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What Do Accessibility and Universal Design Have To Do With Open Data and Smart Cities?

Accessibility Series Part 1: Universal Design Matters in Open Data

Open Data Accessibility is a crucial subject in data quality.

Open Data, Accessibility and Universal Design and interrelated concepts that tie into a general culture of inclusiveness and “openness.” We know what Open Data is, that’s probably what brought you here. But what do accessibility and universal design have to do with Open Data?

This post will guide you through the issues that many residents face when navigating the web with a disability. We will discuss the types of impairments faced by residents and what Open Data advocates can do to be inclusive by adhering to the ideas of accessibility and universal design. Accessibility and Universal Design issues are often referred to as “A11Y” issues because of the 11 letters between letters “A” and “Y” in the word Accessibility.

On a personal note, accessibility became important to me in the Spring of 2015. After a serious head injury, I found myself unable to look at computer screens or deal with artificial light without suffering from ocular migraines. Being able to use text to speech made it clear to me that the web has a long way to go to make access to information equitable for all populations. I will refer to this again when we get to universal design and the “right thing to do for the right reasons”.

OpenDataSoft puts considerable effort into ensuring all of our interfaces and widgets adhere to standards we will learn about later. For now, we can think about the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and their WCAG level II and the Americans with Disabilities Act Section 508 as our baselines for acceptable Accessibility and Universal Design Standards.

The Scope of Persons Requiring Accessibility and Universal Design

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” – Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web


From the 2016 ANNUAL DISABILITY STATISTICS COMPENDIUM, US National Institutes of Health (Disability Compendium 2016, NIH Publication) we can understand better the number of persons that might have difficulty accessing web content that does not take into account “A11Y” Principals:

Total Number of Persons in the US requiring A11Y

Based on data from the American Community Survey and compiled in tables by the NIH, in 2015, there were 316,450,569 individuals living in the United States, 39,906,328 of which were individuals with Disabilities. According to the 2016 Disability Statistics Annual Report, this represents 12.6 percent of the total population.

Breakdown by Disability Number of US Persons Requiring A11Y

CategoryCivilian Number% Total Population% Total Disabled
Total Population316,450,569100NA
Total Disability39,906,32812.6NA
Hearing Disability11,232,48428.13.5
Vision Disability7,291,43318.32.3
Cognitive Disability643,1566.21.6
Ambulatory Disability20,929,2186.652.4
Self-Care Disability7,977,6612.520.0
Independent Living Disability14,481,9224.636.3

Source: Calculations based on U.S. Census Bureau, 2015 American Community Survey, Public Use Microdata Sample. Data represents the civilian, non-institutional. Based on a sample and subject to sampling variability.

This is just scratching the surface of what we know about our population and their differing capabilities. We have data on service-related disabilities, poverty-related, education-related data and so on. What we want to emphasize is the functional requirements to meet the needs of these populations. Note this does not address additional issues such as the digital divide and rural access to broadband.

Open Data is available and accessible in non-proprietary formats and freely available to reuse. If we are not considering the abilities of disabled populations, then we do not have truly free and unfettered access to data for everyone.”
– Jason M. Hare

Accommodation, Simplicity, and Redundancy

So let me just start this by jumping into some terminology and some concepts. I’ve titled this Accessibility and Universal Design, but I probably should start with the concept of accommodation. Accommodation starts with good design. Accommodation as stated by some, such as Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery, is one of the least successful methods for ensuring that accessibility is central to design.

What I mean by accommodation is the general principle that good design takes into account making the interface accessible to everyone at some point in the process. This is different than considering accessibility as central to the design of the product interface. The methodology of applying accessibility as a part of a universal design strategy does not begin with accommodation. Universal design is design that emphasizes simplicity and redundancy. Simplicity in design means the interaction is intuitive and not over burdened with features that are rarely used. Redundancy makes sure that the interaction with a visitor does not rely on one way to complete a task.

The most common way accommodation is approached is not through universal design principles but by assuming the system was not designed to deal with disabilities in the first place. This is one of the weaknesses of accommodation as a design methodology, as stated by Horton and Quesenbery. There are several real world examples. Imagine a parking meter that requires the pushing of buttons and reading an LCD prompt. If one has a visual impairment, this would not work. The typical approach is to then add a feature such as a voice interface with a human being to walk the person through the process. This is a solution but is not elegant and is not behind universal design principles. In an alternative reality, universal design principles would reign. The same parking meter above is not readable with my SPF 50 prescription sunglasses (same with gasoline pumps, airline kiosks, global entry kiosks and just about anything I interact with while wearing sunglasses). A firm, a team an organization could have designed it to be accessible in the first place. Here are examples of designing toward a universal experience:

1) Raised text including Braille labels. I have not met a person yet that does not miss the Blackberry for the keyboard alone.

2) Buttons in a sequence with a verbal, touch, and visual queue as to the state of the process, you might not need to have some special accommodation. Note this universal principle was stated by Jakob Nielsen as far back as 1994 in Usability Engineering and is one of the 10 heuristics of usability.

The Arguments for Accessibility and Universal Design

The Legal Imperative

There are legal, moral and business reasons to consider accommodation and universal design principles. In the United States, we have the Americans with Disabilities Act also known to the “A11Y” people as “Section 508”. The Federal government in the US makes this a requirement for publicly funded websites but rarely takes enforcement action. Enforcement comes through complaints by citizens or advocacy groups and sometimes can involve litigation. Section 508 is concerned with computer technology accessibility. Different governments around the world take a more or less stringent approach to accommodation when it comes to computer technology much the same way different governments deal with physical access to facilities and services. In the end though, the legal approach has some pitfalls:

1) Mandating legal adherence to accessibility laws without taking a holistic view to universal design can negatively impact the responsiveness of the interface. Sometimes we call this “feature pile-on”. The interface is complete and then accessibility features are added as an afterthought rather as an overarching strategy toward universal design.

2) Legal issues are reactive rather than proactive and are more likely to be a “least effort” endeavor where the idea is to comply with the law and avoid penalties rather than to really accommodate everyone.

3) Accommodation or “Equity Access” is usually the methodology used to comply with the law. This is not a universal design method and does not instil confidence on part of the user.

The Moral Imperative

Accommodation and accessibility is a moral imperative. In some parts of the world, including the United States and the European Union, it is a human right. A moral argument for accommodation is that it is the right thing to do when you’re designing something. Everyone has a right to use a publicly accessible computer interface whether at the library, the courthouse, a meter reader or purchasing something online. There are pitfalls as well for those that make the moral argument and it is a sign we do not think very much beyond ourselves when we see these pitfalls:

1) Accommodation is a low priority and does not fit into the investor’s “minimum viable product” (MVP) requirement. This, by the way, actually was stated to me at another company in a strange time known as the “dotcom bubble.”

2) The people advocating and most strongly arguing for accommodation on moral grounds might be seen as “evangelists” and marginalized by other groups within the organization. There is a risk of sounding “preachy” rather than human. Though I have also encountered this, many times, now I am a paid “evangelist” and have not heard that argument in this millennium. Progress? I think maybe yes.

The Universal Design Imperative: The Right Thing To Do for All of the Reasons

I saved the best imperative for last. We should consider accessibility early as part of the MVP design because it leads to better design overall. Universal design is a frequently a win-win. If we design things simply and with redundancy, the accessibility provided to those that require assistive technology and features found in proper design also benefit other users who may not even though that they too have assistive needs. Assistive needs come in many forms and almost all of us, at some point in our lives, will have assistive needs. Remember, we all age. At some point our age will most likely require us to have assistive consideration and design.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, from my own life experiences, having a traumatic brain injury in 2015 made it almost impossible for me to interact with a computer. I suffered from photophobia, migraines and had problems with memory recall. Today, even after the recovery, I do look for websites that remind me of “state”. This is due to permanent memory recall effects of the injury.

This idea of “state” is again, one of Jakob Nielsen’s 10 vital heuristics for usable design in Usability Engineering. “State” is communicated by an interface to let the user know where in the task process they are. Imagine if you were using a website where you did not understand the in which order the steps for the tasks needed to be completed or which task you were on. I just experienced this trying to buy in-flight Internet access while working on this article. Below we will talk about the kinds of disabilities that 12.6% of us Americans deal with on a daily basis.

Opportunities for Universal Design Enhancements by Addressing Assistive Needs

A Breakdown of Disabilities by Type and Age

Disability Type by DetailNumber% Population
With a Hearing Difficulty10,897,6923.5%
With a Vision Difficulty7,030,6252.3%
With a Cognitive Difficulty14,551,4015.0%
With an Ambulatory Difficulty20,405,8747.0%
With a Self-Care Difficulty7,793,5142.7%
With an Independent Living Difficulty13,765,0655.8%

Source: U.S. Census Burea, 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates


The American Community Survey (ACS) surveys six types of disability: vision, hearing, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care, and independent living. Looking back at the 2016 Disability Statistics Annual Report, after changing the survey for the 2000 census, we see that from 2008 to 2015, the percentages of people with each type of disability have remained relatively unchanged. The percentage of people with ambulatory disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and independent living disabilities rose by 0.2 to 0.3 points over the 2008-2015 period, while people with hearing, vision, and self-care disabilities rose 0.1 point or less. That represents the US as a whole. The numbers at a more granular level tell a different story.

Disabilities affect 12.6% of the US civilian population as of 2016. From our national data set we can see that the percentiles do not vary much over time. What does vary is the geospatial and age variants found in US populations with disabilities.

This makes sense. While some disabilities occur at birth, many occur with age. As we can see in the table below, the ACS, created age categories and assigned a total disability number to them. The methodology for collecting this data are based on a sample and are subject to sampling variability. There is an upper and lower boundary for the sampling margin of error which is not reflected in the smoothed table data (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates).

There may be a confounder in this data. The age of many parts of the US is skewing higher than in other parts of the US. The confounder maybe that while the entire US is relatively stable over the period in which ACS redesigned its survey, this smoothing of geospatial variants may be hiding a different picture. Some state are aging (graying) faster than others and certainly within a state some counties and cities are aging much faster than other counties and cities. That means that putting accessibility as the first principle of design is more important than ever.

Using data from the American Community Survey from 2015 Lewis Kraus made the choropleth map above showing the geospatial aspect of disability in the US. The outlier states with the lowest and highest  percentage of its population having a disability was Utah (9.9%) and West Virginia (19.4%) respectively. Note by looking on the map one can see concentration patterns in disabilities across the South. This may correspond to one of the social issues affecting the economies of the South:

1) Inequality in access to healthcare

2) Aging Counties

According to a National Institutes of Health Study, there is no clear consensus on correlating measure of socioeconomic position (SEP) with age. This also includes quality of life, measures including computational equality and access to health care, including assistive technology. That the Mississippi watershed averages a higher proportion of disabled adults has correlations in public and economic policy. Most of the literature relating to geospatial studies on the disabled cite a lack of access to economic and health resources (Series, DESA Briefing Seminar. “Disability and Economics: The nexus between disability, education, and employment.”).

The geospatial and age disparity of disabilities across the US means we are in danger of creating an “Accessibility Divide” that affects employment, access to opportunities and access to basic information through the World Wide Web. Certainly this represents a great challenge to those of us in the business of making data “free and unfettered for everyone.”


Disability By AgeNumber% Population
Under 5 years159,8790.8%
5 to 17 years2,853,4395.3%
18 to 34 years4,218,9745.8%
35 to 64 years15,766,61412.9%
65 to 74 years6,330,99325.5%
75 years and over9,271,99950.2%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates


As an example of how a disability skews via aging, let’s take a look at hearing. In the US in 2015, an estimated 3.6% of the US population had a hearing disability. Hearing disability is connected strongly with age: there are very low percentages in the under 5 and 5-17 age groups (0.5% and 0.6% respectively), rising to 2.0% of 18-64 year olds, and to 14.8% of those ages 65 and over.

Visual acuity also is dependent on age factors. When we look at how vision is affected by age there are studies not just in the US by the American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, but by the W3C on European residents and by Jakob Nielsen’s Group who states:

Time takes its toll as we get older. It will happen to you, too, which is one reason—besides business gains—that everybody should care about designing for seniors.” – Jakob Nielsen in “Usability for Senior Citizens

You will age and you will experience a cognitive or physical impairment at some point in your life. This fact is as inevitable as death or taxes. In the next part of this series, we will examine further the geospatial and age groups of those affected by disabilities. We will also explore some real-world examples on how OpenDataSoft is using interactive charts and maps that are accessible because of our “universal design first” philosophy.


In this part of the series we examined what accessibility is and approaches for dealing with accessibility in design. We looked at accommodation and equitable approaches to making design accessible. We discovered that accommodation and equitable approaches do not have the same philosophy of accessibility that can be found in universal approaches to design. Accessibility should be baked into the DNA of design.

Citations Used for General Research on Geospatial Confounders in Disabled Populations

Below are resources used for general research but not necessarily used for specific passages. Where a fact or opinion has been stated in this article, supporting references have been provided.

  1. Occupational Therapists, World Federation of. “World Federation of Occupational Therapists’ Position Statement on Telehealth.” International journal of telerehabilitation (2014).
  2. BRAIN, CANADIAN. “The Burden of Neurological Diseases, Disorders and Injuries in Canada.” (2007).
  3. Meresman, Sergio, and Lesley Drake. “Are School Feeding programs prepared to Be inclusive of Children with Disabilities?.” Frontiers in public health 4 (2016).
  4. Leser, Kendall A., et al. “NACCHO’s Baseline Assessment of Disability Inclusion Within Local Health Departments.” Journal of Public Health Management and Practice 22.5 (2016): 496-497.

Source: What Do Accessibility and Universal Design Have To Do With Open Data and Smart Cities?

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