Home » Why we shouldn’t be asking ‘Is it accessible?’

Why we shouldn’t be asking ‘Is it accessible?’

Text reading: The question designers should be asking is: "Who am I disabling?"

How a bricked up door got me thinking about how we should take ownership of our design choices and who they are disabling.

There are two doors round the corner from where I live, and every time I pass them, I am reminded of the social model of disability.

One (shown below, if you can see it) has four steps up to it, and then the doorway itself is bricked in.


A brick wall with a doorway in it. There are steps up to it, but the doorway is bricked up.

The other has a lovely wooden door, and no steps. The doorway, however, is set around ten feet in the air.

They are not accessible.

The social model of disability

Of course, the doors were not designed this way. There’s no chance that even an architect of 100 years ago would design something like this. They would intuitively understand that it’s not accessible. The doors – like so many designs – have become less accessible over time.

The social model of disability states that it is not our physical and cognitive impairments which disable us, it is our environment, and the way it is designed. These doors as they are now disable everybody, so everybody can intuitively understand their flaws. Adding steps or taking away the bricks would enable many people, and make it suddenly ‘accessible’. The doors have gone from

‘not accessible’ to ‘accessible’. But in fact, the presence of steps continues to disable many people.

Who is it accessible to?

It’s why I always find it odd when someone asks of a digital service: ‘Is it accessible?’. No-one but philosophers and magicians design something like these doors, something completely inaccessible.

A better question might be ‘Is it accessible to everyone?’. I don’t believe you can really call something accessible unless it’s accessible to everyone.

However, I think the best question designers (of any kind) should be asking is:

“Who is this disabling?”

The unfortunate truth is that all design will be disabling someone. Even a WCAG AAA compliant website can’t meet the needs of every single person. In many designs (particularly live events), an attempt to meet one person’s accessibility need can inadvertently disable someone else.
Understand who you are disabling

Instead of having the yes/no question of ‘Is it accessible?’, clearly understanding who you are disabling, and understanding that is it your choices that are disabling them, can be a very powerful way to take ownership of your design.