Parent accessibility

I’m a dad since a few weeks back. This means I spend my days trying to keep a tiny, helpless lump of life alive. Scary stuff! I’ve also realised that this dad-thing comes with a ton of accessibility needs.

Hampus carrying a tiny baby in his arms.

First a short future message to my kid…

Hi kiddo! If you find this post in ten years time or so, I’m sorry for the negative tone. I love you very much! But I’m tired and want to make a point about inclusion. Hope you understand!

Look! No hands!

The image above shows how my newborn master wants to be carried a large portion of the day.

Apart from losing access to one or both of my hands, this type of carrying around is very boring. The thing is – my newborn is very irrational. When carried, he rarely allows me to bend my legs 90 degrees and sit down. He wants me to continually walk around. So watching Netflix from my sofa is out of the question.

But my entertainment-craving brain has figured it out! I still have access to my voice. So I’ve activated the accessibility feature Voice Control on my iPhone. When my headphones are connected I can open my audio book or podcast app and press play, just using my voice. Even though I’m an atheist, I find myself praising the Lord for this accessibility feature primarily meant for people with permanent motor impairments.

Here’s a demo of this in action. First in an accessible app BookBeat, where buttons are properly named and I can start the book by saying “Tap listen”. Then in an inaccessible app, where buttons have strange names, and I need to say “Tap Mini Media Bar Play” to start the book.

Another handy voice interface is my home assistant, that I can ask to dim the lights and play lullabies on Spotify, to increase the chance of the baby finally falling asleep.

I also have this amazing thermos that can be operated one-handed, which gives me the superpower of filling up the kid’s bottle while holding him at the same time. Here’s a clip of me opening and closing it just using my left hand.

The lack of motor abilities for parents is a classic example of a situational disability, included in most introductions to accessibility, like Microsoft’s inclusive design toolkit:

Illustration of permanent, temporary and situational disabilities from Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit linked above the image.

But I’ve realised that becoming a parent means more impairments than just the access to my arms…

Other parent disabilities

1. Sleep deprivation

I was expecting to lower the number of hours of sleep each night. But I was not prepared for all the times I have to wake up during that period. Having a shorter, more fragmented sleep has lead to my brain feeling like an old, uncharged Nokia 3310 phone. Slower, lacking memory, low on energy and just simply unable to do a lot of the stuff most modern brains can.

That’s why parent brains need intuitive, lightweight interfaces with good error handling!

2. Swollen, numb hands

This one only affects me indirectly, but it’s very frustrating. My wife got this thing called Carpal Tunnel Syndrome – a super annoying, and common, condition that affects a lot of mothers during and after pregnancy.

She explains it like the numbness you get after sitting on your hand for a long period of time. Except she gets it after any use of her hands for a few seconds. So cooking, eating, changing diapers, typing, scrolling on a smartphone – all activities that lead to numb, swollen, pulsating and hurting hands. It’s been going on for over 10 months now, and my wife actually needs surgery to (hopefully) fix the issue.

Again, many accessibility features that support people with permanent motor impairments – like voice control, auto completing forms and similar – have been really helpful.

3. A ticking baby bomb

I didn’t know this, but babies can apparently switch from a state of deep, relaxed sleep to screaming like it’s the end of the world in less than a picosecond. That means, as a parent, I never know how much time I’ve got before I have to drop everything I’m doing and, instead, do everything in my might to comfort the kid.

So if I’m in the middle of something, like filling in some important form online, it’s super annoying if there’s a time limit that kicks me out if I’m idle for a few minutes. Which happens to be something that’s covered by the WCAG (Web content accessibility guidelines), because time limits don’t just hurt parents, but loads of people with permanent disabilities too.

4. Baby attention deficit

Harp seals take care of their offspring for 12 days, then they’re fully able to care for themselves. Sadly, human babies are not as low-maintenance. Human babies are completely helpless for what, 12 years or so? Maybe a bit less, but still far longer than 12 days. I’m so jealous!

This huge responsibility of keeping a helpless human alive and well leads to a big portion of my brain – that earlier could be used to solving all sorts of interesting, important problems – being blocked up with questions like:

  • Is the baby breathing?
  • When was the last time he pooped?
  • Why the h*ll can’t I find any of his 242 pacifiers?
  • Do I really need to shower again after him vomiting all over me or can I just pretend it didn’t happen?

So I spend my days with a large attention deficit and cognitive impairments, which is amplified in combination with point 1 and 3 above.

5. Hearing loss at night

I got a ton of advice before becoming a parent. The best and most genuine one was from a father of four:

Never wake a child that’s sleeping

So when the baby is sound asleep, and all I’ve got energy for is to crash in the sofa in front of Netflix, I’m super thankful for the closed captions that makes it possible to watch with little or no sound. Minimising – although by no way eliminating – the risk of point 3 going off.

Parent friendly design

To sum up: accessible design is parent friendly design.

So the next time you manage to make an accessibility improvement to your product, pause for a moment, stay completely silent and listen very carefully. You should hear millions of parents thanking you for your efforts.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy these

I used switch control for a day

Hand tremors and the giant-button-problem

What is a screen reader?

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