When we talk about accessibility, the first thing we think about is helping specific individuals with specific sets of needs and disabilities. Good accessible design, however, should feel like it is made for you, regardless of your ability. When we design for accessibility, we make things that are better for all.
Accessible design is good design – it benefits people who don’t have disabilities as well as people who do - Steve Ballmer
The curb cut effect
Often the best ideas come from designing something with a specific group in mind.
You’d be forgiven for not giving much thought to the history of dropped kerbs – those lowered edges of kerb that allow access between the pavement and the road.
Dropped kerbs (known as curb cuts in the USA) were originally campaigned for by people with disabilities. They were intended to make it easier for people in wheelchairs to access pavements, yet their benefits are felt by many. Any time you’ve wheeled a suitcase up a kerb or a pushed a stroller across a pedestrian crossing, you’ve benefited from the work done by and for people with disabilities.
Digital ‘curb cuts’
The ‘curb cut effect’ illustrates how addressing the disadvantages felt by one group of people can help society as a whole. We recommend checking out the 99% Invisible podcast episode on curb cuts to learn more about the fascinating story.
And the curb cut effect exists in the digital world, too. By designing digital features with disabilities in mind, we make online services that everyone can use.
People with visual impairments or colour blindness benefit from having sufficient contrast between the text and the page background, but it also helps those using their device in bright light, such as outside on a sunny day.
Large buttons and sensible spacing
Some people with limited dexterity need large clicking and tapping areas with adequate spacing to make it possible for them to select the links and buttons they need, but it also makes the content more usable on touch screens and in situations when the device cannot be held steady.
Clear layouts and straightforward language
Cognitive disabilities can make it difficult to focus on long passages of dense text. But by avoiding complex sentences and jargon, and arranging content in a clear layout, it also makes it easier for anyone unfamiliar with a topic to skim read the information and understand what it’s about.
Those with low vision or some forms of dyslexia and other cognitive learning disabilities rely on being able to customise text so that they can read it. This include changing the size, space, font and colour. But this also means that the content is more adaptable to different screen sizes and personal preference.
We rarely use our digital tech in ideal circumstances. Most of the time, we are not sitting at a carefully set up desk in an office. Instead, we are accessing websites and services while we’re on the move or when we’re exhausted after a long, tiring day.
We know that 65% of visitors to essex.gov.uk access the website on a mobile phone, and sometimes are in environments that make using websites difficult. The fancy term for this is “situational impairment” and many of the things we do to make our websites work for people with disabilities also helps these people.
Where’s your curb cut effect?
When you design for accessibility, you won’t always know about all the benefits of the design you are implementing – but you can be certain that your users will find benefits that you didn’t expect.
On 1 November every year, Purple Tuesday marks a global social movement where organisations make one new commitment to improve their accessibility and practice, implement the improvement and join in the global celebrations.
Take the time to ask yourself: what commitment would you make? GOV.UK’s dos and don’ts of accessibility might provide some inspiration. We’d love to hear about what improvements you want to implement (or have already implemented!).