Designing for Accessibility is Crucial in VR and AR

Problem Space

The accessibility movement is gaining traction in the tech industry right now, as more and more users rely on the internet to live everyday lives. Those in industry have realized that designing for one archetype in today’s digital age leaves out scores of humans, and multimillion dollar companies have sprung up in an attempt to solve problems for these user groups.

As an able-bodied (and neurodiverse) individual, the majority of my research into this sphere started with how VR and AR have helped those with inclusivity issues in the physical and neurotypical realms. Slowly but surely, I realized that with every hardware and software integration there are going to be people who do not have the ability to use it as the designer intended. I personally would suggest to anyone looking into creating for VR and AR, to consider also tackling the advancing problem of accessibility in immersive computing, as the further we go the more we have to think about the differences in the physical ability of humans.

For the success of Virtual and Augmented Reality as a perspective and empathy medium it is crucial to understand any potential user’s abilities and disabilities. Not only is it important to be designing for every type of human, but it is also important to include a diverse spectrum of humans in the design and creation phase. Projects that have not taken these into account often have a troubling and detrimental start to their market impact. More than that – because Virtual and Augmented Reality heavily rely on the body and physical space as a form of user input, designing for accessibility is crucial to the operation of the medium.

Photo credit to VR Fitness Insider. Link:
Photo credit to VR Fitness Insider. Link:

Inclusive Design Philosophy within User Experience

Elise Roy is a deaf lawyer, artist, artisan, and human rights advocate who works in the vanguard of the social design movement. This movement holds that designers have the capacity and responsibility to address and resolve human problems on micro and macro scales and thereby contribute to social well-being. Roy promotes design thinking as fundamental to progressive social change, and is a passionate proponent of applying social impact and human-centered design research to international aid and development work.

Why Everyone Benefits When We Design for Disability

Roy often speaks about the concept of how “designing for the average” no longer works. Rather she suggests designing for extremes, which in current markets represent great examples and the strength of design. It’s no wonder that there are so many products out in the market today that were originally designed for those with disability have been adapted and loved by all. This is because when we design for disability, we create the “super powers” that we all want—to do more, hear more, see more, go further.

Learning How to Create Ability

One example Roy has given during her talks around the country is in regards to how airplanes were redesigned for pilots after the 40’s. The “average” fighter plane crashed a lot during the 1940’s. This was due to the fact that the airplanes were designed in an average of 10 different measurements for over 4,000 pilots. This resulted in a 30% range. However, none of these pilots were that exact “average” measurement. The engineers of the planes then decided to design the planes for those that had the largest and shortest range of motion – the extremes. When planes had been redesigned for all extremes in the 10 categories the amount of crashes decreased drastically.

Elise Roy giving her talk "When we design for disability, we all benefit". Photo Credit to LINK:
Elise Roy giving her talk “When we design for disability, we all benefit”. Photo Credit to LINK:

“When we design for disability first we often stumble upon solutions that are inclusive but also better than designing for the norm” – E. Roy

As designers, architects, and more it is our responsibility to make bridges, and those bridges integrate cultures, people and dreams. We are all different and we should be celebrating them together.

Kat Holmes is another amazing designer spearheading Inclusive Design. She was the Director of Inclusive Design at Microsoft, and is now a founder of two companies Kata and During her time at Microsoft she spearheaded the Inclusive Design campaign, which I pull most of my Inclusive Design preparation from. This product development approach emphasizes human diversity and results in adaptive experiences, inclusive growth, and reduced customer churn. It is focus around three principles:

1. Recognize Exclusion

Exclusion happens when we solve problems using our own biases. As designers, we seek out those exclusions, and use them as opportunities to create new ideas and inclusive designs.

2. Learn from Diversity

Human beings are the real experts in adapting to diversity. Inclusive design puts people in the center from the very start of the process, and those fresh, diverse perspectives are the key to true insight.

3. Solve For One, Extend To Many

Everyone has abilities, and limits to those abilities. Designing for people with permanent disabilities actually results in designs that benefit people universally. Constraints are a beautiful thing.

The visual references for solving for one, extending to many ranging from permanent, to temporary, to situational. Image credit to Microsoft. LINK:
The visual references for solving for one, extending to many ranging from permanent, to temporary, to situational. Image credit to Microsoft. LINK:


“When we recognize how our solutions are exclusionary, and take the time to understand the impact on a person who’s excluded, we then have a choice. We either fix it or we don’t, but we are responsible for the consequences. Either way, it’s an intentional choice, not an accidental harm. Accountability is more durable than inspiration, so that’s where I focus.” – K. Holmes

Virtual Reality has already started to changed lives of those who utilize this medium, and it is impacting those individuals with new ways to interact with their world and with the worlds they build.

Jeff Lewis, a virtual reality artist in Seattle, says this about VR: “It can also be really therapeutic. People who are hospital-bound or bedridden can use it. You can be drawing or creating art in a bed or in a chair. There are things you can do if you don’t have the ability to do it in real life, you can try to do it in VR.”

Jeff Lewis, a virtual reality artist born with congenital amputation, paints landscapes using TiltBrush . Photo by Taylor McAvoy. LINK:
Jeff Lewis, a virtual reality artist born with congenital amputation, paints landscapes using TiltBrush . Photo by Taylor McAvoy. LINK:

Lori Landay is an Instructor at the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs. She says that some folks have pointed out that, rather than “dialing down” a VR game or app to suit autistic players’ needs, VR can actually desensitize them and help them acclimate partly to real-world situations where they might encounter sensory overload.

Lori Landay shows an example of how a player with autism might feel more comfortable socializing in VR. Photo by GamesBeat. LINK:
Lori Landay shows an example of how a player with autism might feel more comfortable socializing in VR. Photo by GamesBeat. LINK: for these Spaces

Designing for Inclusive Spaces

The first step of designing with inclusivity in mind is recognizing exclusion within immersive computing and designing for those extremes instead of the average. The average human being is already being designed for, but when we design for an extreme we include those individuals with certain disabilities AND extend to any variation in between.

Consider that often both Physical Disabilities and Mental Disabilities are entangled within themselves and one another, and that an individual may have more than one of these disabilities that also may range in intensity. A person may have a communication disability because of an auditory impairment. A different person might have autism in which they have a neurodiversity that is high in perception and language but low in motor skills. We must consider these overlapping relationships as well when creating a product that is to be useful for everyone.

Examples of Physical Disabilities/Disorders

*Often when we hear “disability” or “disorder” a lot of abled individuals believe it must be permanent and life-altering, in these cases I will be giving a variety of permanence and affectability examples from ear infections and visual fatigue to deafness and blindness.

  • Sensory Auditory Disabilities
    • Outlier Examples: Auditory Processing Disorders, Deafness (profound hearing loss), 
    • Extend to Many: Mild to severe hearing loss, high tonal loss, low tonal loss, noise-induced hearing loss, ear infections
  • Sensory Visual Disabilities
    • Outlier Examples: Blindness (profound vision loss), Monochromacy (seeing no color), Dichromacy (only two cones that perceive color)
    • Extend to many: Visual Fatigue, Nearsightedness, Cataracts, Glaucoma, Farsightedness, Anomalous Trichromacy (one of the three cones that perceive color is out of alignment), astigmatism
  • Sensory Touch Disabilities
    • Outlier Examples: Sensory processing disorder,  congenital insensitivity to pain, central touch disorders
    • Extend to Many: Nerve damage, extensive burns, bruises, or swelling
  • Physical Disabilities
    • Outlier Examples: Dyspraxia, cerebral palsy, multiple-sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, acquired spinal injury, post-polio syndrome, spina bifida
    • Extend to Many: stiffness in joints, swelling and bruising of appendages, broken arms or legs, arthritis, lack of sleep


Picture of Headmaster VR which uses positional tracking for a purely gaze-based VR game that allows the user to headbutt a soccer ball. Image Credit to: Polygon. Link:
Picture of Headmaster VR which uses positional tracking for a purely gaze-based VR game that allows the user to headbutt a soccer ball. Image Credit to: Polygon. Link:


Examples of Mental Disabilities/Disorders

*Often those that are Neurodiverse or don’t fit under most individuals neurotypicality get pushed aside for more physical hardware changes to promote physical accessibility.  However, I will always push for the further importance of physical AND mental disabilities/disorders because they are so often intertwined. These are often harder for me to extend to many, as that would be giving a platform to those who over-simplify the affects of mental disorders. For now, I will take an approach of things you can implement that may help users with these mental disabilities that also may help ones that do not.

  • Organic Mental Disorders
    • Outlier Examples: Brain injury caused by trauma, Alzheimer’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease
    • Extend to Many: Simplification of tasks, not relying on extensive data remembrance, cues such as sight and smell to remember information
  • Psychotic Disorders
    • Outlier Examples: Schizoaffective disorder, Schizophreniform disorder, Brief psychotic disorder, Paraphrenia
    • Extend to Many: ground your experiences in a believable reality that also gives the player a meaningful physical form in the environment
  • Affective Disorders
    • Outlier Examples: Depression Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder (SAD)
    • Extend to Many: if the plot necessitates heavy topics that may cause emotional distress, be sure it is for a specific reason or point  and not just for unnecessary bloodshed or overt gore
  • Intellectual Disability
    • Outlier Examples: Down Syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, Fragile X syndrome (common among boys), neurofibromatosis
    • Extend to Many: practicing and improving skills such as attention, perception, counting, obeying rules, and communication
  • Anxiety-related Disorders
    • Outlier Examples: Panic attacks, Abnormal fears and phobias
    • Extend to Many: Content disclaimers and descriptions of potential trigger warnings
  • Somatoform Disorders
    • Outlier Examples: Mental illness which displays itself in symptoms of illness or injury for which there is no discernable cause
    • Extend to Many: Ability to turn off vibrations or unnecessary hardware movement, invest in more comfortable hardware/software that can relieve or distract from pain
  • Personality Disorders
    • Outlier Examples: obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD), passive aggressive disorder
    • Extend to Many: make interactions fun instead of obligatory, provide periods of time for relaxation, contemplation, and knowledge transfer
  • Substance Addiction Disorders 
    • Outlier Examples: This includes both alcoholism and drug addiction
    • Extend to Many: exclusion of gambling or drugs as an interactive device in order to advance the plot
  • Autistic/ Pervasive Developmental Disorders
    • Outlier Examples: Mental disabilities which affect communication, cognitive skills, behavior, and social skills including Autism
    • Extend to Many: intensity variability, guide attention, vary thresholds, balance realism with abstraction


Understanding the Spectrum, Rebecca Burgess, THEORAAH - TUMBLR.COM
Understanding the Spectrum, Rebecca Burgess, THEORAAH – TUMBLR.COM

“Each person with autism will have a set of traits all in different areas of the spectrum. The areas where they don’t have a trait will function no differently to a neurotypical brain, but may be affected by circumstances. In example, I am good at making conversation language, but I get sensory overload in loud and crowded spaces, which makes conversation very hard for me.” – R. Burgess 

The Worlds We Build

The most important consideration in designing for accessibility, is to recognize and resolve any unconscious biases we might have. One of the most eye-opening concepts for me personally, was that when thinking about designing for disabilities you shouldn’t think about designing for the ‘other’ but instead designing for your potential future. Never EVER consider it as designing for some ‘debilitated’ person off in the distant great nowhere suffering and needing you to ‘cure’ them. Design a product that you can use if you have a broken forearm, or if you have back problems after a restless night’s sleep – but first design it so that it can be useful to a person in a wheelchair.

These affordances we are creating are never intended to be used for a singular purpose, but to improve the lives of the many. We have the ability to make every user’s life easier.

Little girl experiencing VR while undergoing chemo treatment. Photo credit to Futurism. LINK:
Little girl experiencing VR while undergoing chemo treatment. Photo credit to Futurism. LINK:




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