Why Universal Design is Important

Posted on Nov 1, 2009

This week I was working with a small internal team on the architecture and conceptual design of a software product. The intent was to propose a workplace software solution that would improve upon the inadequacies and burdens of “e-room” solutions for greater collaboration and efficiency.

During discussions, the topic of universal access came up as a sidebar when I mentioned the needs of users with disabilities. (The specific instance in this example was color blindness). One of my colleagues made the comment that “we should not design for the lowest common denominator,” insisting that statistics would prove such efforts only benefit a small minority of users and would thus be a waste of time.

I remembered user studies I had performed a year ago, when I executed a global analysis of workplace software and ISO 9660 standards for an Anikto client. Drawing from this experience, I insisted that design considerations were not merely a matter of visual preference or a given percentage of intended users. Rather, I noted that providing employees of all abilities the necessary tools to do their jobs is a moral and legal obligation on the part of the company. Technology that accommodates all users benefits everyone and makes for a better product.

I got to thinking about this because this past week, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education. Carlos Mora, a blind resident of Baltimore, claimed that the Web site for U.S.A. Learns violates Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act because it cannot be interpreted through a screen reader.

According to the claim, Mr. Mora attempted to use the U.S.A. Learns Web site upon his acceptance to a master’s degree program at Johns Hopkins University. Mora is one of many residents of the United States who speak English as a second language, and he had hoped to prepare for his studies by improving his vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation. In defending the claim, Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the NFB, spoke indirectly about the obligations we have as content providers to accommodate online users of all abilities:

In an age where the Internet is a part of everyday life … the United States government has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that the information it provides on the Internet is equally accessible to all in America, including the blind. It is especially ironic that the Department of Education, which is commissioned to provide educational opportunities for all, would deny blind people access to a Web site that provides instructive tools for those who speak English as a second language.

Interestingly, this same day also saw the release of an article describing the efforts of the U.S. General Services Administration in promoting the ubiquitous value of barrier-free technology. An example can be found in the closed captioning of a televised football game, which benefits not only the Deaf but also patrons watching the game in a crowded, noisy sports bar.

With the U.S. Access Board preparing to update Section 508, there will be increased discussion on the applicability of legal standards to the online space. As the Web has become increasingly essential to the ways in which we seek education, employment and entertainment, it’s refreshing to hear the viewpoints of Terry Weaver, GSA’s Director of Information Technology Accessibility and Workforce Division:

“If we can buy things that make technology work for people with disabilities, they don’t want to make a government version and a non-gov version. They’re going to make one version, so the ripple effect goes out and suddenly you find things that are accessible for folks that started out being a government requirement but made good business sense down the line … [Section 508] isn’t a stop order. It’s actually a include-everybody approach. If someone says ’508′ to you, they’re not telling you to cut it out, they’re saying make sure you make it work for everyone.”

And this is where Universal Design comes into play. What we need to understand as a population is that inclusive design efforts benefit people who are not disabled, as well as those who are. Removing barriers to access provides a benefit that will likely improve user experiences for everyone. This is critically important for products that are launched on a global scale.

Choosing a design strategy that accommodates people with disabilities isn’t catering to the “lowest common denominator.” Too many technology vendors, particularly those who supply workplace and transactional services, fail to recognize this target demographic as part of their deliverable scope. Teams that deprecate Universal Design to the back burner perform a disservice to their clients, the products they endorse and the customer base that supports them.