UX + Disability: A Syllabus

This article follows two posts on how to make disability a focus in the design curriculum: the first discussed my own experiments (and partial failures); the second outlined Cynthia Bennett’s advice for teaching disability design. She is a blind scholar specialist of participatory design with disabled people. Benjamin Gorman asked me if I had thoughts about the coursework and design of a computer sciences unit on Accessibility and Assistive Technologies. This is the curriculum I developed for such a unit for post-graduate students in UX design – but this could arguably be used or adapted to other courses on disability and design, or students of other levels. This is a course that was workshop intensive, and about 30 hours long. In terms of philosophy, I know well that I won’t be able to turn them into accessibility or disability experts. I thus aim at making them aware of the resources available, their moral duty to implement accessibility standards in any work they do and to equip them with the basic design and research skills needed.

Introductory session

I first start by inviting students to turn on and use accessibility option on their laptop of smartphones. I asked them to find out by themselves how to do so – this makes the point that digital accessibility requires considerable work from the people who need it.

We then map collectively the accessible inputs they know. And then those they don’t (switches, gaze, voiceOver etc.). I show videos such as these:

From these two activities, I have them make a mindmap of the design and technical features a digital product should have to enable these multiple modes of interaction and the full range of human perception abilities. I show them gov.uk accessibility posters, with which we compare their mapping. At this point we can start discussing how they would revisit past projects based on this exposé of accessibility principles.

Coursework

For the coursework, I’ve identified three projects-based approaches that have worked well in the past – providing students keep receiving advice by someone with an expertise in inclusive design and accessibility.

  1. Well-defined projects using my own research material (e.g., interviews, market research). For instance: an interactive metric conversion chart for visually impaired and blind children. I try to have a variety of projects to allow for choice;
  2. Doing an accessibility audit on an existing website and proposing changes and ways to implement it;
  3. Revisiting a previous project of theirs.

One thing that really did not work was to let students build a project of their own. It was too broad and required too much research before getting to design.

For their project, students have to hand in:

  • An extended moodboard / market research;
  • A prototype or an annotated design proposal;
  • Personas: I know the use of personas is highly controversial, but I’ve consistently found they enabled to identify and discuss stereotypes (such as: this website doesn’t have to be made accessible to blind people because they wouldn’t be able to become doctors);
  • A description of their design process and rationales, tools used, ways of checking accessibility and to convey accessibility features to developers;
  • A detailed plan of the additional primary research they think they would need.

Additionally, I make groups who take turn presenting an accessibility resource at the beginning of the session.

Disability Studies and Design

I always dedicate at least one session to disability studies and the history of disability rights, though computer sciences students tend to rate it as unnecessary. It isn’t, and I’ve attempted many ways to make it interesting and engaging (collaborative notes, making of an interactive timeline, use of videos, podcasts…), but it is perceived as ‘too political’ which is not avoidable. I can see the positive effects it has, as it has often spurred nuanced and passionate class discussions, but I would encourage if possible to account for this when asking students to rate the course.

So this session introduces key design concepts and examples: barrier-free design, universal design, participatory design, and critical disability design. I build upon the work of Bess Williamson, Aimi Hamraie and Elizabeth Guffey, and this is the teaching aide I’ve built for it. This enables me to introduce web accessibility standards.

Web Accessibility

I start by web accessibility on laptops and desktops because accessibility compliance can be tested very easily and rapidly using a variety of online tools. Students try tools on the W3C list and compare results, before discussing what are the issues that should be resolved through UX/UI changes and those affecting code and code structure. They then reflect on the kind of tools that could be helpful to help developers and UX designers implement more accessible systems.

They then do short annotation exercises about potential accessibility issues in websites they often use, and I invite them to research whether these issues have been discussed by disabled people online. This is a great way to convey how difficult true accessibility is – and that although checking tools and lists are helpful they should always test with multiple users.

Mobile accessibility

I start by reminding of the exploration of accessibility options during the introductory sessions, then have a debate about what additional issues they expect to encounter when designing for mobile platforms as well as what are the things that could be easier to implement (e.g., voice interaction). I then introduce them to the work of Jordyn Castor at Apple, and the accessibility resources for Android and iOS, which they explore by making small papers prototype annotated with accessibility features or concerns.

Content accessibility

This is the session during which I introduce DAISY (accessible ebooks), captions and audio-description. The students write captions and evaluate how different CMS/tools suggest users to add one. They make alternative UX propositions to encourage user-generated alt-text.

Depending on students’ interests (and the UX fashion), I use this session for a wide range of examples/case studies of digital accessibility. This has included VR/AR, video games more broadly, tangible interaction…

Adapted research methods 1: ethics & planning

In my experience, students have received very little training regarding ethics and User Experience. Even those with professional experience do not necessarily understand why I teach this, as they are not required to present their research plan to an ethics board, contrary to academics. The first half of this session is based on case-studies (which I update) of how UX research may negatively impact marginalised population, especially disabled people. The second half is dedicated to very pragmatic and practical challenges to involve disabled participants: do you have a sign language interpreter? Do you offer to cover taxi fare and meet outside to blind participants? Do you offer all participants to meet them close to their home? Have you really checked there is no stairs to get to your office and that tables are at the right size? How do you accommodate assistance dogs? We pretend the research would occur in the classroom and look at how a participant would get there (in a few cases, they simply could not).

Adapted research methods 2: adaptations of common UX research methods

I present my own and colleagues’ work on adapted methods to do or evaluate design. We then list research methods they know and how they could be adapted or replaced depending on disabilities. It could also be a session on core UX research methods, their use and the accessibility challenges. I often have students practice interviews by pairs.

Personas & empathy

I open with this question: does accessible design require more empathy from the designer? The reason for which I include this discussion is that many online resources on accessible design focus on empathy, which too often leads to ignoring disabled people’s expertise on their own needs. This is a way to defuse it. Instead I emphasize the importance first persons’ accounts and the use of research. Students write up personas that have to be justified by their reading/listening to disabled people and designers or scholarship. I also point out not all research is great, and that it’s good practice to check whether a given piece of scholarship has been critiqued.

As a note, practitioners (and students) often rely on disability categories they then stop questioning. In my experience, students start by considering visual impairments, then physical impairments (keyboard navigation), then hearing impairments-and despite knowing for instance about neurodiversity or print disability, this is not something that generally impacts on design. More crucially, they don’t generally consider multiple impairments or the impact of a ‘fix’ on other user categories, or consider the diversity of situations within a category. I hence write personas with multiple impairments, or personas using multiple adapted inputs, which further enables to address stereotypes and stress the need to be responsive to the disability community.

Workshop and presentation sessions

I sometimes alternate the above sessions with workshop sessions, or schedule workshop time every week so students work on their project through the term. I suspect I’ll now present Figma accessibility plugins during these sessions. Then it’s presentations time!


Well, that’s about it! Let me know if this has been helpful, or any tips you want to add.

Additional literature and resources


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