Moments of Accessibility – Part 1

17 June 2022

I sneezed. With my eyes tightly shut and anticipating pain, I let out a full-throated sneeze  that just about ripped the curtains of their rails. It was a very successful sneeze. 

The sneeze was special. For the first time in  several months, I didn’t feel like I was being ripped apart by the power of my diaphragm.  Before that I’d put all my weight onto my arms and quietly and meekly  squeaked one out. It sounded cuter but nothing comes close to the satisfaction of a full blast sneeze – except if said sneeze feels like you’re about to be ripped apart.

As I recovered from surgery, a subject I’ve been passionate about for years came starkly into view. I’ve lived with limited mobility and pain for nearly a year. While I’m almost fully recovered and my pains will be forgotten, I don’t want to forget all the reflections that I’ve had about accessibility and inclusion. I call them ‘Moments of Accessibility’.

To me, designing for accessibility is an intentional act. It’s more than following laws and regulations; it’s about focusing on use cases, whole systems design, designing for extremes, and considering the full spectrum of needs. More than that, in my world view, designing for accessibility isn’t solely focused on the needs of ‘others’, it’s something that benefits all of humanity. 

As an example, think about something as ordinary as curb cuts. Originally designed to help wheelchair users, they ended up helping users of  a wide variety of wheel devices including shopping carts, baby strollers, and in my case, eased my passage as I navigated my city without having to painfully step up and down curbs. There is a great blog about curb cuts and more at, The Forgotten History of how Accessible Design Shaped Streets on Bloomberg.com

I thoroughly enjoy noticing how the systems in our world that are intended to help disabled people can end up helping all of us. Similarly, I try to detect the gaps in the systems that make the overall experience awful for users. As we help our customers to build accessible solutions, we need to extend our efforts beyond the minimum requirements and think carefully about the entire system. For this moment of accessibility, I’m going to pivot back to the road system.

While curb cuts are brilliant, the system of roads and sidewalks in cities leaves a lot to be desired. While my observations took place in New York City, many of them are true for most cities in the world. 

New York City, for the most part, has curb cuts everywhere and pedestrian crossings that are mostly respected by drivers and pedestrians alike. However, pedestrian signals are lacking some important elements that I’ve started to take for granted in Seattle. Anyone who lives in Seattle and surrounding areas will be familiar with the sounds of pedestrian signals there. “Walk light is on”, “Wait”, and the da-da-da-da-da noises coming from pedestrian signals are important aids for people with limited vision. In New York City, I rarely encountered signals that made anything akin to these sounds.

Even more profoundly, the sounds of those signals help more than people with limited vision. In an era where people are more focused on their tiny screens than on what’s in front of them, these audible signals become programmed into our brains and can actually save lives. One day as I was walking near Microsoft’s Redmond Campus, I was staring at my screen engrossed in email or battling in Niantic’s Pokémon Go, and it dawned on me that I’d stopped without having looked up. Something in my subconscious told me to stop. The da-da-da-da-da sound emanating from the pedestrian signal was what had trigged that impulsive reaction. I was never in danger of walking into the road but that moment piqued my curiosity. I had become a metaphorical Pavlov’s dog. If I had intended to cross the road, that signal may well have saved my life. Something designed to help people with limited sight has become universally useful; its software empowering and enabling people.

Pro-tip: If the signal in Seattle can say “Wait” or “Walk like is on” you can press the button down for a little longer and it will say the what street and cross-street you’re on too! That’s really handy when street signs are awkwardly facing the wrong way and you want to know where you are.

Switching back to New York, the system of curb cuts and pedestrian crossings makes the city reasonably accessible, but the patch work of siloed systems and designs can add up to some truly awful experiences in some areas. When it comes to accessibility, good design matters but the entire user experience must be considered too.

As I walked about, in pain, trying to keep my movements gentle and measured, curb cuts provided incredible relief. I could move about almost pain free because the gentle gradients for wheels chairs meant I could walk with very little stress on my abdominal area too. Unfortunately, the drainage system and wear and tear meant many curb cuts were flooded on rainy days. I had to make a choice between using the curb cuts and having drenched feet or stepping directly off the curb a few feet away and experiencing pain.

Similarly, while most roads are well-paved, and I could move about with slipping, some major intersections are painted with thick, solid white or yellow paint that is incredibly slippery when it’s wet. It’s a hazard for anyone on two wheels, sure-footed pedestrians, and, of course, people struggling with mobility. My walking stick couldn’t find purchase, and so I had to do a slow, very careful shuffle as I crossed the roads. Much to the frustration of motorists and pedestrians alike, I couldn’t cross those roads in a New York Minute if I tried. For those that don’t know, a New York minutes is the moment of time between a light turning green and the car behind you honking to let you know you need to move; it is measured in milliseconds! 

The system felt fragile. Different people work on different parts of that system and it shows. Town planners and architects probably designed a system that worked well for everyone but as different vendors came together to build and maintain the separate parts of that road network the original intent seems to have been lost.

When it comes to accessibility, it’s the sum of the parts that need to make the whole. Smart use of sensors and software in pedestrian signals, curb cuts,  proper and even paving of roads and sidewalks, and thoughtful approaches to the entire system that must be navigated can make for a great experience. 

As we approach customer projects, we need to be familiar with how accessibility can play a role in creating a truly great customer experience; not just with the great features already in our products but also with the end-to-end systems that we will help to customers to build. Much like the pools of water at curb cuts and the slippery paint on roads, we can unintentionally leave gaps in the user experience that frustrate all users. 

If you’re a designer or architect, it is not a good enough to build a system that works. In 2022 it needs to work for everybody and it needs to embody design and architecture principles that are durable through the build and maintenance of those systems.

I hope as I continue to share many more moments of accessibility in the future, I sincerely hope that I get you noticing and thinking about how you can incorporate systems thinking and accessibility approaches into the work that you do.