Accessibility to direct the mainstream

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2006 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

The e-Access conference in London was full of excellent presentations and discussions from the top names in the UK accessibility community.

A clear message came out from the conference that the large e-vendors and e-enterprises should have heard. Unfortunately both vendors and enterprises were almost completely absent from the delegate list. On the basis that my readership is largely made up from these groups I would like to pass on the message they missed.

Put simply the message is that accessibility should be business-as-usual for all products and services; because accessibility improves usability for everyone; therefore, accessibility should not be seen as an add-on just to help people with disabilities.

To understand this we only need to recognise that each of us is not as able as we might be. Very few people have 20–20 vision with no hint of colour blindness, and even those few may be effected at times by tiredness, or adverse lighting conditions. Most of us have imperfect hand-eye-mind coordination so typing without errors, or positioning the mouse precisely is not just a problem for people with muscular-skeletal disabilities, again we can be disabled by our environment just try using a mouse on a crowded jolting train. Most people are not profoundly deaf but many suffer from limitations to their hearing either through listening to too much loud music, or age, or illnesses, such as tinnitus, or the level of ambient noise. Very few of us would consider themselves to be geniuses so do we all have a learning difficulty?

The message is we can all position ourselves on a disability spectrum, for each ability, from the highly able to the unable. Given that reality all products and projects should be developed to adapt to the abilities and preferences of the user. Three paraphrased quotes from the conference highlight this:

  • “If a user is unable to complete a task we should not ask ‘what is wrong with the user’ but ‘what is wrong with the system’”.
  • “Training is cost transfer from the producer to the consumer”.
  • “If we are living in the information society then access to information is a non-discretionary item, it constitutes a socially normative activity…”

Having recognised this spectrum, developers should ask ‘what can we learn from the special needs and solutions that can be applied more generally?’ For example

  • Text-to-speech was originally developed to help the blind but is now being used extensively in other environments including the car, sat-nav systems and SMS to voice.
  • A system that can be used without a mouse is essential for people with RSI but can greatly increase the productivity of power users.
  • Speaking books originally developed for the blind are being increasingly taken up for use in the car or the Tube.

This move of specialist technology to the mainstream is vitally important to the disabled community as it brings the unit cost way down and, judging by the announcements of Microsoft and Apple, some of the technology will be built-in to standard solutions hence removing the cost altogether.

The final message from the conference was that people with disabilities need things to be as easy to use as possible and, therefore, want to push the usability agenda further and faster than the mainstream. This means that we should all be listening to them, as they will come up with innovative solutions that will benefit us all.

One example from the conference is to take advantage of the ubiquitous spread of broadband by developing blended applications. A blended application is one where the user can decide how to complete a task, whether to do it all themselves on-line or whether to involve a human specialist to help with some aspect. Access to a specialist would be as simple as clicking a button, at which point the specialist would be able to see what the user had done and talk with the user and advise how to progress, or to take over the task at that point. This type of blended interaction is obviously helpful for transactions but has wide implications for interactions of all types including distance learning and keeping in touch with the housebound.

The overall message from the conference is that accessibility should not be seen as a chore but should be seen as symbiotic, helping to create a better experience for us all.