Written by Walei Subray

Born in Egypt and raised in New York City, I’m a classic New Yorker. The only difference about me is that I drag a 58-inch black cane across the streets and sidewalks. That’s because I was born with a progressive eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa. As a child, I could see fairly well. But by the time I was nineteen, I was blind. Once I started my new life as a blind person, I discovered that I had an abundance of tools and assistive technologies to help me access information. Because of these technologies, I was able to stay connected to my family and friends, and complete an undergraduate degree as well as a master’s degree in disability studies. Today I am New York City’s first digital accessibility coordinator, responsible for making the city’s digital products work for people with disabilities.

When products are designed, they have the potential to enable human beings to perform tasks they previously thought were impossible. This is especially true of products designed to include the disability community. However, it is important to design products that empower users instead of making them feel inferior.

When it comes to assistive technology and products designed to enhance the lives of people with disabilities, there tends to be a trend of products created by well-meaning non-disabled designers that fall flat of their goal of delivering independence. Products that are good ideas in concept but ultimately do not take into consideration actual needs and behaviors of disabled users.

An example of such products would be audio description devices for blind customers to use in movie theaters. In concept, these devices are enabling blind visitors to get the information they need to perceive and enjoy Hollywood’s latest blockbusters. Essentially, these wireless devices transmit a recorded audio narration that explains visual aspects of the movie. This includes describing the setting of each scene, introducing characters and noting visual actions that are integral to the plot. Think of it as the audio book version of the movie.

That sounds amazing! Doesn’t it? Unfortunately, these devices have a history of shortcomings. First and foremost, the devices are not unique. It is common for blind customers to ask for the audio description device and receive the assisted listening device meant for customers who are hard of hearing.

Another common design flaw is a result of the fact that these are wireless devices. Because of that, the signal is not strong throughout the theater. This means that blind customers have to sit in a very specific section of the theater in order to properly hear their audio description. The result can put blind customers in uncomfortable situations. It could be that there are no available seats in the area with the strongest signal. It could be that there are only a few seats available which results in the blind customer being separated from their party. Finally, in film screenings where there are a lot of blind viewers attending, blind customers would have to be segregated into their own section of the theater. This happens most often at disability film festivals.

Perhaps the biggest design flaw of these devices is that blind users cannot set them up independently. The devices heavily depend on LED displays that have no audio or tactile feedback. The real world consequence of this flaw is that employees who do not use these devices often can make mistakes setting them up for the customer. The customer will not find out if the device is properly set up until the movie begins. The only course of action is to leave the movie that has already started and find customer service for assistance. This process is not only frustrating but stressful as it can disrupt the rest of the audience from properly enjoying the movie.

How do we avoid designing these flawed products for the disability community? The answer is simple. Include people with disabilities from day one. Ask yourself, “How many people on the design team are also going to be users?” “Do we have a diverse set of beta testers?” “Have we reached out to the disability community for their feedback throughout the design cycle?” “Have we listened to their feedback?” It’s all the basics of good customer service. Because disabled customers are just customers and their money is the same as everyone else’s.


Walei Sabry is the digital accessibility coordinator for the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. This article was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of Design Journal.

2 thoughts on “Design and Agency: When Design Fails the Disability Community

Thanks so much for sharing Mr. Subray’s examples of how technology designed for – instead of with – people with disabilities can fail intended users. Real-life stories like his are the most powerful in persuading designers and manufacturers that no amount of empathy or good intentions can substitute for the unique life experience of the intended customer.

Hello there ,

I wanted to share my gratitude concerning your work on promoting disabled people’s rights (from here cooperhewitt.org/2018/04/06/when-design-fails-the-disability-community/).

I want to suggest you share an important research that came out last week. It found that over 96% of government websites exclude disabled men and women from showing on webpages.

I think it is an important mission to promote disabled people’s rights, don’t you agree?

Once again, thank you for all you are doing to promote disabled people rights. I hope you can share this study with your users along the actionable items it suggests to improve the situation.

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