disabled sign in the elevator

Over the last few years, Microsoft has been developing a new kind of design thinking: inclusive design. It’s based on the idea that necessity is the mother of invention.

“The point isn’t to solve for a problem,” such as typing when you’re blind, said Holmes. “We’re flipping it.” They are finding the expertise and ingenuity that arises naturally, when people are forced to live a life differently from most.

Inclusive-First Design

In other words, Microsoft’s thinking goes, people with disabilities have already solved many of the problems that design teams are trying to address. For example, let’s say you want to design an app for people to use while driving. Since they can’t safely (or legally) look at the screen to use your app, it might help to look to the blind to learn how they accomplish the same task.

Or just focus on designing apps for the blind, on the assumption that the sighted will find uses for them, too. That is what Microsoft is doing, and in fact, that is how many of the communication technologies we take for granted today were designed.

Pellegrino Turri invented the typewriter (and therefore keyboards) so his blind lover could write letters. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone as part of his work on hearing devices for the deaf (including his wife and mother). Electronic messaging was the easiest way for Vint Cerf to communicate with his deaf wife while he was at work, which led to his work on the first email protocols. It just so happened those technologies were also useful to everyone else, too.

What if we considered law in the same way?

Disability and Access to Justice

According to the US Census, nearly 1 in 5 Americans has a disability—broadly defined. It is safe to assume many of them hire lawyers for many of the same reasons the other 4 in 5 Americans do, and perhaps for some additional reasons, too.

There are other kinds of “disability” that act as a barrier to access to justice and lawyers, too. For example, nearly 9% of American’s don’t speak English very well.

According to the FCC, 10% of Americans do not have access to broadband internet. Many people only have internet access through their smartphones. Others don’t have a smartphone. Some aren’t free to take calls during the day. Some can only text.

Money can be a barrier in several ways, not just because some clients can’t afford a large lump-sum retainer or fee. Some can, but only with a credit card. Others don’t have a credit card. Still others don’t have a bank account.

Time and transportation can be major obstacles for some. Most people have limited time. Many people work during the same hours lawyers do, which limits their ability to come to your office between 9 am and 5 pm. Many people have children, but do not have childcare whenever they need it. Coming to your office may mean bringing the kids along. Some people are rarely in one place for long, either because they travel for work or because don’t have stable housing. Some people don’t have a car.

But even if law firms ignore these disabilities—and many do—everyone finds ways to solve their legal problems.

In the legal profession, we talk about access to justice all the time. But sometimes it seems like we forget that most people who fall into the “gap” don’t just give up just because they can’t afford to hire a lawyer or can’t make time to meet with a lawyer. Of course they don’t. They still solve their legal problems somehow. But you could say they have a legal disability.

Which suggests inclusive design might help solve access to justice problems, too.

Inclusive Law Firm Design

I remember having clients who had to take three buses to get to my office or to court because they didn’t have a car, for various reasons. Uber didn’t exist at the time, but now I could just schedule a ride for them. In many cases, it would probably cost less than validating parking in a city ramp. In fact, why not offer that option to everyone? Instead of “we validate parking,” your website could say “we’ll give you a ride or validate parking.” Even clients without any disability would probably appreciate being able to jump into a car waiting at their front door.

Look for similar opportunities to make it easier for clients with disabilities to work with you, and you will find opportunities to make it easier for all your clients to work with you.

Wheelchair-bound clients will appreciate it if your office is close to the elevator. But so will everyone else. Blind clients have a special need for clear directions and signage within your building. And while Braille on signs won’t benefit the sighted, everyone needs clear directions and signage.

Website accessibility overlaps search engine optimization. Expand your office hours so they are more convenient to those with limited time, and everyone will appreciate your flexibility.

Practice viewing your law firm through the lens of those with special needs to find opportunities to improve the way you serve everyone.