A Case Study in Ethics: Compliance vs. True Accessibility

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Process, Strategy, Tech
Takeaways from our Accessibility event with AIGA D.C.

On February 18th, 2021, I had the pleasure of speaking with the D.C. chapter of the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts), where we covered what it truly means to be accessible, why it matters, and how you can make something that’s accessible and beautiful while not sacrificing on compliance. To give the subject matter the attention it deserved, we reviewed case studies on product design, how it all applies to mobile apps, how designers can prepare their development/implementation teams for success, and much more.

Our 3 Biggest Takeaways

Not accounting for users with disabilities during Discovery is excluding one of the largest minority groups in the United States.

The numbers speak for themselves – 26% of people in the United States identify with having one more disability (1 in every 4 people). This is larger than the Hispanic / Latino population, which is the largest minority group in the United States, making up 18.5% of the total population*.

When your team is gearing up for any Discovery activity, your job is to take a deep dive into the clients’ audiences, brand presence, and more, in an attempt to identify the key components of a site/product build that will reach the widest and most relevant audience possible. In doing so, diversity and audience makeup is always a natural data point in the conversation. Simply put, if you don’t include users with disabilities in your research, you’re not considering one-quarter of the entire U.S. population. This research is invaluable when you’re building requirements for site/product build as it lays the foundation for all future discussions around which levels of compliance to shoot for as well as which core functionalities might require an elevated level of attention. More than anything else it lends credibility to your team when building client trust that you’re taking everything into consideration, not just the basics. 

The end goal isn’t necessarily building directly for those with disabilities for compliance’s sake; the end goal is achieving true universal design.

Look down at/feel your keyboard for the tactile bumps on your F and J keys, pay attention when you’re crossing the street and listen for the beeps the crosswalk signal sounds off when it’s time to walk, realize that the next (fairly new) building you walk into has only door-handles opposed to door-knobs – this is all true universal design at work. The idea isn’t necessarily to build an experience, product, tool, etc., that specifically caters to those with disabilities. The true endgame is to build something truly better for everyone so that all product manufacturers/designers/creators and humanity as a whole, for that matter, adopt it as the standard.

That said, it’d be dangerously naive to say that it’s always that simple. Certain types of disabilities require special attention to detail and digital accommodations built specifically to alleviate their barrier to entry for content and other digital experiences. These can’t be ignored. But at the same time, I challenge your product team to try and think outside the box – try to keep in the back of your mind ways that you might be able to take the lessons learned from user testing results, card sorting exercises, and even simple requirements that you can pluck out and apply to your future work to continue iterating on. My bet is that over time you’ll work these principles into a new era of products that is both specific for those with disabilities but also could potentially benefit those without, further decreasing our distance to the endgame of achieving ultimate Universal Design.

“Do your best to split the balance with your team and understand that this change won’t happen overnight, but the work you do does makes a difference.”

The importance of engraining Accessibility into the DNA of your team’s culture.

They say in good management two distinct parts have to be in balance at all times – the science of doing the work and the art of how you get the work done. Even if you’re an expert in the field and have all the experience and certifications the world offers you, the challenge remains to find the right way to get your company’s culture and team to rally behind why the work is important. You can preach the ethics and the business value until you’re blue in the face, but sometimes it’s hard to get your team to make that fundamental shift in their work, which of course, we also want to stay empathetic to as well. We’re at a point right now where the guidelines put forward by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) through WCAG are slightly ahead of the technology and trends that are so prevalent and ‘popular’ in design/development. But do your best to split the balance with your team and understand that this change won’t happen overnight, but your does work makes a difference. You never know who’s looking at your work – the competition, a colleague, an intern trying to look forward thinking in front of their manager –  analyzing it and building to improve it on their own, which will ultimately push the web forward for users with disabilities in the long run, which of course is the entire idea here.



  • “Disability Impacts All of Us Infographic | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 Mar. 2019,
  • “U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: United States.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, U.S. Census Bureau, 1 July 2019,