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Pain in the leg: How my feet affect my digital experience

Text extract: "it's part of exactly the same experience and the same principle: society disabling someone through bad design."

Being in pain – physical or emotional – affects our cognitive capacity. We can all learn lessons from the pandemic to bring into content design work.

I was chatting to someone last week about why my physical disability is part of what drives me to work in digital accessibility. As I was talking, I realised that the connection isn’t always obvious.

So this blog addresses two things: why I do what I do, and what you can do to help people like me – particularly if you’re a digital content designer.

What motivates me

First of all, why does my lower limb disability motivate me to work in digital accessibility? Why am I not out there designing mobility scooters or train platforms?

The answer to that one is that accessibility is accessibility.

Whether someone is excluded from physically getting into a restaurant or from booking for that restaurant online, it’s part of exactly the same experience and the same principle: society disabling someone through bad design. 

But I’m not a physical space architect or building designer, I’m an information architect and content designer. I work in the digital space because that’s where my skills are.

How my disability affects my online experience

However, having what I like to refer to as a ‘haunted leg’ (it doesn’t show up on thermal imaging) does also affect my online digital experience in a way I’ve realised is not obvious to everyone.

If I’m on my sofa with my leg propped up and my computer on my lap table, there’s nothing stopping me from:

  • seeing the screen, even at some dodgy colour contrasts or with unexpected visual effects
  • navigating using the trackpad
  • hearing the audio

Where I do have a problem is the crux of a huge accessibility issue that can never be adequately assessed by any automated tool: cognitive capacity.

I’m tired, and I’m in pain. My digital task might be boring and necessary, like registering for the electoral roll, or interesting and engaging, like buying a cool present for my friend. Either way, I need to ration my energy and my capacity.

I don’t have time to click through complicated layers of navigation. I don’t have the energy to sift through long screeds of text. If you add unnecessary confusion to my web journey, that’s going to have a knock on affect on my whole day and could cause me literal, physical pain.

Everyone has a limit

The thing is that this is true for everyone. Everyone has a limit to their cognitive capacity, it’s just that some people’s baseline is higher than others.

Part of my capacity is taken up with managing pain, so I have less to devote to digital transactions. That’s my baseline. But anyone’s baseline capacity could also be temporarily reduced, by a bout of the flu, a broken leg, or some bad news.

Stress is a huge factor in cognitive capacity and everyone has been affected by the pandemic to one degree or another. You’ve been panicked this past year. You’ve been stressed. Perhaps you’ve been sick, or grieving. Your cognitive capacity has been decimated.  And throughout this time, going online has often been your only route to navigating through any of that, whether it’s buying groceries or playing Pictionary with friends.

Accessibility is accessibility. You’ve had the opportunity this year to have a window into having an accessibility need: reduced cognitive capacity. As your loved ones get vaccinated and those temporary stresses are lifted, try and remember people whose always have that need. People with chronic pain. Neurodivergent people. People with learning difficulties. The list goes on.

Remember how you’ve felt this past year, and channel that into designing accessible content.