Disability isn't binary

Not really specific to web development, but I see enough comments on open source projects about how to deal with {{some group here}} on the web that I think it’s a good perspective to remind web developers about.

Crazy Cripple Chick is just doing a rant here, but it’s such an important point:

What this means in web terms, where I’m going to just pick on our “most popular” disability for web developers:

When thinking of blind users, it can be easy to fall into the ARIA trap of “screen reader users”, when making a complex page, for example an e-commerce product page where, after a user clicks “add to cart” button, the update is seen in the top-right basket area (top-right for shopping carts is popular and most users would guess to look there first even on a new site, because it’s almost a convention).

Non-binary disability means that, okay maybe your visiually-impaired user is blind or mostly blind and using a screen reader, and so you thought to add in an aria live role to the shopping cart area in the upper right. Using a live role means the user with the screen reader can get the update that the content in the cart has changed without needing to navigate there (they can stay focussed on the button they’ve clicked), and when set to “polite”, it won’t interrupt the user who may be in the middle of something, but will wait to inform them when they’ve paused.

<p aria-live="polite" aria-atomic="true">
    <span class="basket_total">&#8364;&nbsp;0,00</span>
    <span>0</span> <span>products</span>

But your visually-impaired user might not be using a screen reader. Even people who would greatly benefit from using a screen reader on the computer may have never heard of one, and instead use an OS-built-in screen magnifier or just a sh*tton of browser-zooming, set their UI to a 600x800 resolution, and have their faces inches away from the screen. They’re visually impaired, have low vision, but didn’t get the aria-live role! It’s not available to other users. With the screen magnifier, a user may only see a part of the page equivalent to the size of a credit card.

That means when they click the “Add to cart” button, there’s no visible feedback. The upper-right corner of the page is waaaay offscreen. Being aware that the spectrum of bad eyes is broad means you may think of this scenario as well and do things like

  • change the button. Maybe the text changes from “add to cart” to “added!”, or the colour changes to your usual disabled state, or adds a checkmark icon.
  • add text near the button: “in cart” or even one of those temporary javascripted messages that fade out after a while (but not too fast… I always worry I can’t read them fast enough, and I’m not a slow reader really).
  • possibly adding a sound. This may or may not be a good idea depending on what your page is doing and who it’s for, but especially for more application-like services, a small alert sound could be a worthy addition. Of course, users may not have speakers or hearing…
  • similarly, for a device with a vibration API, you could add a tactile response. Like with the small sound, it’s dependent on other things you have no control over (user may be using a mobile device but a stylus instead of fingers), so needs to go with any of the first two things.

By addressing the sighted-end of the visual spectrum, you’ve now also reached out to the cognitive spectrum (people who focus their attention on the button while clicking it now also notice the feedback much easier) and then all your many users who, while they wouldn’t call themselves disabled in any way, tend to miss stuff going on in the rest of the page because in fact they too were focussed on the button they clicked.

Would your notification be noticed if your user simply had a very zoomed-in browser? What if your user’s browser, when zoomed enough, switches to your mobile stylesheet styles? Does everything still work as expected, even if the user is actually sitting behind a desktop machine and doesn’t have a touch screen? (besides the blind-means-ARIA fallacy, I’ve seen others (and have done it myself) fall into the “small screen means touch” fallacy.)

And lastly for this blargle on vision, there’s the tired eyes. Not just “I’ve worked all day and my eyes are tired”, but also like my husband’s eye which, at the beginning of the day, can see, but over time the areas start going black and it gets harder and harder to see anything with it. People with cataracts, changing eye prescriptions and degenerative eye diseases often have times where they see better and other times where they see worse.

A user could (hopefully!) visit your page several times. If you’re a shop, returning customers are what you want! It’s possible, and something a developer (and the UX person) would want to keep in mind, is a user with varying vision my rely on things being in certain places when re-navigating a page. Of course we constantly update our stuff, fix bugs, add new features, etc, and All Users Hate Change (because it makes them do extra work they previously didn’t have to do, to do the same task). Keeping in mind the idea of disability as a range rather than “there’s normal users and screen reader users” can help you decide where to place new things or how to change designs without getting too many users lost.

And, I guess I hope a bit of advocacy gets through as well… if you see people assuming binary disability (“you’re either completely paralyzed in that chair and can do absolutely nothing, or you’re perfectly-abled and therefore faking it because you’re lazy”), step in and educate. This is a hurtful ignorance.

A sort of complimentary low-vision test on different tablets by Detlev Fischer http://www.incobs.de/tests-english/items/tablet-tests-with-low-vision-users-usability.html especially “Unnoticed context changes”

That’s a great post you linked to, @Stomme_poes - and a great post of your own, too.

If I could be permitted a wee rant of my own, I’d like to raise one of my pet hates - on-line forms which include “telephone number” as a required field. Just think for a moment. How many of those have you filled in? And how many times have you actually been contacted by telephone as a result? In my case, the answers are “too many to keep track” and “never” - so that number wasn’t required at all, was it?

Why is this a problem? Because I can’t use a telephone. If the field is set up so I can enter text, I can get round the problem by entering “unable to use”. (That’s not a problem, of course. Nobody minds having to parade their inadequacies in front of total strangers, do they?) But at least I can complete the form, and the recipient understands that there’s no point trying to find a number for me, in the highly-unlikely event that they should actually want to phone. But if the field will only accept digits, what can I do? Put in the land-line number - but that’s only there for the broadband, so there’s no point ringing it, and if they do try they’ll only waste time and get frustrated. Put in my mobile number? Yes, I do have one. I use it for testing sites on a small screen, and for texting with a handful of people who know me well enough to remember never to make voice calls. But I don’t want to give the number out generally and have incoming calls I can’t deal with. Put in my husband’s mobile number? That works, and is OK if I’m doing something jointly, like making travel reservations, that he already knows about, but otherwise I have to remember to explain to him what I’ve been doing, just in case anybody does call. It’s not that I want to keep secrets from him (except when I’m buying his birthday present or suchlike) but simply that I want to be independent - a point Stomme poes has made elsewhere.

And there is another problem with having to ask him to deal with phone calls for me. I had a letter from a government department asking something about my business, and asking me to telephone to discuss it. My husband rang, explained “I’m ringing on behalf of my wife, because she can’t use a phone” and was immediately asked if he had power of attorney. What? I’m running a business (which they know, or they wouldn’t be writing to me), and doing admin for two others, but because I can’t use a phone there’s a sudden assumption I can’t do anything. The ultimate example of regarding disability as binary, I think. All or nothing.

So, bottom line here, please don’t make phone number a required field unless you really, really do require it. And then remember to make provision for those folk who can’t use a phone, because I’m not the only one.

Wandering slightly off-topic, I recently came across a site which was all-but-totally inaccessible by keyboard; even normal browser functions had been over-ridden in some instances. I eventually discovered that the designer of the software on which it was built considers that keyboarding is for power users, and therefore something which can be added at the end, when time allows. The idea that there are people for whom using a mouse is difficult, if not impossible, had apparently never crossed his mind. (Fortunately, others on the team grasped the problem and have made huge improvements.) For him, like so many, if he thinks about accessibility at all, it’s in terms of visual impairment and screen readers.

I think the real key to web accessibility is for people to become more aware of disability in the real world, and the varying degrees to which it affects people. Some conditions vary markedly over time, with good days and bad days, and very often they’re the ones which are perceived as people “swinging the lead” or somehow faking things, yet in some ways, they can be the most frustrating to live with. So yes, I’m with poes on this:

Please tell one of my clients that!

Feel free to quote me. :slight_smile:

We have a client, where they’ve got their own main Dutch e-commerce website (made by someone else), and we do the versions for other countries (Belgium, France, Germany…). Since as a developer I needed to see how their pages looked past the registration process, I was typing in fake info to move on. I repeatedly got the telefoon one wrong and the error message didn’t explain WHY it was wrong, so I couldn’t go further. (Forms should follow Postal’s law as closely as possible… hints and JS validation should be for helping the user get the right data in the right field in the right order and format or as closely as possible before submitting… but since the back end needs to sanitise it every time anyway, this should be relegated to HINTS and not stop users.)

Later the boss came by and happened to know the magical way of filling out telefoonnumbers, so that I could continue (using 0123456789 as the numbers).

If the form requires a telephone number and also has a “comments” field, use the comments field to state “the phone number is made up”. Might help prevent mails with “we tried to call you…”

Lots of Deaf/hoh have a similar issue, but since texting has grown immensely among this group, they’ve found that while there’s no point in getting a call, more and more businesses are sending SMSes.

Not that that would help me, with my very-not-smart phone which can’t do SMSes :slight_smile:

Definately with you there. If they need to contact me, use the email address I provide!! Ask to call from there if it is so important to talk on a phone.

I mean email, sits there, waiting for you when you are ready. Phone, is either missed, or interrupts what ever you are doing, so unless it’s urgent, it really annoys me!!

Some great points here. I am a huge advocate for making sure a website makes considerations for others. In fact at one point I went a bit OTT, and made tools that physically adjusted my websites to high contrasts, and changed text size etc, but over time, I have changed my opinion to thinking the browser should be responsible for most of that. Of course the browser can’t take care of everything, but it can do the job I was coding for much better.

The problem I have encountered in the past when working for small businesses especially, is they can’t justify taking extra time, risk, and cost to make a website especially accessible when in business terms it might only be useful to 1% of customers. I don’t agree with this line of thinking, and the size of benefits depends on the target demographic (Pensioners vs Commandos).

The thing that seems to be hard to explain to people, is that the process of making a website more accessible, almost always brings unexpected benefits to the other ~99% of people by improving usablility, intuitivity, and the codes flexibility. I don’t know how many other people have found this? Additionally the ~1%, is usually worth more in terms of business than the invested cost, and in not taking appropriate measures for accessibility, the company could even be breaking the law!

But you know what, in writing this post, several times I have thought of disabilities in a binary context, and mentally slapped myself. I think highlighting the point that disabilities are not binary is a very worthwhile cause, and it is important to get that message out into society. It’s a bad habbit everyone should break.

Indeed. The thing I hear most in feedback on my sites is folk saying “Wow - it’s so clear and easy to use.” And the sad thing is, they’re genuinely surprised, because they have come to expect that websites are not clear and easy to use.

Not webby in the slightest, but…

(and my point here is not the political aspect of a single country, but the situation of a person with CP who also won Paralympic gold.)

Thanks for posting that, poes.


I last had to fill one of these things out before the most recent “crackdowns”. Even then, it was a nightmare; pages and pages of multiple choice questions about whether/how well you can do x. It might be OK if you have an unchanging condition, like a missing limb, but not if you have a condition which varies from day to day. At the bottom of each list of options was a box for more information, so I carefully and truthfully wrote paragraphs in each, describing the variation in my condition and explaining why none of the tick boxes really applied. It took me several days to complete, because I found the whole process so stressful and exhausting.

The form was returned to me, with a letter stating that they couldn’t process it, because I had failed to choose an option. :mad:

Fortunately, I had a very supportive contact from the local office. When I asked his advice, he suggested I return the form with a letter, explaining that I had answered each question as truthfully and accurately as I could, and that I had signed the declaration at the end confirming this. As ticking a box would not be a truthful answer, would they please confirm, in writing, that they required me to make a false statement. They somehow managed to process the claim after that, without replying to my letter or requiring any further information. :slight_smile:

Not only is disability not binary, it doesn’t necessarily fit into a series of tick boxes, either. :nono:[/ot]

Off Topic:

Recent events regarding disability law in the UK worries me. It seems it’s seen as a place where the government feels it needs to “crack down” on “overspending”. They could probably hit two birds by looking into how to make each pound simply go further and be more useful, than leaving people stuck in their homes or to starve (which is simply something I can’t imagine being okay in a first-world country, with the possible exception of the US).


It worries me, too. On the one hand, we had the Paralympics, which did have a positive effect on the general perceptions of people with disabilities, and we have laws requiring equal access to services for all, regardless of disability. But then we ensure that they’re kept so poor they have no chance of getting out and enjoying those services, or getting involved in para-sports, or doing many things other folk take for granted.

And as Sophie points out, in some quarters, the success of Paralympians has had the weird effect of making people assume that all disabled people can function like that, at all times, and that those who rely on help are simply lazy or lacking in self-motivation. (Another popular approach to disability here, especially with variable conditions, is CBT.)


It’s really screwing people’s lives up.

I’ve lost two friends, one to suicide the other to prison, as a direct result of the changes to disability benefits.

One was off long-term sick, was told he was fit to work and then spent 12 months fighting to be reinstated. He won, but by then had lost all his strength and he took his own life

The second, after years of stability, went completely to pieces under the pressure of the threat of losing his disability benefits. He went down a path of self-destruction which ended in prison. He now refuses all contact with friends and family.