Home » Access for all – my plea for human-centred design

Access for all – my plea for human-centred design

Text reading "If you’re trying to do the minimum possible to pass a WCAG check, you’re doing it wrong."

As I leave the my role in University of Edinburgh website publishing after a decade’s work, here’s my final plea to you all to keep real human beings at the centre of digital publishing.


How it started

In 2010, a broke, devil-may-care, woman in my late twenties, I was offered six weeks of casual editing work with the University of Edinburgh. I climbed three winding flights of stairs to a converted tenement flat on Buccleuch Place, where a core team of four – a director, two managers and an administrator – were supported by a varying stream of temporary staff on (fortunately now obsolete) Hours To Be Notified contracts. This was the Website Development Project.

It was just a short-term affair, set up to help the majority of Schools and Colleges save time and effort by coming into the new content management system, Polopoly. After that, we surely wouldn’t need an ongoing web resource.

How it’s going

Eleven years later I found myself working from the most accessible environment – my own home – as the longest serving member of what is now an outstanding team of over 25 people in the core Website and Communications team. So it’s with sadness that I finished up the role to take voluntary severance.

What happened in between

The changes I’ve seen in the past decade, within the University and across the digital industry, are impossible to quantify. For example, it was less than four years before I started that Facebook was made generally available. I personally have gone from copy editing MSc recruitment pages to working on the fundamental design standards behind all University communications. I’ve always been dedicated to creating a community of human-centred makers, whatever content they might be creating.

Effective Digital Content

My proudest work over my time with the University was the design and delivery of what started as Writing for the Web and is now the Effective Digital Content course. From the outset, my focus in training staff in creating content was to make it effortlessly readable and usable to everyone.

Effective Digital Content – Our training courses – University of Edinburgh

To me, usability and accessibility are all part of the same thing. Accessibility should never be an add-on, an afterthought. If something isn’t usable by everyone, then you cannot truly call it usable.

Bringing home what accessibility really means

In 2014, I herniated a disc in my back. Since then, I’ve had a lot of time off sick or working limited hours, having had two sets of spinal surgery and, most recently, a diagnosis of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. This is a very painful, unpredictable condition that makes my life very hard. It’s why I decided to apply for voluntary severance, so I can take some time out for my health.

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome – NHS information

My lived experience of disability has thrown my work in usability and accessibility into stark focus.

Why I don’t care about accessibility legislation

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are very important. There are huge legal penalties to not meeting them and it’s important that everyone understands that.

But it makes me incredibly sad that the legal penalties can be what motivates people to create accessible user experiences.

I see an interesting parallel here to the current Covid situation. I’m sure we’re all seeing the many stories on social media about the ways peoplefind to circumvent regulations and find a loophole. If a supermarket is only letting in single shoppers, for example, people might go in separately then meet up inside. They think they’ve achieved something. In fact, by ignoring the spirit of the law, they’re contributing to the spread of Covid-19.

The same is true of creating accessible websites.

If you’re trying to do the minimum possible to pass a WCAG check, you’re doing it wrong.

You should be doing the most you can to make using your service as painless as possible, not for generic, faceless ‘users’ but for the real humans in real pain who are accessing your content.

Disabled applicants who have just as much right to a degree as anyone.

Disabled students and researchers who have so much to offer the academic community.

Disabled staff, who are just like me.

Don’t make them ask

I sometimes hear that people will happily provide accessible content to whoever asks.

However, after spending time using a wheelchair, I’ve learnt how frustrating and demeaning it can be having to ring a bell to access a shop or restaurant. The same is true of asking for any accessibility need to be met. It should be met as standard.

Exquisite access

If I have one legacy I can leave to the University community, it’s for content creators at all levels to truly understand the importance of beautiful, effortless, accessibility.


[This article was originally posted on the University of Edinburgh Website & Communications blog.]