When we talk about accessibility and inclusivity, the conversation often centers on physical disabilities and visible accommodations like ramps and elevators. However, what about the disabilities that aren’t physically apparent? Non-visible disabilities, which may not be immediately obvious, also have effects that can range from minor to significantly life-altering. It’s crucial to consider the entire spectrum of disabilities to ensure true inclusivity.

With around 15% of the global population currently living with some form of disability – a number expected to reach 2 billion by 2050 – the challenge to make all kinds of spaces accessible for different types of disabilities is expansive.

This blog series will broaden your understanding of inclusivity, exploring ways to dismantle both physical and non-physical barriers faced by people with disabilities. First, let’s clarify the definitions of various disability types to enhance our understanding.                           

Understanding the disability spectrum

Disabilities vary greatly in nature, severity, and impact on an individual’s life. They are categorized into several types, each including a range of specific conditions:

1. Physical disabilities: These affect a person’s mobility or dexterity, including common physical disabilities like spinal cord injuries, amputations, or cerebral palsy.

2. Mobility impairments: Mobility impairments are a type of physical disability, but not all physical disabilities are mobility impairments. Mobility impairments refer to conditions that limit a person’s ability to move around freely and easily. These impairments can range from mild difficulties with movement to complete paralysis. 

3. Sensory disabilities: These involve impairments in one of the senses, such as hearing loss or visual impairments.

4. Cognitive disabilities: These affect a person’s intellectual functioning and include conditions like traumatic brain injury, Down syndrome, or dementia.

5. Psychological disabilities: These affect a person’s mental health and include conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

6. Neurodevelopmental disabilities: These typically manifest early in development and can affect a person’s behavior, memory, or ability to learn. Common examples include autism spectrum disorders and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The experience of living with a disability is highly individual, and the same condition can affect two people in very different ways making understanding this diversity vital.

Physical impairments and the hierarchy of disabilities 

Living with a disability often means facing numerous limitations. However, even within the disability community, a hierarchy exists where some disabilities are seen as more significant than others.

This concept of a “hierarchy of disability” refers to the idea that certain types of disabilities are sometimes perceived as more “legitimate” or “serious” than others. 

People with physical disabilities typically receive more acknowledgement and are addressed with clearer solutions like ramps and elevators. This is often due to the fact that physical disabilities are generally more visible and tangible.

In contrast, less visible disabilities, such as mental health issues or cognitive impairments, often receive less public understanding and accommodation. This can lead to significant disparities in support and acceptance, inadvertently marginalizing those with less visible disabilities in advocacy efforts. The good news is that assistive technologies are enhancing the functional abilities of individuals with disabilities, helping to level the playing field.

Let’s take a look at the tech helping people with all types of disability from not feeling excluded or left behind.

Physical accessibility in focus: tech for every ability

It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution when building technology that addresses physical impairments, cognitive challenges, and mental health issues, including considerations for physical accessibility. Every user is different and has different requirements. We’ll list a selection of technologies built for various needs across many different sets of circumstances in terms of ability and disability:

1. Assistive devices: Technological advances have led to the development of a wide array of assistive devices for physical disabilities and software that cater to various disabilities. For example, screen readers and text-to-speech software help those with visual impairments access digital content, while speech recognition software assists those with mobility impairments.

2. Customization and adaptability: Technology allows for personalization that can accommodate individual needs. Adjustable settings, such as text size, screen contrast, and keyboard configuration, make devices more accessible to people with varying physical and sensory impairments.

3. Communication enhancements: Technologies such as real-time captioning and sign language translation apps have revolutionized communication for the deaf and hard of hearing. Similarly, communication boards and speech-generating devices aid those with speech impairments.

4. Cognitive aids: Apps that assist with executive functioning can be invaluable for individuals with cognitive disabilities. These tools help manage time, remember tasks, and streamline decision-making processes.

5. Remote access and telehealth: Technology enables remote services, such as teletherapy and online consultations, making healthcare and professional services accessible to those who face mobility challenges or live in remote areas.

6. Educational technologies: Adaptive learning platforms and educational apps designed to meet diverse learning needs make education more accessible and inclusive. These technologies often include features that assist learners with dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning disabilities.

By embedding principles of accessibility, diversity and inclusive web design, individuals with disabilities can be supported in their independence and participation in everyday activities.

Universal accessibility: embracing physical and invisible disabilities in design

Bringing designers closer to the real experiences of disability is pivotal. When tackling both physical and invisible disabilities, it’s vital for our approach to be both innovative and empathetic. Designers and developers creating physical and digital environments need to engage continuously with users, gathering feedback and learning from their diverse experiences. 

Each individual’s needs are unique and evolve over time, requiring a dynamic approach to accessibility. Beyond recognizing the overt barriers faced by people with physical disabilities, it’s important to be aware of the subtler challenges associated with invisible disabilities, which can affect daily life.

The advantage of inclusive technology? Done right, it actually transcends its original intent, providing benefits that extend far beyond the specific needs it was designed to address. It’s common for every type of user to benefit from inclusive tech. 

Inclusive technology typically starts with the goal of helping individuals with specific challenges, such as physical or sensory impairments. However, these technologies frequently end up enhancing the user experience for a broader audience. For example, captioning on videos, initially intended for the hearing impaired, is now widely used in noisy environments like gyms and airports, or in settings where audio is inconvenient, benefiting everyone.

Similarly, voice-activated devices help those with mobility or dexterity issues but are also popular in situations where hands-free operation is preferred, such as driving or cooking. This is universal design in action. It highlights that designing for accessibility encourages innovation that everyone can enjoy, often leading to simpler, more intuitive products that improve daily life for all users.

UserWay: accessibility tech designed for diversity

UserWay is committed to breaking down digital barriers with technology that adapts to a diverse range of needs. Our Accessibility Widget is just one solution that ensures that websites can be easily navigated by everyone, regardless of their physical, cognitive, or sensory disabilities, making inclusivity the default. 

Learn how we integrate our market-leading accessibility tech into your digital spaces to make them more accessible to everyone.

Get inclusive today


What are different physical impairment types? 

Physical impairments encompass conditions such as mobility limitations, dexterity challenges, sensory impairments, and chronic pain conditions.

What are assistive devices for physical disabilities?

Assistive devices are tools that help people with physical disabilities do tasks that might be hard or impossible otherwise. These tools include things like wheelchairs, prosthetics, grab bars, and special utensils.

How do assistive devices help people with physical disabilities?

Assistive devices help people with physical disabilities by enhancing their mobility, dexterity, and ability to engage in everyday activities independently, improving their overall quality of life and enabling greater participation in society.