Making universal design truly universal

Two people searching for something in a book at a library.

"Universal design is about more than just the disabilities you can see," explains OsloMet associate professor Gerd Berget.

"There are a lot of people with disabilities who cannot raise their voice, and they often get left out of universal design decisions."

Berget and her colleague Birgit Kvikne, a PhD candidate at the Department of Archivistics, Library, and Information Science, are studying ways to make universal design more universal by improving search systems in information technology for people with intellectual disabilities and other 'invisible disabilities'.

Advocating without a voice

Universal design is the idea that we can make the world accessible for all types of people, from cut curbs that help both wheelchairs and strollers to closed captions that allow everyone, not just people who are deaf, to follow the dialogue of Netflix shows on their laptops and phones.

The advantage of designing for people with disabilities is that it often also makes things more accessible for everyone.

Despite the benefits, advocating for designs that support people with disabilities has always been difficult.

It is even harder when those disabilities take away your ability to effectively communicate; design choices that help people with cognitive variations like dyslexia, aphasia, or intellectual disabilities are especially overlooked.

Berget points out that the designs we see most often – like wheelchair ramps and accessible parking – improve the physical environment.

These advances are important, but the focus on sensory and motor impairments often overshadows the equally vital cognitive dimension.

Identifying the constituents

Berget has worked with people who have dyslexia, a condition that affects a person’s ability to read, write, and process words.

People with dyslexia also often have impaired short-term memory and concentration.

Over the past few years, she has also been researching people with intellectual disabilities and their limited access to information and information technology.

Berget wants to understand what the barriers are so that she can help remove them.

Kvikne studies another kind of cognitive impairment: aphasia.

This is an acquired condition that affects a person’s ability to speak and understand language, usually the result of a stroke or other traumatic brain injury.

Sometimes our prejudice about a group can stand in the way of finding information about a huge variety of people. – Birgit Kvikne

Since they cannot effectively communicate, people with aphasia often get excluded from research. However, Kvikne stresses the importance of finding ways to include them.

"Who we include in research is essential."

Her passion lies in library and information sciences and in figuring out how to make information accessible.

Barriers to inclusion in research

Historically, research in this field has been overshadowed by misconceptions and stereotypes.

"I have read in the literature that it is nearly impossible to include people with intellectual disabilities in research, either because they do not understand so they cannot give informed consent or because their caregivers are overprotective," says Berget.

However, her experience proves otherwise. With careful consideration, meaningful participation on the part of people with intellectual disabilities is not only possible, but welcomed.

Berget was fortunate to find a group of students with intellectual disabilities who could consent to being part of her research.

"At the beginning I was worried the students would not want to talk to me,” the researcher reflected.

However, as she went around their classrooms, she found that instead of being reluctant, the students were enthusiastic about being included. One even wanted to become a researcher!

A team effort

Kvikne encountered similar assumptions in the literature about her participants with aphasia. 

"Sometimes our prejudice about a group can stand in the way of finding information about a huge variety of people," she worries.

Kvikne says that it can also be challenging to record responses from interviews because the participants often take a lot of time to speak and have trouble expressing themselves, so it is not always easy to communicate.

However, by being flexible and collaborating with speech therapists, she has been able to uncover a wealth of information about this group.

Like Berget, Kvikne found that people were excited to participate once they understood that she was doing research for their benefit. That is the key, in Berget’s view.

"You really need to communicate that you are doing this research to help these people – you are acting as their voice."

Finding data

The researchers have found that for people belonging to these groups, one of the biggest challenges is locating and acquiring new information.

"Losing the ability to read books and search for content is debilitating for many people with aphasia," says Kvikne.

Most of us have gotten used to the idea that we can quickly type some words into a search engine and instantly find everything we could ever want to know about the subject.

But what happens when you cannot spell out the words correctly or find the words at all?

Berget says that is where many people with cognitive variations experience challenges.

"Even though we have Google, Bing, and others to choose from, these search systems are all based on the assumption that users know the words, can type them in, and can understand the results."

These activities can be challenging for many people with cognitive variations. Impaired naming, writing, or reading skills can result in frustration and surrender.

As a result, many people with aphasia resort to a strategy of 'browsing' – simply clicking on a chain of links in the hopes of finding what they are looking for.

Others may try to use image searches to reach the information they need.

Creating access to technology

I don’t think developers mean to make systems that are not accessible. They just haven’t really thought about these issues. – Gerd Berget

Fortunately, some technology is becoming more accessible.

"In the case of dyslexia," Berget says, "I am optimistic. It is possible to make systems that are equally usable for people with and without dyslexia."

Google’s high tolerance for spelling errors significantly improves accessibility for people with dyslexia, for example.

Berget emphasizes that product developers also need to consider that people with dyslexia make unique errors and invest in solving these issues.

Even people without any cognitive impairment often misspell search queries, so improving the overall usability of systems for people with dyslexia helps everyone.

However, while search engines can adapt to errors made by people with dyslexia, making technology accessible to people with aphasia will require a different approach.

Kvikne stresses that this can be especially difficult for affected people because aphasia is an acquired condition, so people have often developed fewer coping mechanisms and strategies than people who have lived with an impairment their whole lives.

No obvious answers

Berget has also been doing work with advisers who develop books that are easier for people with cognitive impairment to read. In partnership with the organization Books for Everyone, she has made several key findings.

One is that breaking up sentences into many individual lines seems like it would improve readability, but it can be confusing because it relies on short-term memory and finding your place again after line shifts.

Another is improving the fonts in comic books.

"You might think it is easier to read Donald Duck or a graphic novel, but these books often use only capitalized letters or handwriting fonts, which are harder to process visually," says Berget.

To address this, she advised publishers to develop more readable fonts that still capture the artist’s style.

Next steps toward inclusion

The researchers plan to continue learning about cognitive variations so they can unlock the full potential of technology and information access for everyone.

Part of these efforts is continuing to include users in research projects. Equally important is communicating research results to practitioners and product developers.

As Berget says, "research often ends up just stating 'these are the various issues and barriers and should be future research' and then stops researching. It is important that we not only identify barriers but try to find solutions."



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Published: 21/05/2024
Last updated: 21/05/2024
Text: Matthew Davidson
Photo: Johar Khalid