OPINION8 November 2021

Making people heard: How to design accessible research

Inclusion Opinion

Ignore people with disabilities in research at your peril, says Lauren Isaacson, offering tips on how to make research processes accessible.

straight arrow pointing through complicated maze

We've either directly experienced or heard stories about research participants dismissed because they didn't fit the moderator’s or the client’s preconception of who should participate in research.

According to the screener, they qualified, but they're too this. They're not enough that. They use a wheelchair... Wait. What? Did they just discriminate against someone because of their disability? Isn't that against UK and EU anti-discrimination and accessibility laws? The answer to both questions is yes.

Why is this a widely accepted practice? Someone with a disability can be just as informative to research objectives as someone without a disability, and sometimes more. Tech companies, such as Microsoft, recognise disability as a continuum[ 1 ]. People can be permanently disabled (an amputated arm), temporarily disabled (a broken arm), or situationally disabled (carrying a heavy bag). If they can solve for hardships experienced by people with a permanent disability, then people with temporary and situational disabilities also benefit. This is why most people can work their smartphones with one hand.

We should also recognise that people with disabilities typically represent about 15% of the world population, according to the World Health Organisation, and have the spending power to match. If people with disabilities in Europe and the UK were their own country, they would rival Germany in terms of population and disposable income. Let’s also not forget their friends and family. People are more likely to patron products and services that break down barriers for the people in their lives with accessibility issues and avoid those that create hardships.

It’s also a growth market. The average age of the global population gets higher every year. The older people get, the more likely they are to require some form of accommodation[ 2 ]. As my friend and accessible interface designer Cindy Li used to say: "We are all temporarily abled." You and everyone you know will eventually have direct experience with having disabilities. Ignoring people with disabilities in research is ignoring your future customers.

So how can we make quantitative research accessible?

First off, ask your survey platform supplier(s) if they are compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines[ 3 ] (WCAG). These are the guidelines all companies with a digital presence (should) use to ensure their systems are usable by people using an assistive device to access the web. Every sales meeting with a web-based platform provider should include the question, "Are you WCAG compliant?" You will be surprised how often the answer to this question is no.

If you can't avoid using a non-WCAG compliant survey platform, ask the vendor which question options are compliant and which are not. Avoid using non-compliant question types. One way to do this is by using simple question formats. Sliders and drag-and-drop options are fun to use, but they often exclude people who use screen readers or cannot use a mouse/trackpad/touchscreen to navigate the web.

Because many of these platforms offer customisation options, the person programming the survey is the last line of defence on accessibility. They can use a contrast checker[ 4 ] to make sure the difference between background, text, and buttons is significant enough for people with colour blindness or other sight issues to detect them.

How do we make qualitative research accessible?

A pre-research conversation is the number one thing you can do to make in-person or online research more accessible. Inform the participant with a disability of what is involved and expected and ask them what they need from you to participate in the study fully. People with disabilities are experts in the accessibility issues they experience daily. Let them help you figure it out.

Knowing which participants have a disability requires adding a question regarding whether or not a participant considers themselves a person with a disability and then how they would describe their disability. Make answering this question optional because not everyone feels comfortable disclosing this information, and it should not be a requirement for participation.

If you're doing online or remote research, ask the platform provider if they are WCAG compliant. If they are only partially compliant, ask which parts are and are not compliant, so you can avoid those features if necessary.

If the research is in-person, ask the facility if they are accessible and their experience hosting participants with disabilities. Not everyone will know what it means to be accessible, so trust but verify.

Document the accessible parking, public transit access, entries/exits, pathways and toilet facilities, and include this information in the arrival instructions. Accessible documentation will make arriving on time much easier for all of your participants, not just those with a disability.

If you are showing stimuli, use alt-text[ 5 ] and closed captions to ensure those with sight and hearing issues can perceive the images and videos.

These are just a few things you can do to help people with disabilities be heard and understood in market and experience research. There is so much more to accessibility that I didn't mention in this article. If you would like to learn more, you can read the full version in the International Journal of Market Research or consult an accessibility expert to adjust your practice.

Lauren Isaacson is director at Curio Research

Read the full paper, ‘Why People With Disabilities Must Be Included in Research’, via the International Journal of Market Research (IJMR). 


[ 1 ] https://www.microsoft.com/design/inclusive/

[ 2 ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5104996/

[ 3 ] https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/

[ 4 ] https://webaim.org/resources/contrastchecker/

[ 5 ] https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/topic/everything-you-need-to-know-to-write-effective-alt-text-df98f884-ca3d-456c-807b-1a1fa82f5dc2