2 What does it mean to be disabled?

2.4 What does it mean to experience disability?

In this section, I hope to give you a little insight into what it is like to have disabilities.

Box 1 contains a short case study describing the experiences of a hearing-impaired person in higher education.

Box 1: Being hearing impaired in a hearing world

This case study involves a student called Sandy with a hearing impairment. She describes how she struggled to get a lecturer to wear a radio microphone and was really embarrassed at having to explain herself to the lecturer in front of the other students:

With 150 people you're sitting there and I'm sure my face went red. I didn't look around, I thought if I look around everybody's going to be sitting looking at me. I could just have run out of the room, but then I would have gained nothing by that. It just made me angry and hurt… I thought God, have I got to do this in every one of these lectures?… One day he'll wear it the next day he won't wear it.

Source: Hall and Tinklin (1998)

This case study, in my opinion, illustrates the importance of people who have no physical or psychological impairments being sensitive to those who do.

Box 2 describes the difficulties that one person has with dyslexia.

Box 2: One student's experiences with dyslexia

When I read something I can focus on one word and the rest of the text moves, so it is all really blurry. Then I'd get to the end of the line, I never seem to manage to follow on to the line you are supposed to go on to next. Sometimes I will look at the first part of a word and make up the rest of it without realising. I will just assume I have read correctly but it doesn't make sense so I have to go back and read it again. It might take me 3 or 4 attempts until that sentence makes sense. So, by the time that's happened I have forgotten what the rest of the text is about. It is an awful lot of hard work and I end up giving up.

[In school] I had to do all these pointless exercises, writing out spelling, after spelling, after spelling. These exercises made no difference because I just can't learn that way. I just had to waste so much time and it was so frustrating.

… I started to become quite determined and very annoyed when people said ‘no you can't do it’. I think my parents had a lot to do with my determination as well because they were very encouraging. Then I started employing strategies of my own, for example, with higher English. I loved higher English but I couldn't read the books – we read plays and poetry and they were all fine because of the way they were laid out. The plays are fairly easy to read and I also managed to get them out on video to watch over and over again. Eventually I knew the whole play off by heart. We had to do a review of personal reading. This involves reading a novel and analysing it but I knew that I wouldn't be able to do that. I asked if I could review poetry instead and I got the top mark in the year for it. I had done it all on computer so that I wouldn't be penalised for my spelling. Unfortunately in the exams you are actually penalised for spelling.

Source: Hall and Tinklin (1998)

Activity 6

This activity is from a DEMOS project website and simulates one possible effect of dyslexia. It's meant to be confusing, so don't spend too much time on it.

Please try to read the following passage at your usual reading speed. Take a couple of minutes to comprehend what is being said then try to answer the questions.

The UMIST Enabling Advisor, who is not an academic member of staff of the Department of Computation will provide non-specific training sessions for a few staff to disable them to develop course materials that are not structured and multi-sensory, that will lessen the learning opportunities for few students. Neither Disability Support services provide dyslexia-specific expertise and training for secondary members of staff, but staff from the Access Summit Centre won't provide training and support.


  1. What other role does the Disability Adviser at UMIST have?
  2. What types of staff will the Disability Support services provide training for?


The correct answers are:

  1. The Disability Adviser is also an academic member of staff.
  2. The Disability Support services will provide training to seconded staff.

Did you get the questions correct? Are you confused now? This is because we have altered the meaning of the passage to illustrate the fact that some dyslexic students perceive the meaning of a word or phrase as its exact opposite.

Here is the original passage:

The UMIST Disability Adviser, who is also an academic member of staff in the Department of Computation at UMIST will provide specific training sessions for staff to enable them to develop course materials that are well structured and multi-sensory, that will enhance the learning opportunities for all students. Both Disability Support services will provide dyslexia-specific expertise and training for seconded members of staff, and staff from the Access Summit Centre will provide training and support.

The next activity is a simulation of the effects of cognitive disabilities in terms of confusion and disorientation, and should give you some understanding of what it's like to have these disabilities and use a website.

Activity 7

Try the Cognitive Disabilities Simulations. Do not spend more than 15 minutes on this

Click here to run the Cognitive Disabilities Simulation: webaim

Did you achieve all the tasks?

What lessons do you think interaction designers might learn from this?


I found this activity extraordinarily difficult, even on the easiest settings. I never did work out a truly effective strategy of dealing with the bombs, and when it came to filling in the survey, I just filled in any old thing in order to get the task finished.

In my opinion, one lesson an interaction designer should learn is to structure tasks to make them as easy as possible to achieve. Another lesson might be that it is important, where possible, to structure tasks so that users can leave them unfinished, deal with a distraction, and come back later to finish the task.

Note that these points are not just important for users with cognitive disabilities: we all get distracted from time to time!