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.
- Seattle Commission for People with Disabilities
- DO-IT at University of Washington
- Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind
- Washington Council of the Blind
- Washington Talking Book and Braille Library
- Hearing, Speech and Deafness Center
- Accessibility Camp Seattle, part of the Accessibility Camp movement
- Disability Rights Washington
- Each school district, college or university has (or should have) a disability services office, such as Seattle Central’s
- Aging and Disability Services for King County
- Northwest Universal Design Council
- Hammer and Hand, Universal Design and Aging in Place, Barrier-free homes in Portland and Seattle
- STAR of Seattle, Special Technology Access Resource, Public Computer Center
- Washington Assistive Technology Act Program
- Skills, Inc
- Alliance of People with disAbilities
So, UX folks, get out there and fail, because “if you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough.”