Key to accessibility is learning to understand users’ perspectives and developing systems and tools on the basis of this understanding. This is often described as user-centered design.
As the name suggests, user-centered design focuses on understanding the user’s perspective and needs when creating content. This process requires learning about other groups, testing, and adjusting to account for needs.
In a similar vein, universal design advocates creating tools, systems, and spaces so they can be accessed and used by all people regardless of ability, age, or other factors. Examples of universal design are curb cuts, buses equipped with ramps, rolling suitcases, and Velcro. Selwyn Goldsmith famously connected universal design with the needs of people with disabilities in his book Designing for the Disabled (1963).
While universal design is a laudable concept, it’s worth noting that this ideology has been critiqued by disability rights activists who argue that the accessibility needs of people with disabilities remain a marginalized issue even in universal design circles. For instance, Aimi Hamraie (2016) argued compellingly for the need to interrogate the roots of universal design in eugenics and “post-disability” ideology.
With all of that said, true user-centered thinking can help drive accessibility practices from the beginning of any given project. As Ksenia Cheinman notes in “Accessibility in Open Educational Resources is Resilience,” good questions to ask at the start of a project include:
- What are the unique needs of your learners/users?
- What assumptions have you made about your users?
- How have these assumptions shaped the format and structure of the resource/tool/system you are developing?
- Have you asked for and received feedback from colleagues on your resource/tool/system?
The following case studies demonstrate how others have used user-centered thinking to shape their work in scholarly communication.