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The View from Here: A Call to Action for Universal Design from the United Nations

On December 13, 2006, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, quietly but forcefully securing a place for accessibility, universal design, and the fundamental principles of usability in international law. The eighth human rights treaty in history and the first of this millennium, it has already been signed by an astounding 144 countries and ratified by seventy-seven, representing over 70 percent of the world population.

Usability professionals need to be aware of its impact on their market—in each country and around the world.

By stating that disability “results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others,” the Convention points directly to the responsibility of poorly designed environments in causing the condition for a “disability” to occur. In short, the medical definition of “disability” is out, and the social definition is in. With this change, society becomes responsible to adapt to the needs of persons living with impairments, not the reverse. Furthermore, the Convention specifies that access to the physical, social, economic, and cultural environment, to health and education, and to information and communication, is necessary for persons with disabilities to “fully enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

In other words, creating inaccessible products or services is infringing on disabled persons’ human rights. Quite clear, isn’t it?

So, what do these strong words mean to usability professionals?

First, usability professionals are best positioned to lead change in bringing accessible products and services into the mainstream, and championing proper development methodologies. The Convention facilitates this role by including, for the first time in international law, a definition of universal design as “the design of products, environments, programs, and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” This opens the door to greater recognition of the tremendous value that usability professionals can bring to society at large, and to persons living with disabilities in particular.

Second, the Convention requires countries to not only support “research and development of universally designed goods, services, equipment, and facilities” aiming for products that require “the minimum possible adaptation and the least cost to meet the specific needs of a person with disabilities,” but also to promote general guidelines for universal design. In other words, they are committed to supporting the work of organizations developing universally designed products and services. Usability professionals ought to promote those requirements, take advantage of them in their respective countries, and lobby for practical programs to be implemented. It’s a win-win-win for usability professionals, for users, and for organizations serving the public to achieve better designs and greater user satisfaction. Local chapters of the Usability Professionals’ Association (and other groups) must take the lead and ask their governments and industry associations how they intend to implement those dispositions.

Third, the Convention addresses technology specifically. It requires support for “the design, development, production, and distribution of accessible ICTs—information and communications technologies and systems—at an early stage, so that these technologies and systems become accessible at minimum cost.” To comply, product developers need to adopt the methodologies which usability professionals have promoted for many years. So, it’s time to leverage existing standards and further engage ICT vendors and large end user organizations to help them comply with those guidelines.

Finally, a far reaching section (or “disposition”) of the Convention is Article 9 which, for the first time, elevates ICT accessibility rights to the same level as accessibility rights for the “built environment” and transportation. Thousands of products and services are covered by this. Television, mobile phones, electronic kiosks, voting machines, radios, consumer products, computers, websites, electronic signage—all need to be accessible.

Will the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities create change overnight? Of course not. But consider this: other human rights treaties developed in the context of the United Nations did, over time, trigger considerable changes in laws, policies, and regulations around the world (for example, women’s or children’s rights.) The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, developed in close cooperation with disabled persons’ organizations around the world, is no different. It is already gaining momentum, pushed by a tremendous political and social consensus including the 650 million persons living with disabilities, their families, and their many organizations.

Our wish: that usability professionals lead in pushing for the implementation of the dispositions of the Convention relative to accessibility and universal design.

You can learn more about the Convention at the and