to be barrier free and take issue with the idea that because the company does not accept federal funding they can get away with not being ADA compliant.

    Thank you for encouraging able body people to welcome disabled into their lives.

    Annie Wolock

    16 Apr 14 at 12:29 pm

  2. You’re welcome, Annie. Thanks for the comment. I’m curious to hear more about your experience. Have you written about it?


    16 Apr 14 at 9:13 pm

  3. I love this call to empathy Wendy. As someone who was sighted and is now blind, I empathise with people who feel uncertain about talking to someone with a disability, and understand how it feels to be on the receiving end of that uncertainty.

    I remember once being asked by a small boy, why I was walking along with a white cane. He had no qualms about asking, but his mother was absolutely horrified that he’d marched up to me to find out.

    We can learn a lot from children I suspect. If someone is genuinely curious about what it’s like to lose your sight, to be blind, to use technology without being able to see it, I’ll do my best to answer.

    Léonie Watson

    17 Apr 14 at 9:13 am

  4. Thank you, Leonie. It’s interesting to hear that you have empathy with people who feel uncertain about talking with someone with a disability. Your story about the small boy is a common one. I wonder how that conversation would have gone if his mother hadn’t been horrified? I wonder what it takes to help parents feel less horrified when their children want to ask questions? I remember when my son and I had dinner with Janina Sajka and he asked her about something she was doing, I can’t remember what. She simply said, “My eyes don’t work.” He’s asked questions about other people he sees…hmm. Maybe there is a blog post about ways to step in as a parent to support the curiosity with tact? It makes me realize that most of us have been taught not to ask and that it could be really hard for some folks to unlearn that. But, I guess that’s the point.


    20 Apr 14 at 8:39 am

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