Accessibility Experience Lab: Discovering the Impact of Design on Disabilities

  • Title: Accessibility Experience Lab: Discovering the Impact of Design on Disabilities
  • Publication Type: Conference Proceedings
  • Authors: Jordan, J.B., & Vanderheiden G.

Full Text

Accessibility Experience Lab:
Discovering the Impact of Design on Disabilities

J. Bern Jordan & Gregg C. Vanderheiden

Trace Research & Development Center, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Many accessibility problems of devices and user interfaces could be avoided if the needs of people with disabilities were considered during the design process. This paper describes an accessibility experience lab module which introduces participants to both the barriers associated with disabilities and the impact that simple design changes can have on those barriers. The core of the lab is an experience session where participants are given functional limitations along with tasks at paired stations so they can compare their experiences on devices with inaccessible and accessible designs. For seven years the experience lab has been a part of the curriculum for first-year engineering students at the University of Wisconsin, and over 1700 students have completed it. In the popular lab, the students are engaged and report interest and insights into design for disabilities. Materials are available at


The design of devices and user interfaces presents a variety of barriers to people with disabilities. Buttons may be hard to find or press. Controls may be unreachable or difficult to operate. Labels or screens may be difficult to read. Inaccessibility is often an unnecessary frustration because many of these problems can be avoided with little or no extra design effort or cost. If the needs of people with disabilities are considered during the design process, the products, devices, or web sites will more often be usable by a greater number of individuals.

The practice of designing mainstream products and environments to be as usable as possible for as many people as possible is known as universal design (Universal design principles, 1997; Vanderheiden, 2006). The principles of universal design provide guidance to product designers in order to improve usability and accessibility. While the initial focus of universal design was on architectural barriers, the concepts can also be successfully applied to devices and interfaces. A broader awareness among engineers and human factors professionals of the barriers faced by people with disabilities and the opportunities for universal design would help reduce unintentional design decisions that make products inaccessible (Stephanidis et al., 1998).

Recently, engineering programs have been increasing their emphasis on design in the curriculum. In addition to the traditional senior or capstone design class, the design process is being used in other courses as a method of teaching engineering (Dym, Agogino, Frey, & Leifer, 2005). Many engineering design class assignments are real-world projects with clients or sponsored by companies. While some projects have clients with disabilities, most students do not get the experience of designing for people who have different physical and sensory abilities than themselves.

Courses in accessible and universal design for information and communication technologies are only available at some universities and are almost always electives. This results in few practicing engineers with exposure to design for disability. To see more widespread improvements in mainstream products, accessibility needs to be something that is considered by more than just consultants or experts in disability. All engineering students would benefit from exposure to the barriers faced by people with disabilities and the practice of universal design. While not every student can take a full universal design course, a short lab or course module could help increase awareness of accessibility.

Approaches to Disability Awareness

Disability awareness training programs generally aim to change attitudes towards people with disabilities because negative attitudes are seen as a source of many problems associated with disabilities. These negative attitudes may be expressed “through avoidance, anxiety, overprotectiveness, pity, segregation, alienation, and rejection” (Elliot & Byrd, 1982). There are four broad approaches towards teaching about and changing attitudes towards people with disabilities: education for people without disabilities, facilitated contact with people with disabilities, role playing, and disability simulation (Scullion, 1996; Swain & Lawrence, 1994). The first of these approaches uses education to disseminate accurate information as a way to address the general lack of information and understanding about disabilities. Through the facilitated contact approach, people can learn about the disability experience and challenge their preconceived notions with instructors or facilitators who have disabilities. In role playing, participants are told to imagine and take on the role of a person with a disability to empathize with some of the experiences. In the disability simulation approach, people attempt activities or exercises with physical or sensorial limitations and learn experientially. Curricula on disabilities education may use one or several of these approaches in combination. Education, facilitated contact, and role play approaches require a significant time commitment for best results and are not well suited to short lab modules or sessions. Disability simulations, on the other hand, can be done quickly and fit within a class period or workshop time slot. Disability simulations alone may not be as effective as combinations of the above approaches, but they provide the best awareness and impact for a single lab time slot. The simulated disability experience also provides participants with a visceral awareness of the interplay between design and accessibility in a way that other forms of education may not (Engelke, 2009).

Disability Simulations

A disability simulation is a vicarious experience wherein participants without disabilities “try on” a physical, sensory, or other impairment for a limited time. Disability simulations are relatively common in educational settings (Flower, Burns, & Bottsford-Miller, 2007) and are designed to help participants experience what it is like to have a disability (McGowan, 1999). In one type of disability simulation, real-world simulations, participants partner with another participant for safety and then navigate and go about their full daily activities for a time with a wheelchair, a leg splint, a blindfold, etc., which simulates some aspects of having a disability (Behler, 1993; Pfeiffer, 1989; Wurst & Wolford, 1994). In another common type of simulation, task-based simulations, participants attempt assigned common tasks while wearing blindfolds, hearing protectors, splints, colored glasses, etc. These simulations generally take several minutes of time to complete, and participants go through several such simulations in a session to learn about the impacts of different disabilities on everyday tasks that they may take for granted (Clark, Foos, & Faucher, 1995).

Disability simulations can be lively, entertaining, and engaging (Burgstahler & Doe, 2004). They can spur productive discussions about disability and peoples’ reactions to those with disabilities (Kiger, 1992). Simulations can also spur action to improve infrastructure and eliminate barriers for people with disabilities (Eames, 2003). While simulations used alone show little effect on attitudes (Flower et al., 2007), when used as part of a comprehensive, combination approach to disability, simulations show some evidence of changing attitudes towards people with disabilities (Smith, 1997),

It is not possible to realistically simulate a disability (French, 1992; Kiger, 1992; Smart, 2001). Simulations cannot provide people with the full scope of the psychosocial aspects of a disability. Through simulations, participants cannot learn about the discrimination, rejection, or pity that people with disabilities may face. Neither can participants learn about some of the coping strategies and mastery of people with long-term disabilities.

There are a number of problems that critics find with common disability simulations. Many disability advocates are uneasy with disability simulations because they may lead to more negative emotions and fear than understanding and enlightenment (Brew-Parrish, 2004; Eames, 2003; Smith, 1997). After a simulation, participants may feel fear, pity, or helplessness. Other participants may feel that they are now “experts” and understand all aspects of the disability (Smart, 2001).  Participants’ perceptions are also shaded by the fact that they know the simulations are only a temporary handicap, and they do not think much about the implications of a long-term disability. The fear of many critics is that participants may take away unintended negative lessons and reinforced prejudices (Scullion, 1996; Smart, 2001).

Well-designed disability simulations may sidestep some of these concerns by reducing the potential negative consequences (Kiger, 1992). Burgstahler and Doe (2004) offer the following list of seven guidelines to maximize the positive outcomes of disability simulations:

  1. State objectives clearly so participants know what they will do and what they are expected to learn.
  2. Ensure voluntary participation to eliminate reluctant or resentful participation.
  3. Illustrate both challenges and solutions so participants see that disabilities are not insurmountable.
  4. Demonstrate the value of universal design to show the benefits of accessibility.
  5. Include people with disabilities in planning and, when possible, in facilitating the workshop.
  6. Support positive attitude change.
  7. Debrief thoroughly and reflectively.

The experience lab module discussed in this paper is not an attempt to accurately simulate any disability. To prevent the impression that what participants are experiencing fully simulates a disability, we avoid the word “simulation” and instead use the term “experience session” and talk about experiencing barriers that people with disabilities would also encounter. While the experience session does create artificial and temporary “disabilities” or “functional limitations,” the focus is different from typical disability awareness programs. Instead of trying to change attitudes of participants towards people with disabilities, the experience session is used to change attitudes towards design, highlight the barriers of inaccessible design, and demonstrate the impact of simple design changes. Disability is an interaction of the person’s abilities and the design of the world around them—a design the participants may be able to effect.

Practice Innovation

The UW-Trace experience lab module was developed in 2003 based on material and exercises from an upper-level course in design for aging and disability and universal design workshops for industry created by the Trace R&D Center at the University of Wisconsin in the 1990s. Since its inception, the accessibility workshop has been a lab module as part of an introduction to engineering and design course which has an annual enrollment of 250-300 first-year engineering students. The experience lab has also successfully been used as a module in middle and high school-level programs for students interested in science, technology, and engineering.

The experience lab has two main goals: (1) to increase awareness of and demonstrate barriers that people with disabilities may face and (2) to demonstrate the impact that simple design changes can have on accessibility. The lab is comprised of three parts: an introduction, the experience session, and a concluding lecture and discussion.

Introduction to the Experience Lab

 The introduction to the experience lab is short but performs an important function. It allows the instructors to introduce the participants to the logistics of the upcoming experience session, to identify the session objectives, and to frame the upcoming experiences in terms of both their usefulness and limitations. It is stressed that the experience session is not meant to accurately simulate disabilities. Instead the experiences use functional limitations to help people discover some of the barriers that people with disabilities face when using various devices. Without the purpose and learning objectives of the experience session in mind, the workshop may be reduced to mere recreation (Karraker, 1993) or may even act to reinforce prejudice. By framing the lab module as lessons in accessibility barriers and simple design changes, participants look at designs and their impact on people with disabilities rather than on the disability itself.

The Experience Session

The experience session forms the core of the experience lab module. It is comprised of multiple stations, and participants visit each station over the course of the session. At each station, participants attempt to perform an everyday task with a device while having some kind of functional limitation. Ideally, there are as many stations as there are participants, so everyone can be working at the same time at their own station. Participants are timed and rotate through the stations over the course of the session, so they have an opportunity to try all of the tasks. They are instructed to note their experiences, challenges encountered, and conspicuous design features in their lab notebooks.

Paired Stations: The stations are set up in “bad”-“good” pairs where participants perform the same task with the same functional limitations but with differently designed devices. Both stations use mainstream devices or designs. The first station of each pair, the “bad” station, has a device with a design that makes the task difficult or impossible to complete. The device at the second, “good” station has a different, more accessible design which makes the task easier to complete with the functional limitation. For example, at the first of a pair of stations, the participant is instructed to open a two-latch laptop computer with one hand. The second station of the pair has the same task with a single-latch laptop.

This pairing of stations allows participants to compare their experiences between the two device designs. They can see that the problems and frustrations they have with the inaccessible device at the first station are not necessary. The design of the first device was responsible for their difficulty. The pairing of stations takes the focus of the session off of the disability and places it on the barriers and problems with poorly designed devices.

Station Setup: Each station has all of the tools, equipment, and the device needed for the task. For example, at a station where students must use a stylus to type an e-mail address, both a stylus and a computer are provided. Each station also includes a sheet that describes the task for the participant to complete. These sheets are kept as simple as possible with a list of steps to take to complete the task.

At the second, “good” station of each pair, an additional sheet is provided with design lessons to be read after completing the activity. Sometimes a device is easier to use but participants are not sure why. The design lesson helps the participant think about what he or she has just experienced and understand the range of people who might be helped. These lessons are short, no more than a few sentences, and are also provided to participants in a handout at the end of the lab.

Example 1—Opening a laptop: For this pair of stations, the task is to open a laptop using only one hand in a glove that limits pinching or grasping. The first station of the pair has a laptop with two spring-loaded sliding latches on the sides that latch when released. The second, “good” laptop has only a single center sliding latch.

The two-latch laptop can be opened with a single gloved hand, but it is difficult and usually involves gymnastics or body parts not typically used to open a laptop. For example, participants may try to hold one latch with their forearm or head while using their hand for the other latch. Opening the single-latch laptop at the second station is trivial with one gloved hand. Participants take longer to put on the glove than open the laptop. The design lesson reads:

  • “Eliminate the need for simultaneous operation of two controls; or
  • “Provide an alternative means of operation that does not require simultaneous actions.

“Any time an action requires the simultaneous operation of two latches, two keys, and so on, it is difficult or impossible for people using mouthsticks, headsticks, or a single hand to use the product. This can include someone holding a bag or baby, or someone with only one useable arm.”

Example 2—Counting buttons: For this pair of stations the task is to count the number of buttons on a small device in a pillowcase without looking at it. The first station has an alphanumeric pager with flush, smooth buttons. The second station has a small armband radio with raised, rubber buttons.

Because of the flush, smooth buttons on the first device, no participant has ever come up with the correct number of buttons without looking. Some participants even wonder out loud if there are any buttons on the device. In contrast, the raised, rubber buttons on the second device are easy to discern tactilely and count. The design lesson reads:

  • “Buttons should be raised or rubberized (so they have a different traction or texture than the surface).

“This facilitates use by individuals who are blind, people with low vision, people who are driving cars, or anyone whose eyes are busy or trying to use something in the dark.”

Some other stations in the experience lab have included reading color-coded charts with colorblindness, using books with mouthsticks, using touchscreens with prosthetic hands, reading small print instructions, addressing email (requires ‘@’ sign) with a headstick, and using devices that have no tactile buttons without using vision.

Concluding Lecture and Discussion

The concluding lecture and discussion of the experience lab module gives participants a chance to reflect on their experiences and bring up any issues they discovered. It also provides them with additional contextual information.

The lecture addresses some of the common misconceptions people may have about disabilities after the experience session. It is reiterated that the experience session does not attempt to simulate disabilities but instead highlights some of the barriers of inaccessible products. For example, the “arthritis gloves” used at some stations only prevent participants from pinching and strong grasping but do not simulate the debilitating pain often associated with arthritis. During the experience session, most participants are naïve and new to the experience of disability whereas people who have had disabilities for some time develop coping strategies that can make some tasks easier than the students’ experiences.

The group setting of the lecture facilitates several other experiences and design lessons. These plenary experiences allow the instructor to provide participants with direct feedback, explanations, and contextualizing narratives. It also allows participants to see how others perform and react to the group exercises.

Sources of Data

The first-year engineering students who have gone through the workshop were asked to anonymously complete a short, five-item satisfaction survey and provide any comments they might have. The survey was designed to take only a moment to fill out, so the items on the survey are limited to just a positive or negative response.

Each experience lab is facilitated by at least one instructor who observes the participants, answers questions that may arise, and fixes any problems that may occur with the equipment. While facilitating the lab, there have been many noteworthy observations about participants’ behavior and responses to the stations of the experience session.


From 2004 – 2009, a total of 1730 first-year engineering students completed the accessibility workshop and have filled out the short satisfaction survey. Table 1 shows the results of the survey with the students.

Table 1. The responses of first-year engineering students to the short satisfaction survey.

Survey item

(n = 1730)

1: This lab taught me something new about product design.       


2: This lab made me aware of disability issues that I had not encountered before.        


3: This lab convinced me that good product design can make a difference.     


4: This lab was a worthwhile experience.


5: This lab made me want to learn more on this topic.


Student Comments

Of the 1730 short surveys, 334 students included comments. Some of them describe potential improvements to the course. Some students felt that time spent at some of the stations was too long while others felt that time was too short to learn everything and take notes.

Six of the 334 comments left by students showed pity or other negative attitudes towards people with disabilities. For example, “It would really suck to have any of these disabilities. We should try and help these people as much as possible,” and, “I didn’t realize how hindering disabilities can be.” While these few comments were generally well meaning, the wording of them suggested the negative attitude that people with disabilities were hindered or struggled with their disabilities.

Over three-quarters of the comments reflected positively on the lab and that students had found the workshop fun, interesting, or educational. While many of these positive comments were short, over 100 students mentioned increased awareness or insight into accessibility problems and design solutions. For example, “This lab opened my eyes to how simple, often-overlooked design changes can make an enormous difference,” and, “A lot of products can be very unfriendly to individuals with disabilities, but these flaws can be fixed by ways that I never thought of [before].” Of the comments, 21 of them said that the workshop was worth the time spent: “This was a very informational lab that was definitely worth my time,” A few students suggested that the workshop should be more widespread: “Very nice. Everyone should try this.”

On the surveys, 16 students left comments specifically on the benefits of the experiential, hands-on method of learning, for example, “The hands-on experience was great. Once you experience the problem firsthand, you can design accordingly.” One student suggested that the experience itself was what made it easier to find design problems: “You couldn’t tell [just by] looking at something what was wrong—you had to do it.”


The approach and demeanor of different students and groups to the experience lab has varied. Most students were engaged during the experience sessions. However, there have been a few students who sat at the stations, thought through the activities without doing them, and then made their notes. Some groups are generally quiet during the experience session, while other groups are very conversational, making comments about others’ performances or suggesting other ways to try an activity. Some students take a competitive approach to activities, trying to complete as many tasks as possible and out perform others in their lab group. Even though told beforehand that some tasks will be impossible due to the functional limitation at a “bad” station, some students take a failure-is-not-an-option approach and intensely persist until the time is called. These students catch up with their notes on the second station of each pair where the task takes less time to complete.

During the concluding lecture, the prevalence of disabilities with age was presented in an interactive manner that regularly elicits a response from students. Participants are shown a slide with 50 figures of people on it, some of which are shaded to represent disabilities. Students are asked to stand and then pick a figure to watch that will represent them. The slides are then advanced through age ranges showing increasing numbers of shaded people (who have acquired a disability), and students are asked to sit if their figure acquires a disability. As more students sit when their onscreen figures age and acquire disabilities, the students become more involved wondering if they will be next. When the last slide is displayed, students often let out a little cheer if left standing. The atmosphere becomes more serious and reflective when the standing students are told they may have to help care for the two-thirds of the class who are sitting and have “acquired” disabilities if the world is not usable by them.


The accessibility workshop is popular among students with the vast majority indicating on the short survey that they had learned more about disability issues and the difference that design can make. Fewer students, but still a majority (65%), reported wanting to learn more about the topic of disabilities and universal design. The percentage of students indicating interest in learning more is higher than had been expected considering the wide range of interests and majors of the first-year engineering students. Most of these students chose engineering for its technology rather than human aspects and only attended the experience lab module because it was part of an engineering introduction course. While some of this positive response may be due to social expectations or positive response bias, it may also be an indication of engagement of the students in the experience sessions. A more complete survey in the future could help verify and illuminate aspects of students’ desires to learn more about the topic.

Comments after the sessions did highlight some negative attitudes towards people with disabilities in a few students. Because disability simulations typically show little effect on attitudes (Flower et al., 2007), it is likely that these negative attitudes were preconceived and not introduced by taking part in the experience lab. However, as part of a future study, it would be useful to compare attitude measures before and after the experience lab. Also in a future study, it would be useful to measure the long-term effects and influence of the experience lab on students’ ability to find accessibility problems with devices and suggest design improvements.

In contrast to the few comments indicating negative attitudes, the majority of the comments were positive. In comments, students reinforced the survey results: that they had an increased awareness of both the accessibility barriers people with disabilities face and potential design solutions. By providing some exposure to students early in their studies, it is hoped that they will carry this awareness forward as a design consideration since even if students are not responsible for interface design, their decisions often affect accessibility.

This experience lab module is well-suited as a lab component in human factors education. It is powerful to have the hands-on experience of frustration with inaccessible products and realize that it can be prevented through design. As evidenced by comments, the lab impacts the students and makes them think differently about the design process and the people for whom they are designing.

Support material for the accessibility experience lab module, including details about experience session stations, are available from the Trace Research & Development Center web site at


The contents of this paper were developed with funding from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, U.S. Department of Education, grant number H133E080022 (RERC on Universal Interface and Information Technology Access). However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and one should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.


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