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How to Recruit People with Disabilities for Accessibility UX Research

How to thoughtfully recruit people with disabilities for better accessibility UX research and usability testing.

Note: We're been re-listening to some of our most popular Awkward Silences episodes, to keep the advice fresh in our minds. The insights in this article were taken from Ep #78 - Accessible UXR: Recruiting and Researching Participants with Disabilities with Samuel Proulx of Fable, which was released on October 14th, 2021.

If you haven’t yet started recruiting people with disabilities for your UX research, it can seem like a daunting task. And, if you have started, it can sometimes feel like trying to move an ocean using only a teaspoon. 

In either case, we have good news: It doesn’t have to be as hard as you might think. Also, no one expects you to do everything on day one. Taking the initial steps and putting in sincere effort goes a long way. 

Samuel Proulx, Accessibility Evangelist at Fable (and a User Research Yearbook Class of 2022 member—check out his profile here), joined Erin and JH on the Awkward Silences podcast for an in-depth conversation about accessibility research. As a blind individual, Sam knows and values the importance of accessibility in all aspects of life and is a strong advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities in the digital world. 

Their conversation covered how to get started on your accessibility journey, best practices for recruiting users with disabilities, and how designing for accessibility is actually designing for everyone.

Accessible UX research: Where we are and where we are going

“In a lot of ways, the experience of the past year-and-a-half has been a wakeup call for people inside and outside the disability community about just how critical online and apps and digital experiences have become for everybody,” says Samuel, and we couldn’t agree more. 

The importance of accessibility has been overlooked for far too long. Today, people are finally starting to realize that designing accessible products is not only the right thing to do, it’s also designing for your future self. Samuel points this out not to be downer, but to be a realist. From age-related disability (such as failing sight or hearing or poor eye-hand coordination) to situational disability (a broken leg or arm) to what we traditionally think of as disability, every person will experience disability at some point in their lives. 

The fact is that one in five people in the United States currently lives with a disability. If you haven’t heard from a user with a disability, it’s not because they don’t exist—it’s probably because you haven’t provided a channel for their feedback, or their feedback is not making it to the people who need to hear it. 

The main thing to keep in mind as you start to address accessibility is that the process is a journey, not a straight line. 

“Accessibility is not a straight path for any organization,” Samuel says. “The truth is that almost everyone is a little behind the curve, and every organization can do better.” 

The best way to think of accessibility is as an ongoing effort, and something that you integrate into your development process. Accessibility is not a binary yes/no thing that you can check off a list. It’s always evolving, and there’s always something you can do to improve it. 

While there’s still a lot of work to do, Samuel is excited about the overall rate of change. “Organizations like Apple, Microsoft, and Google are taking big, giant steps,” he says. “But the thing that really excites me is the overall number of people engaging on this journey and the commitment we are seeing to accessibility now.”

With that in mind, we asked Samuel for some concrete advice on the best way to get started incorporating accessibility into UX research. 

How to get started recruiting people with disabilities for accessibility research

People are often afraid to get started with accessibility because they know it won’t be perfect, so why bother doing anything?

However, tackling accessibility is like the saying about planting a tree: The best time to start was yesterday, and the second-best time to start is today. 

Step 1: Make sure accessibility is on the company’s radar.

“The very first step is to make sure accessibility is on your company’s radar,” says Samuel. “Too often, people do research that doesn’t involve people with disabilities at all.”

He recommends thinking about accessibility the same way we’ve all been trained to think about other demographics. “We are already very concerned about making sure we get an age distribution that is reflective of the population, and a financial or ethnographic distribution,” Samuel says. “So, why—until now—has there been so little concern to make sure we get a disability distribution?”

Once you’ve got accessibility on the radar, you can start setting yourself up for success by taking small steps like making sure there’s a clear channel for accessibility-related feedback—collecting it and getting it to the people who can address it. While you’re at it, make sure that your support system or whatever you use to capture this feedback is accessible! 

You also want to get your support folks on board so that they are not only proactively looking for accessibility feedback, but also getting it into the hands of the designers, researchers, and developers who need to hear it. 

Finally, Samuel cautions against making accessibility the responsibility of a single person, “In order to get accessibility done, it has to be distributed throughout the processes of a company.”

Step 2: Understand what accessibility research is (and isn’t). 

Accessibility research is not market research or ethnographic research. It’s research about the assistive technology that affects the experience of a person with a disability. 

For people with visual disabilities, assistive technology includes screen readers and magnifiers as well as alternative navigation (anything that replaces a standard keyboard or mouse, like a switch system or eye tracking). Another example is people with auditory disabilities relying on captions to experience multimedia or needing alternate solutions to access phone support.

The good news is that if you fix an issue for any one of those technologies, it’s highly likely you’ll simultaneously fix issues for the others as well. “It’s okay to target one group, make a really great experience, and then expand the circle to the next group,” says Samuel. “Again, accessibility is a journey.”

Step 3: Decide what you’re going to research. 

Once you know the type of things you’re actually researching, you need to decide exactly where you’re going to focus your inquiry. People often assume accessibility is screen readers, period. But that’s definitely not the case. 

Determining which type of technology you should research can depend on where you are in the development process. 

If you’re in the prototype review stage, it will be easier to involve users of screen magnification and alt navigation because, at that stage, a screen reader won’t be able to capture any of the semantic data (headings, lists, block quotes, etc.), so your research participants won’t be able to provide a lot of useful feedback. 

On the other hand, there are ways to review a prototype with a screen reader user. It just takes knowledge and adaptation. One technique Samuel has seen work is building a Word document that looks visually nothing like your prototype, but will be perfect for screen readers to assess. 

Step 4: Make sure your forms and tools are accessible. 

Don’t jeopardize your accessibility research (or your credibility with your study participants) by asking folks to use tools that are not accessible. Make sure that every step of your process is accessible:

  • Your screening form — Make a good first impression by ensuring that your initial screener survey is accessible to everyone. 
  • Any online tools you’re using — For example, Fable uses Zoom because it’s one of the most accessible video conferencing platforms available. If you run into tools that lack accessibility features, take the opportunity to become an accessibility advocate yourself by bringing the issue up with the vendor (especially if the tool is something your company pays for). 
  • Your contracts — Again, like the screening form, make sure that this critical piece of the process works for everyone.
  • On-site locations — If you are asking people to come to your research lab or office, make sure that it is accessible both in terms of on-site features and travel routes to get there. As a side note, Fable focuses almost exclusively on online research because it tends to deliver far superior results by allowing people to use their own equipment in a place where they are comfortable. 

Step 5: Recruit users with disabilities. 

In most cases, you won’t be able to track how many visitors with disabilities come to your site. It’s also not recommended to screen for or collect any kind of healthcare or disability-related medical information. And that’s okay. 

“The key question is, ‘Do you use any kind of assistive technology?’” Samuel explains. “What you care about is whether the person uses the JAWS screen reader, for example. And the answer to that question is not medical data, so HIPAA regulations don’t apply.”
(Pro tip: provide check boxes as the response option for this question.)

Another important strategy for recruiting people with disabilities is to develop relationships with community partners. “Every community of users with disabilities has a group that advocates for them,” Samuel says. “In the States, it will be the NFB or ACB for blind folks, and in Canada, it will be the CIB. These organizations will often be able to help you, and establishing a good relationship really helps to build trust.”

Samuel also emphasizes the importance of compensating participants properly. “Using assistive technology isn’t something you’re born knowing. It’s a skill you have to learn,” he says. “People with assistive technology are in a skilled pool, and skilled pools need to be fairly compensated for their time. A $5 Amazon gift card probably won’t get the high-quality participants you need to achieve the best results.”

Most importantly: Be a good steward of UX research that includes people with disabilities.

As you approach accessibility research, always aim to be as open and welcoming (and accessible!) as you can—both in the research process, and the support and feedback processes. 

Don’t over-focus on the idea of “compliance” and turn the effort into an us-and-them situation. “Unfortunately, sometimes the legal landscape encourages the idea that people with disabilities are the enemy we have to satisfy so they don’t sue,” says Samuel. “Instead, think about accessibility research as a chance to co-design in a way that makes your product better for everyone.”

Also remember to follow up properly. Let study participants know about your results and what you’re doing to fix things. People love knowing that they made a real difference, and including them throughout the journey will encourage them to come back and help you again. 

The bottom line is that putting your head in the sand is not the answer.

“A lot of the dynamic out there is shame and worry and embarrassment,” says Samuel. “But there’s no shame in being new to something. Don’t let that stop you. What makes users with disabilities happy is to see that things are getting better.” 

Lip service is frustrating, but if you’re truly making an effort and seeing things through, no one will fault you. And there’s no better time to start than today. 

Interested in learning more? Listen to the full podcast episode below to hear more of Samuel's thoughts on accessible UXR.

Katryna Balboni
Head of Creative Content & Special Projects

Content marketer by day, thankless servant to cats Elaine Benes and Mr. Maxwell Sheffield by night. Loves to travel, has a terrible sense of direction. Bakes a mean chocolate tart, makes a mediocre cup of coffee. Thinks most pine trees are just okay. "Eclectic."

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