The true cost of disability

Making accessibility impact more tangible

For anyone who’s actively following me on Twitter (and it’s okay if you don’t), they would have noticed that I’ve had probably launched many a tirade against Clubhouse, and to my admittedly poor error in judgement, Twitter Spaces as well. The reason I did not approve of the idea of Clubhouse was that it was exclusively build on iOS, and was a completely inaccessible platform for me as a deaf person. Even when Twitter launched Spaces to take on the same market, they started with iOS as well, which again elicited a negative response from me.

When I made my displeasure with Clubhouse public, there were folks who agreed with me, and there were those who dismissed my diatribe as a case of sour grapes or merely FOMO. There were some great people who agreed with the iOS launch first for both Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, but also felt that the Android version could have been prioritized equally.

Was it the mere fact that I own an Android phone and hence would never get the first launches of the latest apps, which made me lash out? Or was it that I just a Clubhouse troll, who didn’t respect the disruption it had brought to the tech world by making hitherto untouchable celebrities within closer reach of the general public? After all, the Clubhouse buzz continues to grow by the day, with more designers chipping in to have their say.

When I saw the mixed reactions to my issues with Clubhouse, I felt that probably my anger was a bit misguided. I opted to wait for the dust to settle down and then re-evaluate my reactions to the entire thing. After a few days of retrospection, I was able to truly identify the core reason for my agitation with Clubhouse - it merely exacerbated the true costs of my disability.

The costs of disability

What is a disability cost? Well, living life as a disabled person (or a person with chronic illnesses for the matter) brings in extra stress and expenses to our daily earnings, just to survive and live life as normally as possible. From my own experiences, I am able to quantify disability costs into four kinds:

Physical costs

This one is pretty self-explanatory. All disabilities come with a physical loss - whether permanent, temporary or situational. A person who is deaf might never experience the ease of conversing, a wheelchair-bound user can never dream of running again, a blind user might never know what it’s like to see a clear blue sky. Physical costs are the most apparent indicator of our disabilities.

Financial costs

A basic digital hearing aid in India costs 27000 INR or 370$. A standard wheelchair costs 250$ or 20000 INR. A synthetic 3D-printed prosthetic leg can cost atleast 75000 INR or 1000$. I can go on, but you get the idea - disabled folks have a lot of added expenditure to just lead as normal a life as possible on a daily basis, and not be reliant on caregivers to help them.

In order to paint a better picture, the average monthly household income in Indian metro cities (I am excluding Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities for the sake of argument) is around 35000 INR or 480$— with ever increasing house rents and rising prices of petrol, food products and other commodities, those families with disabled dependents have an uphill financial task ahead of them.

Apart from the medical and provisional expenses, there is also the need to fit in with society by getting access to the latest technology. Apple products burn a significant hole in your pocket; the rate at which smartphones are adding more features and more pixels to their cameras, thereby jacking up the prices, only creates an unrealistic peer pressure to buy the latest mobile phone so as not to be left out. Samsung and Mi have successfully spawned many varieties of Android phones with a mix and match of features, and customers are okay to break the bank just to flaunt their status in the company of friends and family.

Mental costs

This is a very gray area that even psychologists are reluctant to step in, simply because there is no standard way to treat mental wellness. How disabled folks cope with their issues is a function of the support in their family, their friends and the different environments they grow up in — every person with the same kind of disability will have different responses to different barriers and situations, and there is always a pervading sense of anxiety in the back of our minds when we encounter something new or are forced to step into unfamiliar territory.

Because mental cost is invisible, and many of us are reluctant to open up about our insecurities with even close family members, there’s a high risk of being even more closeted and introverted and believing that we are beyond help.

Emotional costs

All social media platforms have only served to widen the huge chasm between our self worth and our ability to socialize easily with fellow human beings — texting, video calling and stories have removed opportunities for people to meet in person, to stay up to date with latest gossip and updates. This only adds to the already difficult emotional upheavals that disabled folks go through on a constant basis. The fear that we are never good enough because of our physical defects always lurks in the back of our minds, no matter how much our close friends or acquaintances assure us. As an example, dating is already a difficult activity for people with disabilities, and it makes us feel that we do really not have a chance.

Clubhouse’s impact on me

Physical cost

The very nature of the platform - audio only meetups and chats - made it very clear to me that I was never going to be a part of this “ground breaking” tech disruption, ever. I have no beef with podcasts and audiobooks, and I have been known to read transcripts or listen to audio clips with embedded captioning — Clubhouse simply didn’t care to include captioning. Their primary consumers were the tech folks in Silicon Valley, Bengaluru, London and every other tech hub across the world, with a direct line to popular tech speakers and advocates.

Twitter Spaces, on the other hand, did make efforts to enable closed captioning, but the very fact that they went iOS first did no favors in my mind. I can understand why the decision was made, but my selfish expectations as a disabled person overrode my reasonings as a designer.

Financial cost

Clubhouse is also only for the tech folks who own iPhones. I will be the first to admit that I have a very good monthly income but I have my personal reasons for not being able to own an iPhone yet. I have prioritized spending 1.5 lakh INR (2050$) on a pair of bluetooth digital hearing aids, because these will help me listen and converse better and improve my speech and hearing. I am also happy with my OnePlus6 phone, which does all the functions I seek to accomplish on a daily basis.

As i mentioned earlier, the chances of a disabled person owning an iPhone is very less considering the higher priority expenses they have to bear to enable a normal way of life. I am absolutely sure that I will own an iPhone some day, but it is not a justification to get one so that I can just get a taste of the first launch of a new product in the market.

Mental cost

I’ve always prided myself on being able to try out new exciting products to experience new design patterns and new forms of storytelling. I’ve always downloaded the latest hyped apps just to see what the buzz is all about, even if I am not the target audience - it is the curiosity factor that motivates the designer in me to continually learn and find ways to apply learnings in my work.

Then along came Clubhouse, and it touched a raw nerve in me for quite some days. Here’s a product that’s designed to keep me out from the get go, so why on Earth would I ever want to check it out? Even if you ask me to do a product critique on it, I simply would change the topic! The negative mental impact of this app is the first I’ve ever experienced in my decade long design experience, and I don’t like this in the least.

Emotional cost

While I would say that Clubhouse didn’t make me want to gouge my eyes out or elicit some extreme emotional response from me, it brought out the ugly truth that I had been turning a blind eye to for some time - I have taken many of my other abilities for granted, which other people could not do even.

This app finally did what no one or no other product could - make me feel helpless and powerless to do anything, while the Elon Musks and Sriram Krishnans of the world continued to churn our interesting audio shows every week.

But we can do something

If you have come this far, it’s probably reading as a long rant or a laundry list of complaints against ClubHouse so far. But this long retrospection has also made me realize that I have my work cut out as a designer advocating for accessibility and inclusion in a highly competitive and highly innovating tech field. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the platform on its own merits, and it certainly makes for a compelling case study for aspiring designers or product folks.

But while you build the next Clubhouse, here’s what we can do to make sure our first launch of the product more human and inclusive:

Stay in touch with the reality of your audience

As designers, creative artists, product managers or engineers, we always work on expensive Macbook pros or iPads daily. Apple also provides clear guidelines and playbooks that let us ship and launch faster. Just understand that if your user base is equally distributed on iOS and Android, you should always strive to launch for both platforms, if it is possible. A very small percentage of your users will own the latest iOS devices, unless you are explicitly targeting only iOS users.

At Swiggy, we always launched iOS and Android together (not the same time) - the reason being that our revenue model relies on reaching out to as many users as possible. Unless you are working on the field and meet your users on a regular basis, it is important for us to be in touch with the real situations of our users and understand how to design for users with much lesser means than us.

Work on accessibility in the MVP

If ClubHouse had included close captioning with the initial release, would I ever be writing this post? Probably not. But calling them out for not including accessibility in the launch would be pot calling the kettle black — the Swiggy app is not accessible for screen readers and we have received quite a lot of flak for it, so I certainly am culpable for not even considering accessibility in the initial design process. We have however started working on rectifying the accessibility barriers in the current app, and our upcoming new design system will include accessibility in the blueprint.

All said and done, we are now entering a new era of design where accessibility practices are slowly becoming the norm than an afterthought in design processes. I would suggest that start up designers read up a little bit on WCAG 2.1 guidelines (or the other articles i have mentioned earlier). I am part of the slack community, where Clubhouse has a separate thread on it as well, and we are constantly talking about how to make accessibility more common in design practices.

Be upfront about whom you exclude

As some well-meaning people told me, dissing Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces for launching on iOS first did me no favours and I would need to be more mindful of the constraints they face and the difficult decisions they had to take for the initial launch. I agree with this surmise and hold myself responsible for not voicing my opinions in a better light.

Here’s the rub though - Clubhouse gleefully focused on the audio only advantage and benefitted enormously from the likes of Elon Musk, Steve Ballmer, Mr.Beast and all the revered tech moguls on their live shows. Had they also mentioned something along the lines of “coming soon to Android”, it would have probably eased the minds of Android users missing out on the experiences — Android users instead had a lot of FOMO. Twitter spaces learnt from this and put out a tweet asserting that they were building for Android quickly and asking us to patiently wait for the rollout.

Even if you are going to embark with a specific platform first, it wouldn’t hurt you to put out a PR stating that the other platform version would follow up soon. It’s better to explicitly mention that you are aware of who’s being excluded, but you are following up to get them included as soon as possible.

Do you feel I’m being over-dramatic and blowing this whole thing out of proportion? Or do you get what I am saying, and promise to join me in protesting from our desks when the next disruption happens without considering accessibility in the picture? Let me know your thoughts :-)