Marie van Driessche on Designing for Deaf People, For Everyone Actually

My aunt was part of the minority of her generation in Canada that didn’t get the polio vaccine, and as a result, she lived with physical disabilities and suffered a nearly complete loss of hearing by the age of five. She was an incredibly social child who stayed that way into womanhood. However, as far back as I can remember, she regularly faced obstacles within a societal structure that wasn’t designed for her.

I remember as a child the complication of a simple phone call. Calls from her always started with an operator saying, “Bell Relay Service…” My aunt would be at home, single-finger typing into her PortaView, a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD). Her typed words were sent to an operator who then dictated them to me. My responses were then transcribed by the operator and sent to my aunt’s TDD. As you can imagine, this was a very time-consuming process, and often felt impersonal.

Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD) via Krown Manufacturing

When the internet became widely available and my family bought my aunt a computer, it changed her life. Her ability to retrieve information and communicate with people became easier in many ways. Despite advances in technology and design, companies didn’t (and don’t) always consider how technology can make their services more inclusive and accessible. The web has a long way to go.

Recognizing Exclusion in Design

At Interaction18, Marie van Driessche, a designer at in the Netherlands, took the stage to sign about how designing for the deaf, meant better design for everyone.

van Driessche was born deaf in a hearing family. Like my aunt, she attended a deaf school growing up. But unlike my aunt, she went on to complete a BA in Graphic Design and a Master’s of Graphic Moving Image at mainstream post-secondary institutions. She was born and educated at a point in time where she could really help shape online experiences.

van Driessche currently works as a visual and interaction designer at eend in the Netherlands and uses interpreters to help with client meetings, conversations, and presentations.

The Dutch government covers the cost of interpreters for a percentage of her working hours. Sometimes though, she needs additional coverage. Once she put in a request for additional hours and received a reply in letter form.

“These people work with Deaf people on a daily basis, but the letter said I wasn’t granted the extra hours, and if I wanted to protest this decision, I had to call them on the phone,” signed van Driessche.

Calling on the phone isn’t an ideal option for most deaf people. “It’s a bit of a tricky situation. These are minor details, minor obstacles that I encounter regularly,” signed van Driessche.

If those who work with the deaf regularly are making these user experience errors, you can imagine how most organizations operate.

Letter shown in van Driessche’s Interaction18 session

Unique Considerations for Unique Four-Dimensional Languages

The deaf community is not a disabled community, but rather a cultural and linguistic minority.

“For many Deaf people, English or the language of their home country is often their second language,” signed van Driessche. “We don’t need any physical adaptations like a guide dog or wheelchair, we need cultural adaptations.”

Sign language is a different kind of language that’s not pantomime or a code that represents a spoken language. They are visual, spatial languages and they don’t have a natural written form. Their grammar and syntax are very different from spoken languages, and they rely very heavily on facial expressions to convey meaning and emphasis.

Image via van Driessche’s Interaction18 session

Contrary to what many might assume, there is no universal sign language. Every country has its own version, and often you’ll find varied regional dialects. When designing inclusively for the deaf, it’s important to remember they are most likely second language users.

Image via van Driessche’s Interaction18 session

Design Considerations for the Deaf

To avoid exclusion when designing for the deaf it’s important to recognize the challenges they face, particularly with language, because only then can you design inclusively.

Here’s a round-up of tips to help you design for the deaf, and everyone really:

Writing for the Web

Subtitles, Captions, and Contact Options

“Even now, if I need to call my doctor, I will have to do that via my mom. She has to call the doctor to make an appointment for me. Now, in 2018,” signed van Diessche.

Nothing for Us, Without Us

The World Health Organization used to say that disability was a ‘personal health condition,’ but that perspective has changed. It’s now described as ‘mismatched human interactions.’ As designers, it’s important to learn from people. There are different ways to do things, and different options to include people in the community.

Accessibility is a feature, whereas inclusive design is a method. If we use our own biases to solve problems, we only design for a specific group. Inclusive design looks at a broader spectrum, using human diversity to inform us and our process.

“We have our own frame of reference when we design, and we strive to look for good solutions to improve lives and to adapt to needs. The problem is when we use our own abilities as a baseline, that might work well for one group, but maybe not for everyone else,” signed van Driessche.

“Don’t be afraid to ask us to be involved in your process. We all get better from it. We all profit from it. You can have well-meant intentions, but you don’t want to lose out on a group…

Nothing for us, without us.”

You can find Marie van Driessche on Twitter @marievandries

Watch the full session here: