The Same, But Different: Breaking Down Accessibility, Universality, and Inclusion in Design

When Wendy Chisholm and I got together over a decade ago to write a book about web accessibility, the first thing we had to tackle was the title.

We decided that the word “accessibility” didn’t connect with enough people (and to some extent, that’s still true), but by focusing on the act of designing, rather than the outcome of accessibility, we could attract a broader audience. That book became known as Universal Design for Web Applications, and was published in 2008.

I have since moved from Adobe’s Accessibility team to Adobe Design, and been tasked with building an organization that reflects the principles I wrote about 10 years ago. First job? What to call that organization.

I named it the Inclusive Design team.

Then I waited for people to ask me what “inclusive design” means. And have I just abandoned universal design in favor of a more trendy name?

We love to talk semantics

One thing we love to argue over in tech in general, but especially where it intersects with disability, is terminology. The concepts of accessibility, inclusive design, and universal design are often intertwined. I think they interrelate, and each has an important meaning of its own.

Accessibility is a goal

We use the term accessibility to describe a vast network of activity, but, in the most basic terms, when we talk about a site or an app, we describe its progress toward accessibility in basic terms — it’s good, it’s bad, it’s ugly. The goal of everyone I know in the accessibility community is to make things better for as large an audience as possible. So here’s definition number one:

Accessibility is the goal to ensure that products support each individual user’s needs and preferences.

This is a pretty broad definition, I’ll admit. Notably, it doesn’t define people with disabilities as the beneficiaries, and that’s on purpose. The social model of disability concerns a product or service’s poor adaptation, or misfit, to the people who use it, as opposed to the medical model, which places the onus for the misfit onto the people themselves. Being aware of this difference allows us to place the responsibility on what’s being made, and the people making it, rather than on whoever ends up using it.

Another important aspect of this definition is that while accessibility represents the desired outcome, users’ needs and preferences are so diverse that there is no perfectly “accessible” final result. Accepting that designing for people is an iterative process that requires accepting new information about what they want, and adapting our products accordingly, is the proper mindset for improving accessibility over the lifespan of a product.

We must all understand that for accessibility, as with user experience design as a whole, there is always an aspect we can enable or simplify, and that “perfect” — as a lot of us were reminded many, many times in the development of accessibility standards — is the enemy of good. The thing I was tasked with improving in my new role was not so much the outcome, as much as changing how we do the work that leads to improving those outcomes across the board. This is a need that calls for an action.

Like accessibility, the word design is a noun. But unlike accessibility, design is also a verb. Design is the act of creation that leads to the products and services we use everyday. So when we talk about the work that goes into that creation, we should be talking in terms of design.

The next challenge is to put our finger on a term for designing with disability in mind.

Accessible design” has the same problem as accessibility itself — it lends itself to being conflated by the general public with issues of availability (e.g. “accessible 24/7”) or generic ease of use. In my experience, though, concepts of inclusion and universality tend to lead people to think about the needs of people with disabilities, and sometimes beyond (more on that later).

Universal design is for everyone, literally

People who have worked in architecture or interior design know that universal design has existed since 1980, when a North Carolina State professor named Ronald Mace coined the term. Mace, an architect, produced a fairly large body of academic work on designing spaces for the diverse physical and cognitive capacities of human beings.

The book I co-wrote, mentioned earlier, drew on a connection between designing in the built environment and in a relatively new and fluid space we were creating online.

Luckily, thanks to its academic heritage, universal design comes with its own definition:

Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

Inclusive design expands with your audience

Unlike universal design, there are not yet generally agreed-upon definitions for inclusive design, or the practices it encompasses. Some attempts borrow heavily from the above definition of universal design. Some are more mission statements than definitions. Some are explicitly connected with disability, while others are broader in scope. All of them have some value, in that they confront the reader with the idea that it is always within their capacity to do more.

The definition of inclusive design that I identify most with comes from the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD U in Toronto:

We have defined Inclusive Design as: design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.

Inclusive design is a term that leads people to think about an expanding audience, with expanding wants and needs, which, in turn, gives them more to think about as they design products. When I say, “I’m working on inclusive design,” I get substantially fewer blank stares than when I said, “I work on accessibility.” More often than not, the connection to the needs of people with disabilities comes through on its own.

I’ve seen a number of people have knee-jerk reactions to the word “universal,” which color any further attempts to explore user needs and desires. It sounds too much like demanding that elusive sense of perfection. These people tend to insist that since no design can truly be universal, which at any real level of complexity is inevitably true, the premise is flawed.

But don’t bury universal design just because of a branding issue. It’s something you should know about. It’d be a shame not to look at what universal design is, or is intended to do, or what universal design researchers and practitioners did to improve accessibility in the built environment. Looking at the body of work in universal design you will find a number of voices who insist that perfection isn’t the point. What matters is that designers integrate aspects of inclusion, that they keep them in mind, and that they design outside of their own idealized user.

I see the underlying principles of universal and inclusive design as virtually identical. The difference is simply a matter of perspective.

Achieve your goals one step at a time

An analogy: let’s say we’re just inventing mountain climbing. There’s this huge mountain outside our village, which none of us have summited. We don’t have the tools or techniques necessary to get us there, but we can climb smaller hills, and we’re getting close enough that someone with the right preparation could get there.

One way to put a name to this activity is to say that we are going up the mountain — in other words, moving upward is our goal. Another is to refer to reaching the summit — the destination to which we aspire. The former says, in effect, “We are gradually making our way up the hill.” The latter says, “We’re not done until we get to the top.” Either way, the next steps are the same.

Inclusive design is the practice of going up the mountain — we can always look for ways to include more people and situations to our designs, even if the result only gets us a few steps up the trail at a time.

Universal design, by contrast, implies that reaching the summit is the true goal. It’s all well and good to talk about inclusion, but if we’re happy enough making it to the first campground up the trail, we’ll never even try to accommodate the effort needed to go all the way.

I would go so far as to say that it’s the scope of that task — the seemingly infinite nature of including everyone — that is too big of a challenge. We aren’t all born to be mountain climbers. But together we can get a little farther up the hill, if we try.

And to round-out the metaphor, accessibility is the measure of how far we get. Guidelines and best practices for accessibility also show us what tools and skills we need to climb higher, more safely.

I’ve spent the last 20 years focused on climbing this particular hill, and I’ve learned a lot with each attempt. I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten to the summit, but I might say I’ve made it above the treeline once or twice. Once the forest gives way, and you get a chance to look around, you tend to notice all the other nearby mountains that you have yet to climb.

That’s part two.