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  • Writer's pictureCydney Phan

Empathy for Accessible Design

Inclusive Design

As designers the implementation of inclusive design, irregardless of medium, can set the precedence of success or failure. Possibly a bit dramatic, but the statement shouldn't undercut the overall importance of designing for everyone v.s the conceptualization of what a normal person is expected to act and look like.

When talking about inclusive design, accessibility is often the main access point to speak upon inclusion across all communities. Casting a wider net for a larger audience base alleviates any exclusive practices and provides a bigger market: a win-win for both companies and users.

I recently detailed the importance of inclusivity and ethical practices in design here.

A group member practicing writing with her non-dominant hand– stimulating motor conditions.

A Practice in Empathy

As an exercise to evoke empathy for those that have different experiences than the normative, our group was instructed to complete prompts given by  We completed various tasks that stimulated color blindness, impaired vision, vertigo, etc.

I already have a rather heavy vision impairment, my near sightedness is so bad that I really can't see anything without my thick pair of glasses. So to see how my group mates handled a specific tasks while being visually impaired by wearing my glasses, was kind of nice. It felt good to share my fear of waking up and not knowing where my glasses are or the fear of walking around and losing half my contacts.

One of our tasks prompted us to remove our mouse capabilities and only use our keyboard hotkeys to navigate around our monitor. Everyday sites like Youtube or Google became even more difficult to operate, and certain elements weren't even accessible from the keyboard. Youtube's main webpage was absolutely in-operational when using the keyboard, videos were not clickable and you couldn't visit any other pages from their home page; it was clear that when designing and coding their site, they didn't cater to those that wouldn't have mouse access. This lack of recognition completely decimated an entire community that might not have dexterity control to use a mouse. The truly frustrating points in this exercise was realizing that irregardless of disability, Youtube's page design was purely reliant on mouse control, even if you had broken mousepad you wouldn't be able to navigate the main page and utilizing their services. Their abundant lack of perception to people and even hardware issues was quite jarring; to know a service that I use constantly was so inaccessible was albeit disappointing, and encompasses the overall lack of design empathy for experience that aren't their own.

Our group attempting to access a Youtube video with only our keyboard.

Apathetic Stimulations

In my search to answer how to effectively implement accessible practices, I came across this article by Amelia Abreu that dictates a more directive approach to intersectional design. In her article: Why I won’t “try on” disability to build empathy in the design process (and you should think twice about it), she states how the often overused simulation exercises often times create apathy, pity and undermines those that truly affected by the conditions. "Try ons" might foster empathy for a short duration when they're actively engaging with the disability however immediately after, their instantly relieved of any physical/ mental struggles by the comforts of their day to day. Abreu stated that the only way to overcome this is to actively try to not only engage with the condition but interview and truly get to know them– human to human.


Thinking about the exercises done in class, it allowed me briefly glimpse into the types of practices and level of empathy that I must express and cultivate within my own research and design goals. Being able to evaluate very popular sites that I had assumed would follow ADA standards were illuminating to know that irregardless of company status, there is always a need to improve company image and performance. Meaning there is always going to be a need for socially impactful designers in the industry. Empathy and a basic level of understanding was formed between me and my classmate was so ever small but made me realize how mending and impactful it is to simply connect with someone on an emotional stance. When my classmate was able to truly ask: "is this how it is for you everyday?", it felt nice to have a small recognition at the struggles at being so immensely near-sighted. Though my "struggles" with being almost blind without my glasses doesn't pale to the struggles of others, to fully recognize the strength and power of even the smallest instance human empathy and compassion, truly was an experience that solidified my desires to properly design for people.

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