When we talk about good design, we might appreciate clean lines or a well-placed curve. We fawn over function, gush about quality, and applaud innovation. But have we considered what our design values say about our ethical priorities – about what else we value?
Good design balances aesthetics and utility, uniting the best of form and function for the pleasure of the user. But if the user is at the center of good design, it’s important that we examine our assumptions about the user’s identity. When we think about good design, how do we picture the user? What do we assume about the user’s needs?
The truth is that “good design” is largely intended for certain people and not for others – for able-bodied users and not for people with disabilities. People with disabilities are marginalized when products are designed with a narrow set of assumptions about the user’s ability and needs, privileging certain bodily configurations over others.
What we commonly call “good design” is not good enough if it is inaccessible for a large segment of the population. After all, what good is good design if large groups of people are excluded from enjoying products, services, and structures? If people are discriminated against on the basis of ability and denied opportunities for equal participation?
In fact, people with disabilities comprise the largest minority group – a group that cuts across every demographic and includes anyone who might become disabled at any point in life through injury, disease, or the process of aging. (Which is potentially everyone.) Shouldn’t design prioritize the needs of a significant segment of the population? Isn’t it wrong to disregard the needs and experiences of so many people?
In order to do good, good design needs to consider the needs and abilities of as many users as possible – a principle known as inclusive design. Sometimes called universal design, inclusive design is a remedy for the pervasive disregard for people with disabilities in the design of products, structures, and services. Instead of assuming a one-size-fits-all user experience, inclusive design aims to please a wide range of users whose needs and levels of ability vary.
Inclusive design does not specifically target people with disabilities the way that assistive technology does. While assistive devices fill in the gaps left by exclusionary design practices, inclusive design aims to evolve products beyond their conventional definitions, changing our standards for products. Assistive devices aim to remove a barrier for people with disabilities. Inclusive design strives to fundamentally redesign a product so that the barrier does not exist in the first place. Assistive technology is reactive. Inclusive design is proactive.
Good design needs to mean inclusive design. When we talk about what makes design good, we need to consider whether a product is accessible for as many people as possible. Our aesthetics will not suffer in updating the definition of good design to include people with disabilities. Inclusive design meets the criteria of what we already consider to be good design: form, function, quality, and innovation. Yet “good design” does not currently consider accessibility, and it’s time for that to change.
Inclusive design is a social justice issue. And accessibility is an institutional problem. We need to consider what our design values say about what else we value. Do we value equal opportunities for people with disabilities? If so, it needs to be reflected in our design principles. There’s nothing wrong with valuing quality design for its own sake, but it is crucial that we recognize the limits of good design and its tendency for ableism and exclusion. Are we ok with that? Or do we want good design to do more good?
If the context were different – if we were talking about race, gender, or sexual orientation – would we tolerate barring groups of people from access to products, services, and places? Would we accept discrimination on the basis of other identities? Then why do we accept a segregated market of products for people with disabilities instead of integrating our products and making them inclusive?
Inclusive design needs allies who promote social justice, equality, and inclusion for people with disabilities through transformative design. Because we build our world and everything in it, inclusive design has a unique opportunity to literally change the world. Think about it: making products, services, and structures accessible for people with disabilities means that we are actually creating a more equitable world where our actions back up our claims that people with disabilities matter.
So what does it mean to be an ally of inclusive design? If you’re a designer, adopt inclusive design principles. Businesses have the opportunity to become brand leaders by providing inclusive products and services through in-house design teams and carrying inclusive products. And as consumers, we can all embrace, promote, and demand inclusive products. We have the opportunity to vote with our dollars and reward these efforts with our purchases. If we demand it, they will supply.
Let’s demand including people with disabilities as a prerequisite for good design. Let’s insist on user diversity. Let’s fight for a more just world, one inclusive design at a time.