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Accessibility & Empathy

Usability Story: A Bus Ride to Empathy


It settled in my stomach like a rough stone as I tentatively took my seat on the bus.

The windows were impossible to see through. The interior glass was fogged with humidity as the heat strained against the determined clutches of winter. The exterior glass was coated in a thick film of road salt. It was early April in Ottawa, Ontario. Snow was still falling, and winter tires would remain on most cars until May, when the weather warmed above freezing.

At the front of the bus, a digital sign — which normally beamed with bright yellow letters identifying the current route, next stop, and time — was dark. The voice system, an alternative to the visual aid, was also silent.

To add to my confusion, I was also a newcomer to Canada, a recently landed immigrant. This was one of my first trips on the public transit system, and I was still learning the bus stops and routes that would take me to and from work every day.

I had found the Next Stop Announcement System (NSAS) on other buses around the city particularly helpful. Without it to guide me or the ability to see out the window to my stop, I felt as if a small part of my independence had been stripped away, crippled by a series of ridiculous coincidences. Unable to use my sense of sight or hearing to determine my location, I felt, in a sense, impaired.

There are three categories of impairments to consider when developing for accessibility — permanent, temporary, and situational. In that moment, at a loss for my location on this new bus route, I was experiencing a situational impairment — a loss of ability (in this case, my sense of direction) due to these overlapping inconveniences.

I felt an acute sense of helplessness, coupled with a sudden awareness that these emotions might exist on a more regular basis for those whose physical or cognitive abilities are less than perfect.

The system eventually turned on about halfway through my route, much to my relief, and I was able to get off the bus at my proper stop, foggy and filthy windows notwithstanding. But as I came back to my senses (no pun intended), I imagined myself in the shoes of someone less able-bodied than me.

Of course, there was a time before this audio and visual announcement system existed. Ottawa’s announcement system was not implemented until 2010. Even today, some cities do not have a system like this at all, and stops may or may not be announced verbally by the bus driver.

But in experiencing this strange set of circumstances first-hand, I had to wonder: how might someone who was visually, hearing, or cognitively impaired have felt? Anxious? Confused? Angry? Annoyed? How did their experience on public transit change with the implementation of these accessible systems?

I later saw this experience as a learning opportunity to explore a topic that is at the forefront of usability and accessibility best practices: empathy.

This Is Empathy

What I had experienced was empathy — imagining how another might feel and sharing those feelings. The idiom “walk a mile in their shoes” is an apt description often use to describe empathy. The original phrase was taken from an 1895 Mary T. Lathrap poem, Judge Softly, later renamed Walk a Mile in His Moccasins:

Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.

Indi Young, a renowned qualitative data scientist, researcher, and author, describes two kinds of empathy in her presentation, Practical Empathy: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy.

“With cognitive empathy it’s purposeful. I want to understand this other person. You have an intent to understand the other person. With emotional empathy, it’s reflexive. Emotional empathy is something that happens to you.”

My experience on the bus was an instant of emotional empathy — something that happened to me — that led me to thinking about my situation outside of myself. This brought about a state of cognitive empathy: a want to understand how someone with different abilities might feel in a particular situation.

Why should we apply empathy to accessibility?

Though I hail from a background in software, really any product or service that a person can use to accomplish a goal can be approached with empathy. This applies to everything from websites to easy-to-grip vegetable peelers and inclusviely designed watches. Why? Because there is an end-user in mind — a person and an interaction. In the end, it all comes down to the fact that we are all human, with our own aspirations, frustrations, skills, and flaws.

There are several arguments to be made here regarding the why of empathy in a general sense, whether you’re talking about usability or accessibility. This is not an exhaustive list, but a springboard for discussion. Among them are:

  • Moral compulsion: As a fellow human being, it’s simply the right thing to do to understand the needs of your users and empower them to accomplish their goals.
  • Monetary reasons: The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 7 people have some form of disability. By adding accessibility standards alone, you are increasing your potential market by 1 billion people.
  • Competition: Usability can make or break a sale. If your users don’t like your product or service, they’ll go elsewhere to find something meets their needs.
  • Legal issues: If nothing else, more and more governments are adopting accessibility standards as requirements for products they use or contract. It’s equally becoming more common for companies to be sued due to usability issues with their products, such as not providing easy opt-outs or entrapping users with confusing UIs.

To me, the first point — morality — stands out the most. I want to enable people, to enrich their lives through the use of technology. Helping one another is vital part of the human condition, and this is what originally drew me to the web as a career path. But if you require a more business-oriented reasoning, the other points well apply.

“Essentially the message is to really try to care about the people that you’re serving, that you’re supporting, as humans.”

How can we develop empathy in order to better understand accessibility?

There are many ways to develop empathy. I will explore three.


Be informed about your user base — and, if you can, get out there and talk to them! When you are unsure about a direction to take a design or if the product you have developed may be difficult to use, your best course of action is to reach out to real users for feedback and listen to what they have to say.

But how can you walk a mile in someone’s shoes if you’ve only ever worn sneakers and had no idea that moccasins even existed, let alone known anyone who wears them on a regular basis?


As far as accessibility is concerned, it can be a little harder to find and speak directly with users who have special needs. The next best thing you can do is to learn about the different types of disabilities and the challenges that come with each, as well as research the tools that people with disabilities use to navigate the web.

It is worth noting that part of this process may require a shift of thinking. One may assume that the assistive technology limits an individual with special needs. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that their tools can only accomplish so much when using a certain product, but it is actually the opposite. It is really the product creating the barrier, not the person or the technology.

“It’s the stairs leading into a building that disable the wheelchair user rather than the wheelchair.”

What can we do to better understand these barriers and how to break them down?


We can develop empathy for users with special needs by understanding (at least on a basic level) how assistive technologies work and trying to use them ourselves. This allows us to recognize potential problems they might face and address those issues accordingly.

If it helps, you can try to think about approaching assistive technology in the same way you might approach mobile devices. Often times, there isn’t really a limitation as to what tasks you can accomplish on a smart phone or tablet compared to a desktop computer. However, the experience can (and should) be very different between desktop and mobile simply due to the nature of the tools. It is the same with assistive technologies, just with a steeper learning curve.

“People routinely use websites on different devices … Assistive technology is just another device.”

I encourage you to browse your website with a screen reader, attempt to navigate your computer or phone using speech recognition, or experiment with magnification software. You could also try using your computer without a trackpad or mouse for an hour, or one of the many other activities suggested on the Participation page for Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

It is important to note that learning how to use assistive technology takes time, and you may never be able to use it with the same efficiency as someone who relies on it in their day-to-day life. However, when you are unable to speak directly with special needs users, it can help to understand the capabilities of the tools that they use. It is one thing to read about some of the common pitfalls of lacking accessibility support, but experiencing them for yourself can take your understanding to an entirely new level.

Another way to develop empathy that is commonly used in the user experience field is to create a persona — a named, fictional character used to represent real users, based on existing research and analytics. This can help you pin down the motivations and challenges of potential users of your site and help to remind you to place people first.

In Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery’s book, A Web For Everyone, eight personas helped to form a solid grounding in accessibility principles by explaining the benefits of each principle a personal level. By sharing the perspective of each persona, Horton and Quesenbery helped to form a human connection between the reader and people with special needs on the web.

Here are a few other resources that I found helpful in developing empathy with regard to accessibility:


Empathy is a core concept in the study of usability and accessibility, and it is one that I believe every department in an organization should take into account, from product management to development. The easiest way to develop empathy with special needs users is to place yourself in their shoes. You can do this by listening to their everyday goals and challenges, learning their tools, and understanding how they use web.