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Personas with Disabilities for inclusive user experience (UX) design

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The case to include disabilities into user personas, the types of technologies they use, and sample personas with disabilities.

Table of contents

The purpose of this document is to assist the user in understanding how to build personas with disabilities. Personas are fictional characters created to represent different user types that may use a site, brand, or product in their own particular ways. Developers often design websites and web applications, both desktop and mobile, to their own liking which can potentially cause barriers for some users. It is important to plan for a diverse group of users with a wide range of abilities, technical levels, functional capabilities and familiarity with processes or activities. One important aspect of Inclusive Design is to include people with disabilities in the early design stage and throughout all steps in the software development life-cycle. This will help increase the accessibility and usability components of the end product and better ensure inclusive best practices. This document is a collection of material from a variety of sources geared towards assembling a cohesive view towards inclusion by design.

Creating equal access for everyone

The Government of Canada is committed to delivering information to the public in an accessible format and is equally committed to creating an inclusive, barrier-free work environment that include persons with disabilities. Both obligations require following standards, requirements, guidelines and supporting an extensive use of technology including various adaptive technology tools including software, hardware and devices for users with disabilitie.

Users access information through various means: desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices including smartphones and tablets. In order to keep pace with the demand and provide a satisfactory experience to all users, we should consider 3 different aspects of requirements:

  1. Need for an enterprise level functionality and inclusion requirements, such as:
    1. The functional requirements of end users with disabilities, that include the following Adaptive techniques, tools and technologies:
      1. Vision Enhancement;
      2. Vision Replacement;
      3. Audio Enhancement and Replacement;
      4. Mobility and Dexterity Enhancement and Replacement;
      5. Cognitive and Learning Style Enhancement.
    2. The identified tasks and users abilities.
  2. The design of the applications that make up the solution and how they relate to both:
    1. the operating system manufacturer's own published standards; and
    2. the standards for accessible native applications.
  3. Individual user needs in terms of adaptive technology and built in functionality.

Understanding adaptive techniques, tools and technology

Vision enhancement technology

Vision Enhancement Technology is used by a wide variety of individuals with some form of visual impairment (commonly referred to as "low vision"), where the person still relies on their vision to consume information. The requirements can be quite varied in the manner and level of features required (i.e. someone with a different field of vision will require different settings from someone with glaucoma or a form of color blindness).

The information is often presented differently such as using high contrasting colors, large print or magnification. The system often must be usable with low vision without relying on audio. Low vision is sometimes accompanied by hearing loss. This is especially common in older people. Audio alone as an accessibility strategy will fail to meet the needs of this group. Screen magnification programs (also called large print programs) allow users to enlarge a portion of their screen. This effectively turns the computer monitor into a viewport showing only a portion of an enlarged virtual display. The user can then use the mouse or keyboard commands to move this viewport in order to view different areas of the virtual display.

Vision replacement technology

Vision Replacement Technology is used by individuals with some form of visual impairment (commonly referred to as "blind"), where the person no longer relies or never relied on their vision to consume information. The information is often presented in a different modality such as through Braille or a Text To Speech Engine. Microsoft's Windows, Windows Mobile, Linux, Blackberry OS, Apple Mac OS, iOS, Google's Android and Chrome OS (among others) all have solutions for blind users that make use of screen reader software for a variety of devices. Screen Readers attempt to identify and interpret what is being displayed on the screen. The information is then represented to the user with text-to-speech, sound, haptic icons or a Braille output device. The screen reader keeps track of events that happen (such as windows opening) and actions that are performed on a device with a physical keyboard, D-Pad, Trackball or joystick when movement is performed. On a device with a touch screen, it alters the way the touch screen behaves and provides touch based methods of interaction. There is also Touch Exploration Technology, which allows a blind person to explore the screen with touch without activating the items on the screen. The screen reader can also provide feedback about screen items by providing audio or haptic alerts. It also provides spoken text as controls and information when touched. A set of additional gestures are provided to move around on the screen from item to item and to activate specific screen reader functions (such as reading a block of text).

Audio enhancement and replacement technology

Audio Enhancement and Replacement Technology is used by individuals with some form of hearing impairment or limitation and some users with speech or communication related impairment. There is a wide variety of needs and requirements in this category of technology. Solutions can be as simple as t-coil hearing aid compatibility to as complex as teletypewriter (TTY) access.

Systems often must be usable without hearing. Information conveyed by audio alone is not accessible by individuals who are deaf. Systems often must also be usable with limited hearing. People with limited hearing often cannot see well either, especially people who are older. Allowing them to use their residual hearing is therefore important rather than having to rely on sight (e.g. relying on access techniques that would be used by people who are deaf).

Individuals who do not hear beeps or recognize spoken words may require a program to prompt them in a different manner, such as a screen flash or displaying spoken messages as text or that translate audio cues to visual ones.

Mobility and dexterity enhancement and replacement technology

Mobility and Dexterity Related Technology is used by individuals with some form of physical impairment or limitation. There is a wide variety of needs and requirements in this category of technology. Solutions can be as simple as alternate input such as voice recognition or as complex as scanning with switch access. There are many different kinds of switches on the market that can be used for touching, clicking and dragging operations, in conjunction with a cursor movement device. Switches can also be used to communicate with a device using different coding systems such as Morse code which is helpful to some persons with severe physical disabilities, who use it to input text.

Voice Recognition technology allows the user to control the device and to input text using the voice. Although voice recognition is becoming mainstream, it has always had important applications to the adaptive technology industry. It allows for hands free device use. In addition to being usable by people with differing levels of dexterity or mobility needs, systems must be usable regardless of the severity of the physical impairment. For a person with a physical disability e.g., limited strength, reach or manipulation, tremor, lack of sensation, technology can provide modes of operation that do not require fine motor control or simultaneous actions. Adaptive technology can provide modes that are operable with limited reach, strength and that do not require a response time.

Cognitive and learning style enhancement technology

Cognitive and learning disabilities are neurologically-based processing problems. These processing problems can interfere with learning skills such as reading, writing and/or math. They can also interfere with higher level skills such as organization, time planning, abstract reasoning, long or short-term memory and attention. There is a wide variety of needs and requirements in this category of technology.

Solutions can be as simple as a calendar and task systems or as complex as multi-modal document reading.

Voice Recognition helps persons with dyslexia and dysgraphia that may have difficulty expressing themselves. Additionally, certain typing and writing software that is designed to aid the process of entering information into a computer through the use of tools such as phonetic spell check and advanced thesaurus are commonly used. Usually a combination of screen reading, magnification systems and alternate input devices are used to provide computing access to persons with such impairments.

There are cognitive impairments which take many forms, including Downs Syndrome, short and long-term memory impairments, and perceptual differences. Proper application design can increase functionality of computers for people with mild cognitive impairments.

Visual Stress Syndrome (Concussion) is a neurological condition that interferes with reading, attention, coordination, general health and behaviour, and can occur despite normal vision. Visual Stress occurs when stimuli such as patterns, contrast, light and colour affect the visual cortex, altering brain function and resulting in symptoms of physical discomfort and perceptual distortions. Solutions such as coloured filters have been shown to reduce the effects of these stimuli, calming the stress and restoring brain function.

Certain physical or neurological impairments make speaking difficult for some individuals. Systems that can speak for its user can be used to help individuals with speech impairments. Most of the software packages used for these applications operates with a speech synthesizer.

Breaking down usability barriers

Common problems that users experience while browsing the web and accessing information via technology can be categorized into the following barriers:

It's not simply just about checklists; inclusion is personal and about people. Following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 will make Web content more accessible, however, the important question is, will the content be usable?

Involve users throughout your project

Accessibility should be addressed early in the life cycle of the project; starting from project inception and it should be included in the user-centered design (UCD) processes, including user personas. Our personas should include the different ranges of disabilities. Creating a range of personas, including personas of persons with disabilities, will help developers understand accessibility requirements and implement more universally usable solutions.

Incorporating accessibility needs into personas

Designing personas with disabilities requires special attention as there is a long list of key factors to consider:

Sample of general personas with disabilities

Sample of Government of Canada (GC) employee personas with disabilities

Remember that people are diverse. Be careful not to assume that all users, including users with disabilities, use your product the same way. People use different interaction techniques, different adaptive strategies, and different assistive technology configurations. People have different experiences, expectations, and different preferences.


  1. Policy on the Duty to Accommodate Persons with Disabilities in the Federal Public Service
  2. Persona (user experience)
  3. Accessibility in User-Centered Design: Personas
  4. Standard on Optimizing Websites and Applications for Mobile Devices
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