How to avoid ableist design

4 minutes

Ableism refers to the prejudices and discriminations against Disabled people. If you care about accessibility, it’s important to understand how ableism manifests because it’ll help you design more inclusive products. This goes beyond mere compliance with accessibility criteria. Ableism manifests in several ways, including:

  • Talking to a Disabled person like they are a child
  • Questioning someone’s impairments
  • Framing disability as tragic
  • Glorifying disability (talking about it as a "life lesson")

Ableism is hard to fight against because it is deeply rooted in society. For example when we report the story of a teenager taking a Disabled girl to prom because no one else had invited her. The way the story is reported can be problematic. Focusing solely on the teen’s “heroic” gesture rather than the Disabled person’s experience can leave them feeling sidelined, reduced to a mere detail of the story.

I often say that we don’t know what we don’t know. So it can be hard to anticipate the needs of others. In a society where Disabled people are excluded, poorly perceived, and pitied, we perpetuate ableism because these are the norms we've been given. That's why I'd like to share some key points for you to consider. They should be relevant for any digital role, including design.

Double check your CTAs (Call-To-Actions)

CTAs are buttons used in our interfaces to prompt an action. For example: “see pricing”. On click, you might be directed to a PDF or another page. But using the verb “see” in your button might make a blind person using a screen reader feel excluded. It’s a minor detail, of course, but it’s another microaggression in a life full of such instances. This argument is just one opinion, and you may meet blind people who don’t notice it. It’s not about questioning their perception because there isn’t just one way to see things. But it’s a question worth considering. If you want to use an alternative, you could say “check pricing”.

The not inclusive label is "see pricing". The more inclusive label is "check pricing".

Include Disabled people in your user research

If you have the opportunity to conduct user research, pay attention to the audience surveyed. Disabled people represent 1 in 4 adults in Europe. Their life experiences can impact their perception of your products or company. If we don’t communicate with a portion of the population at all, how do we know for sure that we are meeting their needs? It would be the same thing if we were only conducting research with men, or white people – you’d only get part of the story. The more influential the company you represent, the more important this is. By insisting on the inclusion of Disabled people in user research, you help the industry reflect on its practices, adapt them, and find solutions.

How to talk about disability?

You might have wondered how to talk about disability. This might be necessary in an accessibility statement or to recruit Disabled people for user research. For example, should you say Disabled person or person with a disability? The key thing is to let people define themselves. The way someone identifies is not up for debate. However, certain phrases can be irritating for Disabled people, like “suffering from…” or “afflicted by…”. These can be perceived negatively as they imply that disability is necessarily a bad thing. Keep it simple, talk about Disabled people. And if you’re curious about someone’s experience with a specific disability, say it plainly. For example, “we wish to interview people with a motor disability.”

Be mindful of your images

In another article, I talked about inspiration porn. These are stories meant to inspire non-disabled people by giving them a chance to put their difficulties into perspective. The French collective “Les Dévalideuses” explains what bothers them about such campaigns: “At the centre of the image, an adult or child with a disability in a relatively ordinary situation. They are playing sports, raising their child, graduating... Then there’s the shocking caption that points back at you. ‘What’s your excuse?’ or ‘The only disability in life is a bad attitude’. The comments are usually the same: this person is inspiring, incredible, courageous, what a life lesson... These images rely on the supposed antagonism between disability and a happy, fulfilling, or even just a normal life. For many non-disabled people, disability is seen as a curse or source of misery. Showing a Disabled person with a positive attitude surprises them, and even the smallest daily gesture becomes ‘inspiring’. As if it was necessary to remind people that we have lives, perhaps more similar to yours than you might think.”

Avoid euphemisms

Maysoon Zayid is an actress and comedian. As a Disabled person, she explains why terms like "differently-abled" and "special needs" are infantilising. For her, disability is not a taboo. There is nothing wrong with talking about disability, about Disabled people. There’s no need to sugar-coat a situation that is already acceptable as it is. So if you need to talk about Disabled people, avoid euphemisms. If necessary, ask a Disabled person you know to proofread your work – or hire one. They're not extinct. This is what I do for my own work when I’m not sure about something. Once again, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Publication date

June 2024