This blog was contributed by Tom Babinszki, a leading advocate and consultant in digital accessibility. Tom Babinszki and his guide dog, Baldwin.  Digital accessibility isn’t just about meeting compliance requirements. It’s about creating rich, enjoyable user experiences for everyone, regardless of whether they have a disability. As teams set out to accomplish this goal, they often seek to better understand how people with disabilities navigate the digital world. One common approach involves disability simulation activities: exercises in which individuals artificially limit their use of physical or sensory abilities to simulate the experiences of people with certain types of disabilities. An example of this type of simulation might be wearing a blindfold to simulate blindness and trying to use a computer.

There’s a reason that disability simulation activities are so popular. These exercises tend to be highly effective at helping participants empathize with people with disabilities and inspiring teams to prioritize digital accessibility. However, when conducted without the proper research and nuance, disability simulations can be essentializing. And even when conducted thoughtfully, they don’t tell a complete story.

In my years as an accessibility leader, advocate, and consultant, I’ve become very familiar with these kinds of trainings. In this post, I’ll examine shortcomings of disability simulations, and explain why these point-in-time exercises aren’t enough to help teams foster the type of understanding needed to succeed at digital accessibility, long-term. For lasting results, teams need to move beyond empathy and into informed action by considering the lived experiences of people with disabilities throughout the digital experience life cycle.

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Short exercises don’t capture long-term experience

One advantage of empathy training is that it invites participants to think more deeply about the challenges that people with disabilities face online. However, disability simulation activities take place within a finite window of time—only offering a brief taste of what it’s like to confront digital accessibility barriers. The real experience of living with a disability, in a world increasingly mediated by digital technology, can’t be accurately felt in a single session. Let’s explore a few examples of disability simulations and how time constraints limit their impact.

Using a noise-cancelling headset to simulate deafness or hearing loss

When an individual limits their hearing with noise-cancelling technology and plays a video out loud on an unconnected device, they can immediately comprehend that video content is only accessible when it’s captioned. However, they don’t face the day-to-day struggle of scouring the web for accessible video content at a time when videos are rapidly replacing written material. For instance, many consumer products today don’t come with instruction manuals, just video tutorials. When providers don’t offer accessible tutorials on their website, Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals may spend hours searching for a captioned version. Additionally, as videos dominate social media, inaccessible content shuts Deaf and hard-of-hearing people out of online conversations. These experiences can’t be appreciated in just a short training.

Using a blindfold to simulate blindness

It’s impossible for anyone blindfolded to understand what’s displayed on a screen without a screen reader. But while this disability simulation activity conveys the necessity of making digital experiences compatible with assistive technology, most participants don’t understand the host of problems that inaccessible content can pose for screen reader users—including how irritating it can be when repetitive web content causes a screen reader to be far too chatty. Social media sites, email applications, and project management tools, for example, often repeat the same information across a page. Because screen reader users don’t have the luxury of omitting redundant content, they can wind up wasting hours of productive time. This challenge won’t be communicated by a one-off session.

Unplugging a mouse or turning off a touchpad to simulate limited mobility

People with some types of physical disabilities rely on their keyboard to navigate the internet. By removing their mouse or turning off their touchpad, individuals can quickly understand that websites and apps are only usable when all site functionality is also available through the keyboard. However, long-term keyboard-only users often encounter situations where most aspects of a digital property are accessible except for one crucial element, like a login screen or checkout function. Individuals must then spend time searching for a similar service that is accessible—if one exists. Participants in a short disability simulation activity often fail to recognize that keyboard access isn’t all-or-nothing: even if keyboard-only users can ultimately complete a task, they might not be able to do it efficiently or intuitively.

You can’t simulate diversity of experience

I’ve outlined how the short duration of disability simulation activities fails to convey many of the persistent, long-term challenges that people with disabilities confront when using digital technology. However, the way that these exercises simulate disability is also overly simplistic, missing the complexity of peoples’ real, lived experience. One-off simulations, while usually well-intentioned, and coming from a place of respect, can’t account for the full spectrum of disability. People can experience the same type of disability to different degrees, or they may have a combination of disabilities. But disability simulations typically limit participants’ abilities in a single, specific way. If participants are blindfolded, the implication is that all blind people see nothing at all—when, in reality, some blind people have no vision and others can perceive general shapes and colors. Additionally, each person may relate to their disability differently. How an individual perceives their disability may depend on the types of assistive technology and other accommodations that are available to them, the education they have received, and their social background. While disability simulation activities tend to encourage participants to empathize with the difficulties people with disabilities face, many individuals have a neutral or positive relationship with their disability. This discrepancy stems in part from the fact that disability simulation activities tend to focus on the initial shock of losing certain abilities, rather than the ongoing experience of living with a disability. When participants only understand disability in terms of loss, they may treat people with disabilities with pity, failing to respect the rich and complex reality of their lives. And respect is crucial for moving from awareness and empathy into informed action—which we’ll explore in the next section.

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Digital accessibility requires informed action, not just empathy

Any organization that takes active steps to appreciate the experiences of people with disabilities should be commended. Team trainings on how people with disabilities use the web and explorations involving assistive technology can play a pivotal role in inspiring teams to commit to digital accessibility. However, when it comes to understanding what it’s like to navigate the internet with a disability, it’s important to recognize that most simulation activities offer an incomplete perspective. And to start creating inclusive digital properties, you’ll need to do more than put on a blindfold. Beyond empathy, teams need to take informed action.That meansmaking accessibility an ongoing education priority, not just the subject of a brief exploration.It also means approachingaccessibility with a genuine appreciation for the myriad waysthat people with disabilities experience the digital world.Without actually living with a disability, it can be challenging to foster that appreciation.Of course, you don’tneed to have a disability to build accessible digital properties,but the most thorough approach to online inclusioninvolvesconsistently working with real people with disabilitiesto identifyissues that may not be obvious after a single, short simulation. As a best practice, teams should always conduct functional accessibility testing with people with disabilities before a digital experience is launched to the market. To reduce the number of accessibility errors identified in testing, organizations can also involve people with disabilities earlier on in the product development life cycle. When organizations include people with disabilities in focus groups for user experience (UX) research, for example, they prevent potential barriers from being incorporated into designs or written into code. Ultimately, digital accessibility must be an ongoing commitment, not a one-off exercise intended to check a box. If organizations embed accessibility into their routine processes for digital experience creation—proactively engaging people with disabilities and continually seeking out new learning opportunities—they can actively contribute to building a more inclusive digital world. Ready to take an informed, sustainable approach to digital accessibility? Engage with the Level Access team today.

About the author

Tom Babinszki has been involved with accessibility for the last 25 years. He has served as the Vice President of Accessibility at eSSENTIAL Accessibility and an Accessibility Advisor for IBM. Tom was born totally blind in Hungary, and got his start in accessibility in high school, when he worked as a low-cost Braille embosser and created a talking dictionary to help blind students learn new languages. Since then, he has been active in accessibility education and advocacy both in the U.S. and internationally. He currently works as an accessibility consultant, concentrating on making travel and tourism accessible.

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