When we think about accessibility and people with disabilities, mobility is the area that we are most familiar with and the most obvious of disabilities. We also refer to these as physical or motor disabilities. Most of the accessibility options that we see in public and in infrastructure are specifically for mobility disability. This is also the disability family we are most familiar with and can most readily see.
|Word cloud related to mobility and motor disabilities.|
There are many aspects that create unique challenges when it comes to mobility disability. On one hand, you could have someone with paralysis from the waist down with a spinal injury. this person will need to use a wheelchair to get around but they have full use of their arms, hands, and fingers, as well as eyesight and hearing. In the digital world sense, they are as able-bodied as anyone else. That is not the case for a person with severe arthritis, cerebral palsy, or paralysis that includes their arms or hands. In addition, limb amputation or missing limbs or parts of limbs create challenges in interacting with devices.
Primary/Persistent Mobility Impairments
There are various mobility or motor disabilities that fall under the category of primary or persistent issues.
Spinal Cord Injury: Individuals with spinal cord injuries may experience paralysis or limited mobility in their limbs. This can range from paralysis in their legs only but full control of arms, torso, hands, neck, etc., and then variations that also include fingers, hands, arms, neck, etc.
Cerebral Palsy: Cerebral palsy is a neurological condition that can result in difficulty with moving or coordinating limbs and extremities. Fine motor control or the ability to use fingers independently may be limited or not possible.
Muscular Dystrophy: This is a range of genetic conditions that often result in muscle weakness or limited dexterity due to difficulty in movement. It's a progressive condition that gets worse over time.
Multiple Sclerosis: This is a disease caused by an attack on the central nervous system, specifically the myelin that coats the nerves. It can impact the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. MS is an issue for visual and cognitive disabilities as well as mobility.
Arthritis: This is inflammation and pain in the joints. Holding onto items or typing on individual keys with multiple fingers or moving around and navigating a touch screen can be painful.
Amputation: A loss of limbs due to amputation is a significant issue when it comes to inputting information or navigating on systems, especially those designed around a keyboard and mouse or touch screens.
Tremors/Convulsions: Tremors can be caused by a number of conditions, Parkinson's Disease being a common and well-known example. This makes fine movements or steady controlled touch or sliding motions challenging.
Secondary/Situational Mobility Impairments
Injuries: fractures to the arm, hand, or fingers can hinder the ability of an individual to perform tasks that they might otherwise be able to were they not injured. The same goes for post-surgical procedures. These are situations that can render our extremities in a limited range of motion or in some cases no motion at all. On the plus side, we may be back to normal in a few weeks or months but during that injury/recovery period, we may have little to no use of our arms, hands, or fingers.
Otherwise Engaged Hands: This may sound silly but numerous situations would fall into the category of secondary or situational "mobility impairment". Some of these situations could be as temporary as "my hands are full" or "I'm driving a vehicle". We don't often think of these as impairments but they are situations where the user may not be able to use their hands or otherwise interact with a product when necessary.
Adapting to Mobility Issues
There are a range of methods to work with that will allow individuals who have mobility issues to better interact with their devices. There are numerous examples of methods and tools that can help with mitigating mobility issues such as:
Alternative Input devices: These can range from joysticks, to blow tubes, to software that tracks eye movement, to capacitance devices that can be held in the mouth, to large button arrays that will allow individuals to more effectively press and order button pushes to enable certain command sequences.
Voice Recognition Software: In certain cases, controlling the system with voice directives will allow hands-free operation. Additionally, screen readers can also be helpful with mobility accessibility.
Ergonomic devices: These can be specialized or split-level keyboards, larger buttons, or alternative layouts. Large trackballs are also commonly used as input devices where using a mouse would not be possible.
Some additional factors worth considering are:
- Make it possible for actions that can be clicked to have large buttons on the screen or to have the ability to access via the keyboard (press Tab to highlight the item and press Enter to perform the desired button click)
- make it possible to allow for multiple keystrokes to be seen as a more complex action or one where the need to hold down multiple keys simultaneously can be performed in another manner.
- use dictation software or other means to allow the user to speak workflows and have the system respond to them.
- provide space on the screen so that form fields can be accessed and do not require the user to have to pinpoint exactly where they need to focus their attention.
- ensure that workflows can be accomplished without the need for a mouse or multiple nested steps.
- make it possible for users to set longer timeouts if they are needed at all as many mobility issues may require a longer time to accomplish the steps necessary.
Individuals with mobility or motor disabilities can have a variety of issues and therefore may need to have a variety of tools to enable them to perform key tasks and interact with online content. It may be a challenge to have a testing situation where all of the possibilities can be tested but there are many ways to simulate these scenarios. It may take some creativity and imagination but I strongly encourage modeling and thinking about how someone would interact with your systems and applications were they unable to have full use of or full control of their hands. Learning to adapt to and putting yourself into these situations will likely provide you with many suggestions you can bring back to the design and code teams to help ake these interactions better for people with mobility issues and by doing that, help make products that are more usable for everyone.