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What is Inclusive Design, and How Does it Relate to Accessibility? – Part 1

by David Sloan
4 min read
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Part One: The Process

Great digital experiences begin with the right mindset. When it comes to design, there are two philosophies that can help you reach the widest possible audience: inclusive design and accessible design.

While inclusivity and accessibility have intersecting principles, they’re fundamentally distinct. Inclusive design focuses on the diversity of use cases to ensure that users of all backgrounds, abilities, and experiences can enjoy an equal user experience. Accessibility, on the other hand, focuses on outcomes — whether content and functionality are usable by people who have disabilities.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the consensus standard for digital accessibility, and the WCAG framework is useful for developing a better design philosophy.

In this article, we’ll introduce the concept of inclusive design and how it connects to digital accessibility. Read on to learn how your team can use WCAG to reach a wider audience.

Understanding Inclusive Design

When creating any digital resource, ensuring that it’s usable by the largest portion of the intended target audience should be a core goal. Each of us brings unique biases into our work, and we’re often unaware of their influence on our decisions. Without intentional and structured efforts to address these biases, we may end up with a digital product that isn’t usable or compliant for people with disabilities.

Anywhere between 15 and 25% of the U.S. population live with some form of disability. Globally, that number reaches about one billion people or 15% of the world’s population.

The American Institute for Research (AIR) reports that people with disabilities have a purchasing power of $490 billion. This market controls over $13 trillion in disposable income globally, according to the Return on Disability Organization. Add in friends and family; that market reaches 3.3 billion potential consumers who act on their emotional connection to people with disabilities. Together, disability touches 73% of consumers globally.

People may encounter exclusion based on a range of characteristics, such as race, gender, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and disability. Exclusion in design can include adding –or not adding – functionality in a digital resource. The way content is displayed can lead to design exclusion, as well.

This can happen for several reasons, like inaccurate assumptions about the target audience’s characteristics and the design decisions made based on these assumptions. For example, the exclusion of people with disabilities occurs when we don’t consider accessibility when creating digital products.

Inclusive design addresses biases by intentionally including under-represented and historically excluded groups in the design process. Inclusive design evolved from the related concept of universal design, which is rooted in addressing barriers present in the physical environment.

An inclusive design process will positively affect a large portion of your audience.

Additionally, the aging process can bring a change in capabilities, such as changes in vision, dexterity, short-term memory, and more. 80% of the blind population is over 50 years old, according to WHO. The Census Bureau estimates that about 46% of Americans ages 75 and older and 24% of those ages 65 to 74 report having a disability, compared with 12% of adults ages 35 to 64 and 8% of adults under 35.

The Relationship Between Accessibility and Inclusive Design

We’ve defined inclusive design as the process of addressing the needs of any under-represented or marginalized group of users who use a digital product.

Similarly, digital accessibility reduces exclusion for people with disabilities by removing barriers to access in the digital world.

Digital accessibility requires following accessibility guidelines. But testing products for compliance isn’t enough to guarantee an inclusive experience for disabled people.

The inclusive design process also means involving people with disabilities throughout the design, development, and content creation process. Keep in mind: a digital product can be compliant and not usable. As a result, product requirements should be influenced by the unique needs of people with disabilities to ensure that they can be successfully used. Inclusive and universal design provides the foundation for accessible user experience design.

It’s worth remembering that people with disabilities may also belong to other often excluded groups, which is called intersectionality. People with disabilities might encounter additional exclusion beyond accessibility barriers, including but not limited to race, gender, or economic status. Extending inclusive design efforts to address other excluded groups helps ensure that more people can use your digital resource.

The Inclusive Design Process

As we’ve outlined in this article, the inclusive design process follows two key parallel activities:

Apply best practices in inclusive design by following standards and guidelines like WCAG throughout the digital resource creation process, whether it’s visual design, content creation, or development. Use tools to support accessible and inclusive design. Conduct regular testing against accessibility requirements and make fixes as early as possible.

Involve people from under-represented groups, including people with disabilities, as early as possible and throughout the design and development process. Make sure that requirements reflect the needs and circumstances of diverse user groups. Include diverse user groups in evaluations and testing. Applying principles of accessible design for people with disabilities can also bring benefits to other user groups, including people with lower literacy and incomes, helping to create inclusion beyond disability.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll share some best practices for inclusive design so you can begin incorporating these concepts into your design processes.

This article was originally published on the TPGi website.

post authorDavid Sloan

David Sloan, David Sloan is Chief Accessibility Officer and UX Practice Manager at TPGi/Vispero. He joined the company in 2013, after nearly 14 years as an accessibility researcher, consultant and instructor at the University of Dundee in Scotland.

Ideas In Brief
  • The article discusses the importance of inclusive design in creating digital products that cater to a diverse range of users, emphasizing the need to involve under-represented groups throughout the design process.

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