Inclusion doesn’t stop at accessibility

There is much work to be done to achieve a more equitable future

Illustration by elenabsl/Adobe Stock

In April, I wrote a post about the connections between accessibility (the goal of meeting the needs of all users), universal design (an approach that emphasizes comprehensively addressing those needs), and finally, inclusive design. Now, let’s talk about inclusion—and what it really means.

Inclusion is an extremely popular topic. The term D&I—for diversity and inclusion—is a common part of the lexicon at most large organizations. And it’s used in so many ways, in so many venues, that we may not stop to think who, or what, or even why we’re “including.”

To talk about inclusion is to begin a sentence in the middle, having assumed the first part is understood. The word inclusion is a response to the observation that exclusion is happening. Inclusion is a great and necessary goal to aspire to, but it should never be used to obscure the fact that exclusion, particularly based on any given person’s appearance, heritage, biological makeup, or any other aspect of their humanity, is odious by its very nature. We invoke inclusion as a term to dig us out of a hole, but we must always remember that the hole is still there.

To put it another way: Inclusion exists as a movement because exclusion is the norm.

How inclusive design came to be

So far, we’ve talked about inclusion primarily as it relates to people with disabilities. It should be clear and uncontroversial that disability is just one axis on which exclusion occurs. I’d like to provide some history about how disability advocates achieved what they did. Then I’ll suggest ways to integrate other communities into a common practice of inclusive design.

Disability researchers and advocates were early adopters of the term inclusion. And with good reason—into the second half of the 20th century, like other marginalized communities, people with disabilities faced socially and politically based forms of exclusion. This ranged from subtle and not-so-subtle forms of bias and bigotry and being kept out of public educational opportunities, to the practice of eugenics.

But many people with disabilities also had to struggle with exclusion on an entirely different level, right down to being physically able to enter the average building. As Elizabeth Guffey writes in “Designing Disability: Symbols, Space and Society,” the availability of mass-produced wheelchairs beginning in the 1950s helped to lead a newly mobile and more independent group of individuals to push for alternatives to their biggest obstacle: the staircase.

For inclusive design to thrive, it must expand in scope to all forms of marginalization. That includes accounting for the process of aging, as well as race, gender, sexual identity, economic status, nationality, language proficiency, and more.

The physical mismatch between people and the built environment around them led to a couple different schools of thought about how to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, say, attending classes in a university building. At first, with small numbers of people to accommodate, schools that chose to accommodate these students might direct them to a shipping dock, or a freight elevator, or provide some other piecemeal solution to allow attendance.

The notion that this mismatch was a problem of design came later, as a more diverse set of people made use of these common spaces, and designers and architects started looking at ways to retrofit existing structures, and build new ones, to account for a broader population. The universal design movement, which took shape in the 1980s, served to make accessibility an integral part of architecture and interior design. And the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 codified these design requirements and adaptations, supplying a single target at which builders could aim.

“Curing” the environment, not the disability

The earlier article discussed the medical and social models of disability, and the use of a wheelchair highlights it perfectly. The medical model states that disability is inherent to the individual, and that society then focuses primarily on caring for people with disabilities in order to “cure” them, allowing them to fit within societal norms.

The social model, on the other hand, recognizes that disability exists when the environment fails to account for the needs of the individual. The South African government put it this way in its 1997 white paper: “It is the stairs leading into a building that disable the wheelchair user rather than the wheelchair.”

Today, the disability community benefits from decades of exploratory research, which led to practical products; and standards, which led to legal protections and best practices. The results are by no means perfect, and far from complete. But accessibility design standards and inclusive design best practices show that there is a way forward when both known and unknown barriers are found.

Still, if our goal is inclusion, writ large, we need to look beyond disability, to all the ways in which systems marginalize individuals. We need to apply the same kind of rigor to the way we research our products, the way we engage with each user, the way we model behavior, their needs, desires, and goals, and the way we codify an inclusive approach in our design systems, and in the products we produce.

Addressing marginalization in all its forms

For inclusive design to thrive, it must expand in scope to all forms of marginalization. That includes accounting for the process of aging, as well as race, gender, sexual identity, economic status, nationality, language proficiency, and more. And of course, we need an approach that understands that each individual may occupy different levels of privilege along each line we draw. As we broaden our understanding of how our products can adapt to create a more equitable experience across the board, we should add them to the inclusive design canon.

When we take an intersectional approach to inclusive design, the most obvious connection to inclusion through our original frame of disability is age. The more fortunate among us will live long enough to experience the effects of aging. Our eyes change shape as we age, our hearing eventually fades, we may find ourselves more easily confused, and our injuries take longer to heal. The medical model says, “Don’t worry! We can cure you! Eventually!” But while they try, that social model treatment in the form of railings and ramps and font sizes that look good in your bifocals might be the medicine you’re looking for.

But people with disabilities are far from the only group of people marginalized by technology. The effects of intentional and unintentional bias remain a cause of exclusion. The GenderMag Project, led by Professor Margaret Burnett of Oregon State University, conducted a cognitive walkthrough of a software application and found that 25 percent of the design decisions that went into it had a measurable gender bias. And the problem goes far beyond gender. In an article on the Google Design blog titled “Fair is Not the Default,” Josh Lovejoy documents several cases in which bias is enshrined—from the design of crash test dummies and how skin color is reproduced in photographs, to how artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) algorithms are used to reinforce decades of bias in prison sentencing guidelines.

We don’t need to go past the first line of an average magazine subscription form to find bias in the form of Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss choices. One small step in inclusivity might be to add the gender neutral “Mx.,” introduced into the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in September 2017, as an option. But maybe a better question is, why would Cat Fancy even need to know the gender of its cat fanciers? This is just one situation where we design exclusion into our work simply because ‘“it’s always been this way.’”

These effects are harder to measure and document than, say, the proper ratio of rise to run on a wheelchair ramp. But there are lots of hard problems in computer science, and not only do we choose to tackle them, we also exalt those companies and personalities who do so with the most audacity.

The time has come to consolidate inclusive design guidelines

Web accessibility experts have been researching user scenarios centered around people with disabilities since the early 1990s. That body of work culminated in a global standard known as the W3C/WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a standard which now applies to desktop and mobile apps as well. While you may find that no one in the accessibility community believes it perfectly encapsulates the needs of people with disabilities, it represents a great deal of what we know about these issues, and points out the way when the answer is not always clear.

A policy document may or may not be the right way to consolidate all the things we’ve learned, and all the things we need, to make sustainable progress toward inclusion on a global scale. Either way, there is room in any inclusive design process to say what we know, to explore what we don’t know, and to share what works.

Inclusion exists as a movement because exclusion is the norm.

In the course of my work, I’ve come across numerous guidelines, how-to documents, and frameworks on inclusive language, plain language, recognizing gender bias, cultural awareness, and diversity in areas such as user testing, just to name a few. It’s time to integrate all this research into a single body of knowledge, and for people who believe in the spirit and practice of inclusion to develop a set of shared goals. It’s also time for those of us advocating inclusion for specific groups, both among their peers and superiors, to create space for others who experience systematic exclusion.

Coming from a background of accessibility advocacy, I used to think that my job was done when I drew some of an executive’s or a team’s focus toward people with disabilities and their needs. I now understand that a commitment to inclusion cannot end there. Just as we research the needs of users before building products intended to solve their problems, we need to integrate all that we know about the sources, mechanisms, and effects of exclusion before we can make a concerted attempt at eliminating them.

A step forward with Adobe’s Inclusive Design Exchange

We have launched our own internal Inclusive Design Exchange, or IDX, specifically to address this challenge. Composed of a team of Adobe Design designers, researchers, engineers, and managers, of diverse backgrounds—from locations around the world—IDX is tasked with changing the way we design software. This group will conduct its own education and research and share what they know with each other and throughout the organization.

We’re starting by educating one another. I’m bringing a reading list that’s long on disability and accessibility. That list also includes several recent books on bias in tech, including Algorithms of Oppression, by Safiya Umoja Noble; The Intersectional Internet, edited by Noble and Brendesha M. Tynes; “Automating Inequality,” by Virginia Eubanks; and Weapons of Math Destruction, by Cathy O’Neil. To that, we can add mountains of academic research compiled over the years.

We have a lot to absorb, to begin with. In the end, we need to integrate this information into the work that we do, not just within Adobe Design, but across the company, and indeed, all of technology. We must use our strengths as a company—for example, our expertise in design, computer vision, and machine learning, as well as our individual differences and lived experiences—to make lasting change happen. Everyone, and every organization, has that same opportunity, if they listen, learn, and work to use the knowledge they gain to help remove the barriers that remain, and prevent new ones from being formed.

The work that needs to be done in order to achieve a more equitable future is by its very nature a diversity and inclusion effort. Knowing that, it’s important to keep in mind that, while the voices that inform that effort should come from the communities that feel its effects most presently, people of all levels of privilege are responsible to undertake the work that’s called for.

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