Eric Niquette UI, UX, Accessibility

Physical pain and its impact on digital accessibility

Published

When it comes to digital accessibility, pain is an often overlooked disability despite it affecting a large swath of the population and can dramatically influence how we shape our digital products.

Introduction

In the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability, 22% of the Canadian population (8.4 million people) reported living with one or more types of disabilities. Of that population, a staggering 65% of respondents indicated experiencing a pain-related disability.

When we think digital accessibility, we tend to gravitate towards visible impairments like blindness, or deafness. In reality, many live with disabilities that, while not immediately apparent, significantly affect their daily lives and their ability to interact with digital products.

Pain's impact on digital accessibility

Pain and its array of possible side effects can signigicantly impact how we experience and interact with digital products, often in unexpected or overlooked ways.

Limited motion

Some variations of physical pain can make it challenging to use input devices such as a mouse, keyboard, or a touchscreen. Grasping or holding a mobile device may be uncomfortable or impossible.

Arthritic hands might find precise mouse movements or touchscreen gestures difficult. Carpal tunnel syndrome can cause discomfort while typing, and chronic back or neck pain can reduce the amount of time users can comfortably sit at a computer.

Cognition and focus

Suffering from pain can lead to cognitive challenges manifesting as reduced concentration, difficulties with memory, or a decreased ability to process information.

Cognitive challenges can make navigating websites or apps a daunting task, make dense content overwhelming, and render activities requiring prolonged attention particularly difficult.

Heightened sensory response

For some, heightened sensitivities to bright lights, vibrant colors, or sounds can further complicate interactions with digital devices. Bright or flashing animations can provoke discomfort and exacerbate pain. Similarly, loud or unexpected audio cues can be startling and painful for these users.

An example of this sensitivity is the discomfort experienced being exposed to bright lights and loud sounds when suffering from a headache or migraine.

Pain's side effects

On its own, pain can significantly impact and influence daily activities. Pain, however, rarely presents in isolation and often bundles considerable side effects that can amplify its impact and impose further limitations.

Reduced endurance

Individuals experiencing pain might need frequent breaks, which can limit the time they can spend engaging with content.

Medication and their side effects

Some pain medication can cause side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, or cognitive impairment.

Emotional and mental

Pain often goes hand-in-hand with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, sapping energy and motivation.

Disabilities aren't always permanent

Disabilities do not have to be severe or permanent to be debilitating. While conditions like migraines might be common, they can have profound repercussions and affect daily activities, potentially leading to disruptions and challenges to daily life.

Permanent disability

Long-term or irreversible impairments that restrict the ability to engage in specific tasks or activities. The most common examples include blindness, deafness, paralysis, and the loss of a limb, but can also include developmental disabilities and neurodiversity.

Temporary disability

Short-lived physical or mental impairments that, while expected to improve over time, currently interfere with regular activities. Temporary disabilities can stem from fractures, sprains, concussions, or the recovery period after surgical procedures.

Situational disability

Temporary challenges caused by situational or environmental conditions, leading to a disruption in standard activities. Picture the difficulty of opening a heavy door while holding two cups of coffee.

Conclusion

The broad impact spectrum of pain and its associated side effects outline some the challenges many Canadians face daily.

As we continue to innovate, it's crucial to see accessibility not merely as an added feature but as a fundamental element of design and user experience. Recognizing the nuanced challenges some may face ensures that our digital products are inclusive and accommodating for all.