Disability Dongles: Designing for the Individual, Not the Collective

“I feel like solutions to inaccessibility are often rooted in whiteness, because anyone who doesn’t think about it would think it’s cool but the reality is that they’ve created accessibility for the individual, not the collective and reinforces the class hierarchy because the wealthy would be the only ones with complete accessibility.”

Source: Imani Barbarin on Twitter

This feels like an important aspect of what Liz Jackson calls a “Disability Dongle”. Disability dongles are addressed to the individual, not the collective.

Disability Dongles

A well intended and elegant, yet useless solution to a problem we never knew we had. Disability Dongles are most frequently conceived of and created in design schools and at IDEO.

Source: Liz Jackson | Honoring the Friction of Disability – YouTube

Disability studies, particularly as offered by disabled Black women like Imani Barbarin, re-roots us out exclusive accessibility for the most privileged and into pluralistic accessibility for all. “Disability studies prevents disability dongles.”

This is why it’s absolutely essential to insert disability studies curriculum into design school.

Accessibility is only one part of disability. It’s the how.

Disability studies is the who. It’s the what. It’s the when, the where, and the why.

To be short, disability studies prevents disability dongles.

Source: Liz Jackson | Honoring the Friction of Disability – YouTube


Inclusion Through Options: There is no one size fits all when it comes to accessibility.

While you can read an in-detail breakdown of all accessibility settings in the game, what The Last of Us 2 creators did extremely well was not succumbing to the idea of ‘accessibility modes’.

“‘We want to be able to dig into the menus, fine-tune things, adjust things, really get into the nitty-gritty of what these options mean.'”

Making all of the accessibility settings fully customizable and open to fine-tuning by the player allowed everyone to find the perfect combination of options for their individual access needs. It removed barriers for many who wouldn’t be able to experience the game at all otherwise, but also allowed others to just make their gameplay experience more comfortable.

If Naughty Dog made the game high contrast for all the players and called it a day, it would probably not be dubbed ‘the most accessible game ever.’

There is no one size fits all when it comes to accessibility. Instead of choosing who to prioritize and counting tradeoffs for certain choices like universal high contrast mode, the obvious solution would be to let the user choose.

Similar approach can be taken with any accessibility work at a large scale. There is no blanket ‘accessibility mode’ or ‘accessibility setting’ (save for basic compliance) that will fit everyone’s needs. Giving the user full control to set up what works best for them is always the better choice.

Source: Twitter’s new font and Last of Us 2: an accessibility lesson to be learned | by Anna 4erepawko Mészáros | Aug, 2021 | UX Collective

During my stint as WordPress lead developer, I was in the “Decisions, Not Options” camp . There are merits to the philosophy, but it can be taken to inaccessible ends.

There will always be conflicting accommodations. Customization is key, especially at scale.