The Quiet Musings

Inclusive Design and Deafness

- September 25th, 2018 -

Everything we use started as a design. A team sat down and came up with the design of the computer, tablet or phone from which you are reading this article. I sat down and came up with the design of this weblog. Someone sat down and came up with the design of the font being used on this weblog. You get the gist.

Most things are designed with one type of user in mind, the one with whom the designers identify most with. Consequently, the product is then not usable for someone else. That ‘someone else’ can be a large group of people that are being excluded and a substantial loss of income if you design a commercial product.  While you always have a target group, even in that target group there is a vast difference between your users.

That is where the term Inclusive Design comes in. Heydon Pickering explains in more details clearly what inclusive design is in What the Heck is Inclusive Design?

In short, inclusive design means designing things for people who aren’t you, in your situation.Heydon Pickering

Deaf and HoH users

As someone who was diagnosed with a hearing impairment in the first grade and got progressively deaf till I lost all my hearing when I was 26. I experienced my whole life how products and environments are not made with Hard of Hearing and deaf people in mind. Even now in 2018 with all the technology at our disposition, it is not being optimally used to improve inclusiveness.

The Netherlands has about 3.756.000* people with a mild case of hearing impairment to completely deaf. Those are the numbers from 2013.

* Source(Dutch): https://www.allesoversport.nl/artikel/feiten-en-cijfers-over-het-aantal-mensen-met-een-beperking/

This and that

A lot of focus is going to blind people, people in a wheelchair or with other, visible disability when thinking about inclusive design. Being deaf is one of the most invisible disabilities. Unless someone tells you they are deaf you won’t know.

Every day I live in a world with obstacles, my oven, washing machine, public transport announcement, the fire alarm at work, just to mention a few. They all rely on sound only to give signals. You know how many times I thought I pressed “On” on my oven, just to realize later that I did not? Or that I forgot that I warmed something in it?

I’m not a fan of smart devices. Most if not all of them rely on sound for signals or actually talking to you. Even my (semi-smart) new washing machine I bought last year. I was told that it plays music when it’s done washing or drying. I had no idea. The manual did not say it plays music when it’s done.

General criteria for deaf inclusiveness

There are several key points to take into account when designing to be deaf inclusive. Of course, every individual project needs to be accessed on how to best be inclusive.

  • Caption for video and spoken sounds and/or provide transcripts for podcasts.
  • Provide (colored) light when using sound to give an alert or action. (E.g. public transport check- in and -out terminals.)
  • Make screens readable with good use of colors, e.g, red for warning, yellow for notice, green for good, etc. (E.g. public transport check- in and -out terminals.)
  • Don’t require a phone number unless you provide text and/or WhatsApp service.
  • Don’t be available only by phone, provide email, WhatsApp and/or live chat.
  • Provide a ‘Comments’ text field so people can indicate for example if they are deaf and prefer to not communicate by phone.
  • Avoid the use of a donotreply@yourdomain.com email. Especially with important emails.
  • Make sure your digital form/database takes into account if a client is deaf, blind, uses a wheelchair, etc. This way people can keep track and not make mistakes with their clients. E.g. a doctor office or hospital must be able to register such things with general patient information. (I know for a fact those systems don’t make that possible.)
    • I’ve been informed that the new privacy laws make this difficult. As long as this is an optional field filled in per request of the client it should not be a problem. I rather have they register I’m deaf than get phone calls I can’t do anything with. We shouldn’t use GDPR laws as an easy way out of being inclusive.
  • When organizing a congress, provide live captions. They are not only useful for deaf and HoH people. But also for hearing people who might have missed something or are not fluid at the language being spoken. Reading it at their pace helps.
    • In the Netherlands, there is only a handful of text transcribers that can transcribe in English for me. It has happened that I had to miss a congress last minute because the transcriber was sick. Also going to congresses abroad is not really viable for me. I would have to pay myself for the plane ticket, hotel, etc. for the transcriber. Imagine if all congresses had live transcription as a standard. I would be able just like everybody else, to decide last minute if I want to attend, what I want to attend and where I want to go to attend. That is being deaf inclusive.

I learned that the best way to educate yourself about people is to talk with people outside your bubble. I might be deaf, but I don’t know how someone who is blind, autistic or in a wheelchair gets about their day and the daily obstacles they encounter. I learned by meeting people and talking to them.

You can’t take every single thing into account when designing a product or website but you can make sure to include the general criteria, have it tested by different people and improve through feedback. That on itself will cover a lot of users with different needs.

If you think your users are not differently abled. Let me tell you this. As a deaf person, if a website, video, podcast, or a product is not inclusive towards me. I don’t email and tell the owners. I move on to one that is inclusive and spend my time and/or money on them.

If you have any comments, addition or so, you can let me know at or through my Twitter @Darice.