Accessibility’s invisible target group

So, who are we working on all this accessibility stuff for? Business and marketing specialists will obviously want to have a clearly defined target group so they can assess whether a project is worth working on to begin with. Vaguely saying that “it’s for disabled people” doesn’t really mean much to anybody. Most of us have absolutely no idea how many disabled there actually are. We tend to see them as some tiny little minority which makes going to all the trouble of learning about accessibility and redesigning all our products seem rather counterproductive. Besides, why would a blind person want a TV since they can’t watch it anyway?

Well, let me clear up a few misconceptions.

To start with, the World Health Organization estimates that around 15% of the global population has some form of disability. That’s over a billion people worldwide. You wouldn’t exactly call that a tiny minority, would you?

For most people this single figure is quite shocking. I tend to start my accessibility training sessions by asking whether anybody knows a person with a disability and then ask for a rough estimate of the percentage of disabled people in the population. The answers vary from “I have absolutely no idea” to about 5%. Surprise!

So, where are all these disabled people hiding? 15% is about 1 in 7 people. But it’s not like every time you get on the bus and look around you see a couple of disabled passengers beside you. Ever wondered why?

The answer is simpler than you may think. We tend to envisage people with disabilities as either permanently blind, wheelchair bound or with some terrible physical deformation and don’t really think of someone to be disabled until we see them with a white cane or in a wheelchair. But the truth is most handicapped people have less extreme forms of their disabilities. For example, there’s a whole range of visual impairments between normal 20/20 vision and blindness. The same goes for other disability types. Sometimes you may not even be aware of someone’s disability until they tell you about it.

Disability comes in all shapes and sizes – from partial color-blindness to full body paralysis. Basically, you’re considered disabled if you have an impairment (i.e. a bodily dysfunction) or activity limitation (difficulty performing a basic task). You can have a look at the various legislative definitions of disability at the European Disability Forum’s website or see the WHO’s website for more details on its definition of disability. The bottom line is: we don’t really have a single, widely accepted definition but pretty much everyone out there agrees that disability should be thought of as an impairment of an individual’s social functioning rather than a purely medical issue.

Of course, not all disabled people are officially recognized as such by their national governments or health care systems. However, for the purpose of working on accessibility, we should concentrate on users’ actual abilities (or disabilities) rather than their formal disability status. Especially since disability assessment procedures vary between countries – which further blurs the few available statistics in this field…

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