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Welcome to the dance towards inclusion

What is the difference between accessible and inclusive design, and how they relate to sustainability?

Linnéa Källgård / November 19, 2019

Accessible design is not the same as inclusive design. What in fact is accessible design, and why should you care?

There’s an EU Directive in force since September last year that states that all public sector web services should be accessible. Web accessibility allows everyone, including people with disabilities, to perceive, understand, navigate and interact with digital services. This law is an important part of making sure that all citizens can access digital services and content in an equal way.

But what does that really mean? A commonly used expression is that accessibility is to get a ticket to the party, but inclusion is to be invited to dance. Two related but different things.

Typically, accessibility consists of three parts: accessible content, accessible code and accessible pedagogics. As code is easy to verify and measure it can be very tempting to focus on accessible code.  

Some companies have specialized in 'fixing the code' much like auto repair shops change faulty parts in cars. But does it automatically make services accessible, let alone inclusive?

Just because I can access information doesn’t mean I can understand it or make use if it. That’s the typical difference between accessibility and inclusivity.  

"Do you think I'm an idiot?"

Sometimes we need to tell the story of our own shortcomings in order to inspire better product design. Here’s a story from my own learning experience on the difference between accessibility and inclusion. It was in a project together with Fritidsförvaltningen at the City of Stockholm.

In these types of projects where accessibility is critical, we typically test our ideas on potential end users and interview them during the process. I want to share with you a dialogue I had with one of them.

Me: What aids do you have?

Him: (deadly silence with staring)

Him: Do you think I’m an idiot?

Me: Huh, what? No!

But did I, in fact, think he was an idiot? The difference between an accessible aid and an inclusive service is huge. Maybe not from a technical perspective, but from the design perspective the user experience is completely different. Only disabled people need special aids, whereas inclusiveness comes from not being hindered by personal shortcomings at all.

That initial interview was a very painful experience, but it was a necessary part of the process to make a good solution. Had we not done that, we would most likely have developed an aid for idiots. Who would have liked to use that app?

From understanding to empathy

Inclusion is not just about trying to understand the end user's situation and needs. We need to go beyond that. We need to live in the user's situation to really empathize with it. Only then can we identify both functional and non-functional requirements and create solutions that deliver on both. For example, in our Stockholm project, we learned from our users that some of the most used digital services have these elements built in. Digital services like YouTube are equally enjoyed by children who can’t read or write and 65-year old fly fishermen thanks to well thought-through design patterns – not only code.

When digital works, it’s an absolutely unbeatable and democratic medium. It’s highly accessible: you can enlarge text, get it read out loud, read it over and over again, any time of day. But it is up to us who create services and systems in the digital landscape to make sure everyone gets to dance at the party. Inclusion is not the same as accessibility, nor should it be. At its best, inclusion raises accessible products and services to the next level. We all benefit from this, not only as individuals, but as a society too.

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Linnéa Källgård
Design Thinking, User Experience Consultant

I use design and design thinking to create solutions that solve genuine user issues and problems. In an increasingly technical world, my aim is to create experiences that make new technology and innovations feel easy and accessible.

I see my work as technology agnostic, which means I can adjust between different tasks: creating user experiences for social robots, accessible mobile apps or even smart speakers.


Linnéa Källgård

Design Thinking, User Experience Consultant

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