We, as an industry, tend to have a pretty myopic view of experience. Those of us who work day-to-day in accessibility probably have a broader perspective than most, but I would argue that even we all fall short now and again when it comes to seeing the Web as others do. I�m, of course, talking about accessibility. Now if you�re like most audiences, I�m guessing when you hear the word �accessibility� you probably think �screen reader�. That�s ok. Screen readers are certainly one part of the assistive technology spectrum, but my hope is, that by the end of this talk, when someone says �accessibility� you instead think� �opportunity�. Accessibility is concerned with accommodating disabilities, but our understanding of what a disability is has changed over time. In the 1980s, the World Health Organization defined a disability as a personal attribute: “In the context of health experience, a disability is any restriction or lack of ability (resulting from an impairment) to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.” They have since updated their definition of a disability “Disability is not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person�s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.” The points of interaction between a person and society are where disability happens. It�s our responsibility to know how our designs affect these interactions.
If we use our own abilities and biases as a starting point, we end up with products designed for people of a specific age, language ability, tech literacy, and physical ability. Plus those with specific access to money, time, and stable network connections.
A figurative graph charting user ability against population using a bunch of different icons for people. One person is identified as a designer and she is part of a subset of the people that are in grey, signifying that they are �included� when the designer considers things from their own perspective. The vast majority of the people icons are in red, signifying they are �excluded� by this line of thinking.
When it comes to people, there�s no such thing as �normal�. For example, the interactions we design with technology depend heavily on what we can see, hear, say, and touch. If we�re designing with ourselves as a baseline, we can overlook people with circumstances different from ours.
I love exercises that create opportunities for revelation. One of my favorites originates from John Rawls. Rawls was a philosopher who used to run a social experiment with students, church groups, and the like. In the experiment, individuals were allowed to create their ideal society. It could follow any philosophy. It could be a monarchy or democracy or anarchy. It could be capitalist or socialist. The people in this experiment had free rein to control absolutely every facet of the society� but then he�d add the twist: They could not control what position they occupied in that society. This twist is what John Harsanyi?�?an early game theorist?�?refers to as the �Veil of Ignorance� and what Rawls found, time and time again, was that individuals participating in the experiment would gravitate toward creating the most egalitarian societies. It makes sense: what rational, self-interested human being would treat the elderly, the sick, people of a particular gender or race or creed or color, poorly if they could find themselves in that position?
We�re often told accessibility is only concerned with folks with �special needs.� Well news flash: we all have special needs. Some we�re born with. Some we develop. Some are temporary. Some have nothing to do with us personally, but are situational or purely dependent on the hardware we are using, the interaction methods we have available to us, or even the speed at which we can access the Internet or process data.
Sometimes disability is a temporary thing. A short-term injury and illness affect the way people interact with the world around them. Looking into bright light can cause brief visual impairment. Being sick with a cough makes it hard to speak. Wearing a cast can severely limit a person�s ability to lift an everyday object.
On the more technical side of things, small touchscreens can be awkward to interact with is you�re fat-fingered like me. Glossy screens can be difficult to read under glaring light. Low-contrast text can be difficult to read when you turn the screen brightness down to conserve battery life on your mobile device.
Recognizing that we all have special needs leads us to make better decisions as designers and developers. When we understand that disability is a universal and dynamic way of interacting with the world, it can become something else as well: a new source for creativity. Our impact can also expand, as our inclusive designs reach a greater number of people.
Designing for people with permanent disabilities can seem like a significant constraint, but the resulting designs can actually benefit a much larger number of people. For example, curb cuts in sidewalks were first created to make it safer and easier for people in wheelchairs to cross the street. But curb cuts also help people with a wide range of circumstances, from kids riding bicycles, to parents pushing strollers, to workers hauling heavy equipment.
Numerous needs that benefit from curb cuts: wheelchairs, strollers, bicycles, and skateboards.
Similarly, high-contrast screen settings were initially made to benefit people with vision impairments. But today, many people benefit from high-contrast settings when they use a device in bright sunlight. The same is true for remote controls, automatic door openers, voice controls, and much more. Designing with constraints in mind is simply designing well.
A disability continuum from permanent (a person with one arm) to temporary (a person with an arm injury) to situational (a new parent holding a baby).
By designing for someone with a permanent disability, someone with a situational disability can also benefit. For example, a device designed for a person who has one arm could be used just as effectively by a person with a temporary wrist injury or a new parent holding an infant.
Adding up the number of people in the U.S. who deal with disabilities relating to arm usage gets your to 21 million pretty quickly.
Being mindful of the continuum from permanent to situational disabilities helps us rethink how our designs can scale to more people in new ways. In the United States, 26,000 people a year suffer from loss of upper extremities.
But when we include people with temporary and situational disabilities, the number is greater than 20M.
As a web design philosophy, progressive enhancement is right in line with the egalitarian inclusive design approach. It calls for equality of opportunity, but doesn�t require equality of outcome. It�s okay for different folks to experience your products in different ways as long as everyone can accomplish the task they set out to do.As Ben Hoh eloquently put it “[Progressive enhancement] keeps the design open to the possibilities of sexiness in opportune contexts, rather than starting with the �whole� experience that must be compromised.” At its essence, progressive enhancement is about being good designers. The definition of design is �to devise for a specific function or end� Classically, it means �to indicate� and comes from the medieval Latin: designare, meaning �to mark out� “I�ve been amazed at how often those outside the discipline of design assume that what designers do is decoration?�?likely because so much bad design simply is decoration. Good design isn�t. Good design is problem solving.” As Jeff Veen so astutely observed in this quote,
We start getting into a bit about ARIA here, (which I use now, and I’m starting to come to like more,) but I’m still not a fan of browse mode, which basically makes the screen reader treat a webapp like a desktop-based application. Keep my webservices on the web, thankyouverymuch! When it comes to accessibility, everyone’s going to have the same few annoyances, but it’s mostly all relative. Most things, these days, are passable if you know what you’re doing. As far as theories go, please don’t use the word “progressive!” It’s a term mostly reserved for politics. Personally, I like the universal design prinsible myself, but that’s just me. If you’re building it for mobile, (and not just touch, but all models of phone, and keeping in mind that people do use bluetooth keyboards with their touch-based interfaces,) it will most likely work with any major screen reader that’s been developed in the past 2-3 years. Also, we need to only have a single set of standards and we’re done! Developers and designers don’t want to spend time studying standards, (trust me, I used to do some development,) and no one wants to run a site through 3-4 different validators to see if it works. If it fails in 2 but validates in 2 others, it’s only 50% of the way there, and for some people that might not be enough.