Wheelchairs and accessible ICT

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2009 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.
Also posted on: Accessibility

A wheelchair symbol is often used to identify information about accessibility of computer systems. At first sight this might seem reasonable as it is a well-known symbol for disabilities in general; but in reality does not make sense because sitting in a wheelchair is very much like sitting in any other chair and that is how most users use their computers. Some wheelchair users have a disability that makes it difficult to use a computer, but it is not the wheelchair itself that causes the problem.

So why this article and why the headline? Accessibility is a subject which is wider than just computing and in my research I have come across some articles on wheelchair users that have relevance to accessibility of ICT.

The first relates to a petition to Downing Street, which I quote in full below:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Amend the Disability Discrimination Acts 1995 and 2005 to make it mandatory for any business with a staff or visitor entrance to display appropriate signage and a door bell / buzzer, as a minimum. This will enable communication, verbal or otherwise as appropriate, to take place involving the disabled person and a representative of the service provider. They can then establish how the person with the disability may access the premises, products or services of the business. In addition, a body will be established to monitor this compliance and fixed penalties may be imposed on any business which fails to display signage, a bell or buzzer and initiates communication within a reasonable timescale.”

This made me think that there should be a similar petition for websites. We all know that many sites are not accessible and with the best will in the world it will take commitment, time and money to fix these. However putting the equivalent of a sign on the front door and a buzzer would not be difficult. This would take the form of a link on the homepage to an accessible page on accessibility; this would note that not all the site is accessible and give the user alternative ways of contacting the organisation phone, e-mail, text phone and a commitment that because it is an accessibility issue it will be treated with urgency.

I am in no way suggesting that this is a complete solution to the issue but could be a very useful first step. I suspect many organisations, when faced with a problem of accessibility of their websites, find the problem too difficult and therefore do nothing. This suggestion makes a first step very easy, and also helps to build up a business case based on the demand and issues. It will also considerably reduce the frustration of people with disabilities who would now have a way of getting to the information and services on the website.

I would urge my readers to sign the existing petition by going dragmobility power chairs. Initially these look like any other wheelchair but they have a distinct difference, the seat can be raised and lowered. Going down to floor level means the user can play with their children or easily sit on the grass. Going up means that the user can be face-to-face with someone standing up. This is a major benefit in a social context because many activities occur standing up; a user in a normal wheelchair is confronted with the groins of those standing up rather than their faces and any interaction requires the person standing up either leaning over or sitting down, which may not be conducive to the overall ambience of the situation. Going up can have other advantages for example ordering a drink at the bar or accessing an ATM.

The design of this assistive technology is predicated on the idea that as far as possible a user should be able to interact with the world without any special accommodations. Obviously there is a requirement for flat surfaces and lifts but these are required by other people as well.

Relating this to a accessible ICT suggests that assisted technologies should be designed to cope with as much of the existing infrastructure without requiring special changes.