The TestLodge blog carries an ongoing series of articles discussing accessibility and how to improve it for all users of software and digital products.

Disability blogger advice

For this post, I interviewed the award-winning disability lifestyle blogger Gemma Turner, to canvass her unique insights and sage advice as somebody with a disability who navigates the physical and digital world. She has specific advice for us digital designers, software engineers, and QA testers that I think will be extremely valuable. We meet up for coffee and a chat in a bustling cafe in the city of Leeds, England.

Disability blogger advice Gemma

Will Saunders: Hi Gemma, would you mind telling us a bit about yourself and how became a writer? What was the main motivation for becoming a disability blogger?

Gemma Turner: I’m a freelance disabled blogger who talks about life as a young, Northern, wheelchair user. I have a rare condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, which is also known as Brittle Bones. This ultimately means I have broken a few (300+) bones in my life. I am all but 2”11’ and a full-time wheelchair user.

When I was younger, I was what I like to call “disabled in denial” as I would cringe if anyone would treat me differently. Later I began to realise it wasn’t me that was the “problem,” but it was in fact, the barriers in our environment that were disabling. I now call myself disabled, and I am proud of that and the community I am a part of.

I’ve always had a passion for technology, so I decided to study New Media at the University of Leeds. It was there where I learned more about sharing my experiences of being young and disabled, so I decided to start my own space online where I could talk about a variety of topics such as fashion for small people like myself, dealing with ignorance and funny stories along the way. I try and make sure my Yorkshire humour is present as much as possible, to really speak to my readers.

After I graduated, I worked in the education sector in support services as a communications officer, as I was passionate about education being as inclusive as possible and I started to learn about inclusive communication. However, after winning Blogger of the Year in 2017 and training organisations on improving their inclusivity, I decided to take the leap earlier this year and focus on my blog and business full time.

I began to realise it wasn’t me that was the “problem,” but it was in fact, the barriers in our environment that were disabling

WS: Can you give our readers at Testlodge some examples of difficulties or frustrations you have encountered when it comes to using technology with regards to your condition?

GT: I actually tweeted about one of my frustrations the other day, and a lot of followers agreed – phones these days, although they can do so much, are also getting bigger and bigger. For people like myself who have chronic pain and arthritis, it can be painful holding phones for a long period of time, especially now they are getting heavier. Bring back the Nokia 3310 size!

Other frustrations are the processes for accessing opportunities for disabled people. For the majority of people nowadays, you can pretty much book anything online – whether that’s hotel rooms, gig tickets or train tickets. However, when you’re disabled, you can guarantee there will be a small note saying “disabled people: call this number”! This is really frustrating on many levels, mainly because these processes are usually difficult, and you can be treated as a nuisance. A lot of staff aren’t actually aware of their own processes a lot of the time. As these processes are at times, not consistent or easy to follow, it also means that there is pressure on the disabled customer to be the “organiser” and explain what your needs are. It ultimately means that you get used to not really knowing how to book something and there can be anxiety around whether something is accessible for you or not.

WS: From what you’re describing, it sounds like the designers of those systems haven’t considered, or even designed anything for, disabled people. So you are seen as a ‘bolt-on’ or an afterthought. This is quite discriminatory as we are making people who might struggle to use a telephone (or have anxiety, speech impediments, or a combination of things), take additional steps and spend extra time achieving the same goal that somebody without disabilities can do natively, within the system. It sounds like they need to read our article on Inclusive Design.

WS: On a positive note, can you give us any examples where technology has improved your day?

GT: My condition can mean that sometimes I may have to rest whilst my bones heal or during pain flare-ups. Therefore technology and social media have massively helped me not only keep in touch with the “real world” but also allowed me to do everyday things like my food shop at a few touches of my screen. There are loads of discussion groups and forums where disabled people can meet and chat about their lives. I recommend you take a look at the #DisabiltyTwitter hashtag to get an insight into the daily thoughts, frustrations, and rants of people with disabilities. If you don’t know any disabled people, this could be a good window into their lives – and why not engage with them and ask for their perspectives on a design project you’re working on? We’re a helpful bunch and are often happy to share our experiences.

Wireless technology is also a massive benefit for me too. When I’m having a day when I’m aching – even reaching a keyboard can be too much. Therefore my wireless keyboard is a godsend (especially as blogging is now my job!) because, on these days, I can position it where it is more comfortable. Mix this with my Apple Pencil to use for reaching my iPad screen better – it’s the comfort dream!

The most recent example I’ve experienced for the first time ever was being able to book a gig ticket online. I was so chuffed that I was able to do this. Not having to have a 20-minute conversation with someone and reading out my card details, was such a novelty to me. (WS: A few days after we spoke, the BBC reported on the following story Ticketmaster makes ‘huge step forward’ for disabled music fans.)

WS: It sounds like technology, overall, is a great thing for disabled people, but it’s clear that those of us who design and create these devices and interfaces need to keep people with disabilities in mind at all stages of development and QA testing. I think it’s a great idea to reach out online to people with a lived experience of disabilities, because the majority of people in the software industry are abled-bodied white guys who have very little knowledge of what it’s like to live with a disability and understand how it feels to struggle to use digital devices and interfaces that have not been designed with their access in mind.

On that note, what three things would you tell the software development and design industry; What do they need to know?

GT: Firstly, I would say be proactive rather than reactive. There are so many disabled people who can educate others on how to make things more accessible. Reach out to them. Don’t guess what barriers disabled people may experience. Reach out to disabled people (and consultants) just as you would for other aspects of your project.

An important aspect of accessibility as I’ve mentioned is to have choice and flexibility. Having different ways to achieve a goal, or to contact you, is much more inclusive.

We are a huge community, and when we find something that is accessible, we share this with our peers so it’s not just beneficial for us – it will ultimately diversify your audience too.

Reach out to disabled people (and consultants) just as you would for other aspects of your project.

WS: Your website is a good example of accessible design. Briefly tell me about the process you went through to make it more accessible, and why you think this is important.

GT: When I first started my blog, I really wasn’t aware of web accessibility. My experience is more about physical accessibility but I suppose the two are related. As I met more disabled friends, I realised the web can be such a barrier for many people such as visually impaired people, dyslexic, colourblind and so on.

I realised that I needed to make my blog adjustable for my readers. Through research, I found a WordPress Plugin called WP Accessibility Helper. This is a great tool that allows you to increase and decrease text size, highlight links, enable keyboard navigation and even change the font into something more “readable.” This is a free plugin and I’ve had great feedback from readers saying that this has been helpful to them.

There are also other free things you can do to make your content more accessible:

  • Subtitle your videos
  • Include image descriptions in your social media captions
  • Structure your text when possible so it is easier to navigate (use bullet points or include paragraph formatting)

Gemmea turner website

WS: That’s great. It’s good to know that by following a few simple accessibility principles, we can all make a better online experience for our audience!

To wrap up, are you hopeful about the future? Do you see the (digital) world improving and realising they need to do better to address accessibility needs?

GT: Disabled people have more of a voice now that there are platforms for sharing experiences online. With technology rapidly evolving too, I think this can only be even better for disabled people to be able to access more from the comfort of their own homes. However, it still feels to me like there is a divide in society. Disabled people do not experience a lot of opportunities as easily as non-disabled people. There is definitely this attitude at the moment from a lot of organisations that if something is slightly accessible, disabled people should feel lucky rather than have the nerve to express when something isn’t the same experience as for non-disabled people.

If we truly were an accessible society, I think we would be putting inclusion at the forefront of all of our projects. It would be something that we invested our time and money into, to make sure disabled people don’t have a different experience. We would know that by putting our energies into inclusiveness, we would all ultimately benefit in the long run.