Models and principles relevant to design

XVI.3 May + June 2009
Page: 66
Digital Citation

LIFELONG INTERACTIONSPersons with disabilities and intergenerational universal usability

Paul Jaeger

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I recently received an email from a doctoral candidate, in a field unrelated to my own, seeking career advice about the process of finishing a dissertation and navigating the academic job market as a person with a disability. Such a request is not that unusual in my experience, primarily because there are so few successful academics with disabilities. I recently contributed a chapter to an edited book on the unique career challenges of being an academic with a disability [1], and several of the chapter authors started a running joke about whether there were any academics with a disability who did not contribute to the book. Further, as only about 15 percent of persons with disabilities are born with them, the majority of academics with disabilities tend to be people later in their careers.

As a result, very few people with a disability go through the academic job market and tenure process. And many of those individuals, primarily for sake of survival in a career path based around perceptions of performance by one's peers, opt to downplay their disability to the greatest extent feasible and believable. As part of this strategy, many academics with disabilities avoid researching and writing about disability to avoid marginalization. And others are simply steered away from studying disability by their dissertation advisors. In contrast, I have made equality of access for persons with disabilities a key part of my research, and my advisor even encouraged me do my dissertation on the topic. I have also been very open about my own disability in my scholarship when it was relevant—for example, the introduction of one of my books gives an overview of some of my personal adventures with disability discrimination during my education [2].

The striking part of the email I received was not the request for advice, but how the author introduced himself. After mentioning his name, educational status, type of disability, and reasons for contacting me for guidance, this individual raised a hesitation—he was concerned that I might not be able to relate to his situation. His concern was not rooted in the fact that we have very different disabilities. Instead, he was concerned about the fact that he acquired his disability as an adult, whereas I was born with mine. He was focusing on whether my experiences might be relevant for him, as he anticipated that a person born with a disability and a person who acquired a disability as an adult would perceive, consider, and react to the challenges and discriminations posed by academia differently.

This point has considerable validity, not only in the context of academia, but also in many other contexts, including how one accesses information and communication technologies (ICTs). As the design of ICTs becomes more sensitive to the needs of all users, the pursuit of universal usability will need to focus on differences such as the one raised here. As has been noted many times, making ICTs accessible for persons with disabilities will go a long way toward making ICTs universally usable. While many streams of research have linked access to personal and perceptual factors, tying the insights from disability studies to factors related to age will be helpful in achieving intergenerational universal usability of ICTs.

Clearly, each individual has different skills, experiences, and challenges when it comes to using an ICT. However, careful consideration of users selected for the testing of an ICT is necessary to understand the potential barriers to use of that ICT. Testing of designs often ignores persons with disabilities. When they are included, their presence usually is limited to broad categories, such as one person with a visual impairment. However, visual impairments include complete blindness, limited vision, motion blindness, severe color blindness, and other variations. Every type of disability (mobility, hearing, visual, cognitive, and others) includes such layers. To truly test for equal access, not only must different types of disabilities be accounted for, but different levels of each disability must be considered as well [3].

Disability and accessibility also link strongly to age. Just as a child and an older adult will each approach ICTs in unique ways, the ways in which a person with a disability approaches an ICT will be influenced by the age at which that individual first acquired a disability. Someone born with a disability will perceive, adjust, accommodate, and overcome challenges in a different manner from someone who acquires a disability as a youth, as an adult, or as an older adult [2]. While none of these approaches will necessarily be more effective, the process by which a child accesses an ICT may vary greatly between a child without a disability, a child born with a disability, and a child who acquired a disability.

Designing for intergenerational universal usability can also benefit from considering the parallels between the needs of different age groups and persons with disabilities. Just as children and older adults will both benefit from certain design features, designs that provide improved access for persons with physical and cognitive disabilities will greatly improve access for older adults. Persons with disabilities and older adults can be limited in their access to and use of ICTs by a wide range of factors. Online, these barriers can range from accessibility problems with Internet service providers to Web browsers that are not compatible with vital assistive technologies to inaccessible websites. Adjustable font size, simple color schemes, clutter-free interfaces, intuitive organization, and easy navigability on a website, for example, will be of great benefit both to older adults and persons with disabilities (and probably to many young users, as well).

The lessons of disability studies for designing for intergenerational universal usability of ICTs will likely become more significant as social networking becomes a core part of Internet activity. Social networking activities have broadened the Internet from simple information access to emphasizing communication between users. Providing equal access takes on very different dimensions when the focus is on equal access to communication rather than equal access to information, and older adults and persons with disabilities will benefit from many of the same approaches to and guidelines for accessibility of social networking sites and applications [4].

Ultimately, the most fundamental—and likely the most difficult—accessibility challenge is in the fact that access is a multifaceted concept. Access is larger than just physical dimensions (reaching an ICT) and intellectual dimensions (understanding the information provided by the ICT). There are also social dimensions of access that dictate how an individual will use the information in their social interactions [5]. The social dimensions of access are under-studied by scholars, but it seems quite possible that social access presents another area in which the needs of persons with disabilities intersect with the needs of older adults. Since both groups face similar challenges in accessing ICTs, they likely share important social characteristics in attitudes toward ICTs and how to treat information gained through them.

While these are just a sampling of potential connections of persons with disabilities to children and older adults in terms of access to ICTs, the examples discussed in this article hopefully demonstrate the value of lessons from disability studies in designing for intergenerational universal usability. In my reply to the email that began this discussion, I explained that, while there will be differences in experiences in academia for a scholar who has been visually impaired his entire life and for a scholar who became mobility impaired as an adult, the similarities will be much more compelling and helpful than the differences. The same seems to hold true for considerations of disability-related issues and age-related issues in designing for universal usability.

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1. Vance, M. L., ed. Disabled faculty and staff in a disabling society: Multiple identities in higher education. New York: Association on Higher Education and Disability, 2007.

2. Jaeger, P. T., and C. A. Bowman. Understanding Disability: Inclusion, access, diversity, & civil rights. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.

3. Jaeger, P. T. "User-centered policy evaluations of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act: Evaluating e-government websites for accessibility." Journal of Disability Policy Studies 19, no. 1 (2008): 24–33.

4. Jaeger, P. T., and B. Xie. "Developing online community accessibility guidelines for persons with disabilities and older adults." Journal of Disability Policy Studies. (in press).

5. Burnett, G., P. T. Jaeger, and K. M. Thompson. "The social aspects of information access: The viewpoint of normative theory of information behavior." Library & Information Science Research 30, no. 1 (2008): 56–66.

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Paul T. Jaeger, Ph.D., J.D., is an assistant professor in the College of Information Studies and is the director of the Center for Information Policy and Electronic Government ( at the University of Maryland. His research focuses on the ways in which law and public policy shape access to and use of information. Jaeger is the author of more than 70 journal articles and book chapters, along with six books.

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