Does accessible product = accessible vendor?

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

When evaluating how accessible a product is, I do not just look
at the product itself but at the whole sales lifecycle. It is not
much point having a wonderfully accessible product if the user
cannot find out about it or effectively use it. Also looking at the
whole cycle gives me a view as to how committed the company is to
the concepts of accessibility and usability and how much they are
just trying to get ticks in the right boxes.

So what are the various components of the sales lifecycle to
look at? Here is my list:

  • Advertising: is the advertising in the places that the user
    will look and is it in a suitable format?
  • Web information: is the product web site accessible (if so it
    is a good sign that the company take the issue seriously)? Is the
    format suitable for the intended user? I saw a bad example of a web
    site with products for the vision impaired, the main information
    source was a video not ideal for the target audience, but what was
    worse was the commentary was nearly drowned out by a drum and bass
    backing which made it difficult to understand.
  • Web brochure-ware: very often the web site will have product
    brochures that can be downloaded, these are often in PDF format;
    this only works if they are accessible as well (see my article
    ‘Accessible PDF
    documents for the blind’
  • VPAT: does the web site give access to a VPAT (Voluntary
    Product Accessibility Template)? The VPAT should explain how
    accessible the product is. If it does not exist then I have a
    question mark over any claims of accessibility.
  • Searching the web site: I try searching the product web site
    for terms like accessibility, usability, assistive technology,
    section 508, disability etc. The information returned often
    clarifies the commitment of the company.
  • Purchase Requests: if I try and purchase the product can I do
    it in an accessible manner? See ‘A form fillers
  • Installation and configuration: Can the product be installed
    and configured by the intended use without assistance? I was very
    nearly unable to install my iPod because I could not read the tiny
    white on silver serial number (see ‘iPod needs 20/20
    ). Not all screen readers have a vocalisation of the
    installation process see ‘What should a screen
    reader do’
  • On-line help and training: can the user easily access help and
    training when they need it? It is particularly important that the
    help and training is available when needed and in context. I was
    trying to learn how to use a screen reader and the only real
    training material was a Word document; I had to use the product to
    read the Word document whilst learning the short cut keys, I got
    some of the keys wrong and managed to trash the Word file!
  • Classroom education: if classroom education is available it
    must be at an accessible site and should provide facilities for
    students with disabilities.
  • The product: This is obviously the key criteria, is the product
    itself accessible, but if the answer appears to be yes then all the
    other criteria become important.
  • The product outputs: in many cases the product will have some
    form of output. If it is a web development tool then the output is
    the web site, if it is an office product then it is a document
    etc., if it is a business package there could be invoices, reports,
    orders etc. All of these outputs should be accessible in their own
    right. The ability to produce accessible output varies greatly. The
    worst products make it impossible to create accessible output. Some
    products enforce the creation of accessible output, in some case
    this is a good thing whilst in others it may limit the power and
    flexibility of the output. Most product will enable you to produce
    accessible output but only if you understand how to and have the
    determination to do so. The best products actually help, guide and
    encourage you to do so.
  • System management and monitoring: once a product is in
    production there is always some need to manage and monitor it. This
    should also be done in a way that is accessible.

I do not believe this list is unreasonable and I believe that if
product vendors would build accessibility into their ethos and into
the development process then none of these requirements would be a
major hurdle. Thinking through this whole process will improve the
quality of the product and the usability of it for all users.