Canadian Googler Nicola Yap explains why technology designers should think of accessibility features as customization that benefits everyone. An earlier version of this article appeared on the Keyword blog.
As a technical writer for Google Cloud who’s worked in this industry for more than 20 years, technology has had a big impact on my life. It led me to a job that I love, and it keeps me connected to co-workers, friends, and family scattered around the world.
But it also helps me to accomplish everyday tasks in ways many people might not realize. I have aniridia, a rare eye condition where the eyes are underdeveloped. Among other things, I’m light sensitive, have about 20/200 vision that isn’t correctable with lenses or surgery, and my eyes move around involuntarily.
Technologies that help to mitigate the kinds of challenges I face don’t just benefit me. They benefit everyone.
Most people don’t realize the extent of my disability, because I’m largely independent. The challenges I face on a regular basis are little things that most people take for granted. For example, I don’t experience eye contact, which means I often miss nonverbal cues. And for me, crossing the street is like a real-world game of “Frogger.” Reading menus and shopping can be difficult. Navigating airports or locating my ride-share car can be stressful.
But I’ve used tech to create my own set of “life hacks.” I adjust the magnification of my view of a Google Doc during a meeting, which doesn’t change anyone else’s view of it. I zoom in on instructors during virtual dance classes. I regularly use keyboard shortcuts and predefined text snippets to work more productively. I do lots of planning before trips and save key navigational information in Google Maps. I take photos of menus and labels so I can read them more closely on my phone.
Everyone benefits from disability-friendly design
The technologies that help to mitigate the kinds of challenges I face don’t just benefit me, though. They benefit everyone. Accessibility features like Dark mode, Assistant, and Live Caption benefit everyone and make their individual experiences using certain products better. They can also support people with permanent, situational, or temporary disabilities.
I challenge you to think of accessibility as customization.
The positive effect of disability-friendly design on a wider population is known as the curb-cut effect. A curb cut is a ramp built into a sidewalk that slopes down to a street. Its primary purpose is to provide access for wheelchairs, but a curb cut actually helps many others, including people riding bikes, skateboards or scooters, people pushing strollers or pulling wheeled luggage, and people walking with canes or crutches. So while it was made to help people with disabilities, it actually helps so many others.
Reframe accessibility as customization
There’s an important lesson to learn from the curb-cut effect, one that I think about when we are creating new technologies here at Google: If you are involved in designing, creating, selling, or supporting products and services, I challenge you to think of accessibility as customization. Many people typically view accessibility as an extra feature of a product specifically for someone with a disability. But features like Dark mode or captions are really a way to customize your user experience, and these customizations are beneficial to everyone.
We all find ourselves in different contexts where we need to adjust how we interact with our devices and the people around us. Design that provides a range of ways to interact with people and our world results in products and services that are more usable — by everyone.