A scientist in a lab with a disability symbol and a heart

Deque’s Empathy Lab: hands-on accessibility awareness

In celebration of this year’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), we would like to cover ways your company can promote empathy to jumpstart a program around accessibility. Whether it’s through building an empathy lab experience of your own or by attending ours, empathy labs are a proven way to gain buy-in for accessibility.

It’s important to note, however, that an empathy lab is not a simulation of what it’s like to have a disability. It’s an opportunity to interact with assistive technology, learn more about the different ways people with disabilities use and experience technology, and to speak with someone who has a disability and uses these tools in their day-to-day life.

Before we dive into the details of what an empathy lab entails, feel free to watch this short video of the lab in action

Let’s talk about empathy…

What do we mean when we use the word “empathy”? The term is used in a lot of different ways, and sometimes definitions seem to be completely at odds with each other. One common thread through all definitions of empathy is the ability to perceive and understand how another person may be feeling in a given situation.

Alternatively, sympathy means feeling sorrow or pity for another person’s distress without necessarily understanding or relating to what that person is experiencing.

Taking the time to develop empathy and engage with websites and other technology as a person with a disability empowers us to think and work with compassion for all users and experiences.

Graph of awareness of others' difficulties vs. emotional engagement: pity vs. sympathy vs. empathy vs. compassion

In Deque’s Empathy Lab, there are nine different stations intended to simulate various disability types in order to promote empathy. This is a hands-on glimpse of various assistive technologies or experiences that occur in the world of accessibility.

The 9 stations in the Empathy Lab are:

  1. Innovative Solutions – This station illustrates low-tech and no-tech assistive tools.
  2. Cognitive Disabilities – This station illustrates how a seemingly simple task can take more time, concentration, and more energy when you can’t process the information in a “conventional” way.
  3. Deaf & Hard of Hearing – This station provides insight into different kinds of hearing loss and some of the challenges inaccessible media can pose.
  4. Speech Input – This station is a chance for participants to try using dictation software to complete a few tasks on a computer.
  5. Blind & Low Vision – At this station, participants can try using a screen reader and learn about different kinds of visual impairment and how they can affect your vision.
  6. Motor Disabilities – This station gives participants the opportunity to try using an adaptive switch control – consisting of only two buttons – to perform tasks on a tablet device.
  7. Mobile Accessibility – This station shows participants to use their smartphone’s built-in accessibility features to navigate and try out a favorite app.
  8. Braille Your Name – At this station, participants can use Braille tablets and styluses to write their name.
  9. Accessibility Stories – This station is an invaluable chance for participants to talk to someone with a disability, face-to-face and learn about their lived experiences, how they use assistive technology on a day-to-day basis, and how accessibility impacts their lives.

Feedback about the Empathy Lab

The Deque Empathy Lab is about understanding and respecting the experiences of people who experience the world in different ways and sparking passion for the power of accessibility.   Here’s some feedback we’ve gotten from lab participants:

“As someone with a disability that has helped plan and participated in many similar type events in the past, my personal opinion is that the Deque Empathy Lab is by far the best event of this type. It wildly succeeds in getting people who are unfamiliar with disability and accessibility to think about it in a deeper way. I fear that many such events leave participants feeling pity for people with disabilities. The participants leaving our Empathy Lab actually came away with empathy rather than pity—and even more important, I think they left with a sense that they can play a part in making the world more accessible.” –Tim Harshbarger, Deque

“I totally get accessibility now. I’m going to go back to my desk and dig out those 3 accessibility tickets I’ve been pushing aside and fix them.” – A participant of the Verizon Empathy Lab

“The Deque Empathy Lab was one of the coolest experiences ever. Not only because I was a part of the accessibility stories stations, but also because I was able to see all the other sections that related to other disabilities, some I never understood.  The hands-on activities helped me get a better understanding of things like cognitive impairment.” – Jeanine Lineback, Deque

“Anyone can come in and engage with the Empathy Lab and see from layman’s or basic perspective and see first hand what accessibility looks like.” – Aretha Johnson, Accessibility Customer Experience – Voice of the Customer at Verizon Wireless

Tips and resources to start working on your empathy today!

When you have the opportunity, ask people with disabilities about their experiences. Listen closely to them when they explain their needs, challenges, and ideas. Ask questions. Never assume that you fully understand the perspective of what it is like to have a disability, and never stop learning.

Not sure what to ask? Here are some examples to kick things off:

  • Do you use assistive technology? If so, how?
  • Are there any accessibility challenges in your daily life?
  • What are they and how do you overcome them?
  • What would you like others to know about accessibility?
  • What is your current job?
  • What are the key tasks you perform in your job?
  • Who inspires you?

Here are some videos that can help you get a glimpse of different disability perspectives:

In Summary

Empathy labs are a great starting point for motivating your team and your organization to be more engaged with accessibility. Instead of viewing accessibility as a difficult add-on, participants can discover how necessary accessibility is for creating an equal experience for people with disabilities. Schedule an Empathy Lab with us, and jumpstart accessibility at your organization!

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