This article was written in 2019. It might or it might not be outdated. And it could be that the layout breaks. If that’s the case please let me know.
Those of you who managed to read my master thesis about designing with real people with real disabilities, and managed to read all of it, may remember that one of my conclusions is that we need an exclusive design master program in The Netherlands. Together with my colleague Irene Kamp we’ve started the bureaucratic journey of setting up such a master. I think it’s important that everybody knows what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. And as always, I would love to hear your ideas.
In the past few years we and our students have worked together with different people with different disabilities. We observed how they used the web, and together we came up with new interfaces for tasks they wanted to be able to fulfil. It was shocking to see how hard it was for for instance blind people to do common tasks on the web, like shopping for groceries at the largest grocer in the Netherlands, transferring money at one of the largest banks of the Netherlands, or accessing a documentary at the Dutch archive of television documentaries. Simple, baked in design patterns, like navigations, and even skip links, turned out to be hurdles so high that people prefer not to use the web. The conclusion is that not only have we — as a design industry — never designed for and with people with disabilities, we have actively excluded them.
Personally I think this fact should be more than enough justification for an exclusive design master that focuses on designing tailor made things for and with real people with real disabilities.
Of course the question arises: do we need a master? Wouldn’t a bachelor program do the job?
Let’s take a look at the industry where my current students will work in a few years.
Current accessibility practices on the web in the Netherlands
A few years ago Johan Huijkman of Q42 gave a presentation about the public transport website in The Netherlands that they had just built. The website had to be accessible. So after the first version was published, they hired an accessibility audit firm. This audit resulted in a list of technical recommendations, which would result in an accessible website. After Q42 implemented these recommendations Johan took a look at the result and thought:
I cannot imagine that a blind person can find their way home now. So he gave his phone to a blind friend and asked him to go home. He couldn’t. The website was theoretically accessible according to the audit, yet in practice it wasn’t even usable.
Years later things have not improved. On the contrary: there is as good as no experience with designing for people with disabilities, and accessibility audits are still mostly done after the fact, if done at all. In case of an audit, theoretical accessibility is still seen as an acceptable outcome, while concepts like usability are still ignored completely.
Accessibility is not part of webdesign in The Netherlands. It is mostly ignored completely. And if it’s not ignored it is part of an after the fact, technical checklist. At best.
This is the industry where our students will start working. Even if we teach them to design inclusively, and to go way beyond checklist accessibility and to test with real people, I can’t help but wonder: How long will these ideas last when their product owners, their creative directors, art directors, and CEOs tell them that accessibility is an edge case, costs too much money, and that the new feature has to be done by tomorrow? You cannot expect a junior designer to stand up against so much seniority.
There’s this unbelievable example of the incompetence of the industry in the Netherlands: when the new website for individual transport for people with disabilities was launched it was not accessible. So even if the full target audience needs an accessible website, our industry manages to ignore it.
While I certainly believe in the power of changing things from the bottom up, in this case I’m afraid that change is necessary at the top. We need designers who are able to function on a strategic level.
Even if you don’t see accessible design as a moral obligation, there is a very simple yet pressing reason why we need more expertise: it is the law. In The Netherlands we ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This means many things. For websites it means that they have to be accessible for people who depend on them. I can imagine many, many specialist master students studying specific usability and accessibility niches. The Netherlands needs this knowledge.
For educational institutions it means that people with disabilities are not excluded. If I look at both the physical and digital environment of the university where I work I can only conclude that lots and lots of work needs to be done before we can say that we do not exclude people. I can imagine many more students working on all kinds of niches within educational accessibility.
And these are just two possible directions. Online shopping, physical museums, access to public transport, the UX of assistive technology, these are just a few things that pop up to my mind while I write this sentence. There is so much more to do in this largely ignored field. I am sure you can come up with a case or two as well.
Who needs these inclusive designers?
An important question we need to answer is if society needs highly educated inclusive designers.
Let’s look at it from my own niche of webdesign and webdevelopment, and then zoom in even further and only look at the Dutch government. All new Dutch governmental websites have to be accessible. In the Netherlands we do not have a service like the Government Digital Service in the UK, which is able to manage this on an acceptable level. This means that every municipality, both small and big, has to make sure their website is accessible. At the moment most of these municipalities probably don’t have a senior UX team that’s able to design and build their site themselves. And most of them probably don’t have a senior product owner who is able to hire and manage the right agency to do the job.
Which would be an impossible job to begin with. Where do you find an agency that’s able to deliver well designed accessible websites? The handful of Dutch agencies that are able to deliver such a job could never design and build all government websites. You see, I am rather pessimistic about the near future. There are not enough designers and developers to meet the urgent demand for accessible websites. And there are not enough people on a strategic, senior level who are able to demand accessibility in the design process.
So, from my own niche’s perspective I think it’s clear that indeed we need a continuous stream of highly educated specialist designers who can help society with the transformation from design that actively excludes people, to design that includes.
To be clear, I talk about accessibility on the web because the web is what I design for mostly. But this is not going to be an inclusive design master for the web only. It should be much broader than that. Inclusive design, and design for disability is needed in any part of life, not just on the web and on our devices.
Our basic thoughts on inclusive design and design for disability
It is our ambition to lift accessible, inclusive design way beyond the mere functional.
Of course it’s not just up to Irene and me to decide the curriculum of a master. But right now we think Kat Holmes’s inclusive design principles are a very good starting point:
- Recognise exclusion
- Learn from diversity
- Solve for one, (optionally) extend to many
If it’s up to me we can add the exclusive design principles to the mix, as a design method.
We also want to work with the idea of nothing about us without us, which means that we would really want people with disabilities to play an active role in the master as well. As teachers, as students, and as participants. Of course.
We like the social model of disability al lot.
But since designing for inclusion and disability is in large part uncharted territory, I wouldn’t want to hold on to any principles in a dogmatic way.