Innovative Design Inspired by Accessibility

Innovative Design Inspired by Accessibility

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By Wendy Chisholm

Published on March 30, 2005

The Web provides unprecedented access to information for people with disabilities. People who are blind no longer wait for 25 pounds of braille to be printed and delivered or for a volunteer to read. People who have difficulty moving in physical space can easily attend classes. Those who find it hard to read the labels on products or have trouble getting oriented in grocery stores (whose layouts change frequently) can shop using Web sites with images and search features.

However, we have much work to do—most existing Web content is not fully accessible. Browsers, multimedia players and assistive technologies do not yet provide a completely usable and accessible experience. Authoring tools and development environments (including blogging applications) neither produce fully accessible Web content nor have accessible interfaces.

Until people with disabilities are able to both access and contribute to the Web, the Web will not be fully accessible. Unfortunately, an accessible Web will not solve all accessibility issues—there are still many obstacles that contribute to unequal access in the physical environment.

DSL and cable bring rich media into the home and office, and video phones and video blogs allow people to easily create and publish rich media from anywhere with the press of a button. Podcasting and Internet radio allow anyone to become a DJ, and digital video cameras and webcams are used by a new generation of filmmakers. Content that is initially broadcast for a television audience is archived on the Web. Voice over IP is saving people money on phone bills and satirists bypass the Sunday funnies and create animations for political humor.

Increasing bandwidth and use of rich media are creating opportunities and barriers for people with disabilities. It’s a story we’ve heard before: new technology is developed, adopted, and completely changes the way we communicate, work, shop, or play before we realize that many people are unable to participate in the new communities that are formed. By the time an alternative is provided or direct access is built in, it’s been years since the technology was introduced. In many cases, an alternative is never provided, and those who cannot access the new technology simply can’t participate in this ebb and flow of society. It’s as if some people are permanently at the back of the bus.

To avoid repeating this story for rich media, I hope to convince you that accessibility is the sister of innovation. I’ll also clarify another saying I heard recently: “If necessity is the mother of invention, then disability is its grandmother.” There is a distinction between invention and the innovative use of inventions. HTML, XML, CSS, and other Web technologies have been invented and continue to evolve. To design innovative Web applications that create opportunities rather than barriers, study the variety of characteristics of people, situations, and devices in your audience—it will give you new perspective from which to approach your design.

New perspective, new product

Your first step is to find inspiration in the characteristics of your audience. Consider the variety of abilities, interests, styles, devices, bandwidths and situations of your users. Ben Shneiderman describes this inspiration in Leonardo’s Laptop:

By the 1980s, with the advent of the personal computer, the steering wheel of innovation was taken over by those who recognized the importance of considering diverse user needs. These spirited innovators came up with the hot products that opened the doors to a wide range of users: graphical user interfaces (GUIs), the World Wide Web, online communities, instant messaging, information visualization, and e-commerce. This shift has accelerated in recent years, and future breakthroughs are likely to come more often from those who put users first.

Products developed with limitations in mind have given designers a new perspective and resulted in innovation. Thomas Edison developed the carbon transmitter (microphone) for Bell’s telephone because he had trouble hearing its faint sounds. On his invention of the phonograph, Edison explained: “Deafness, pure and simple, was responsible for the experimentation which perfected the machine.”

There are many examples of disability inspiring innovation. Take the curb cut, those dips in sidewalks created for people using wheelchairs. They’re used by rollerbladers, stroller-pushers, bicyclists, and rolly-bag toters. Check out A History of Technology Advances Inspired by Disability for more examples.

A growth opportunity

As the Baby Boom generation ages, more and more people will face the challenges of reduced dexterity, vision, and hearing. So enabling accessible technology is a growth opportunity…
Steve Ballmer, 2001

Designing for a variety of situations and abilities can not only change your perspective, but also increase your audience. Consider how the world is changing and what that means for your audience. In 2000, the World Health Organization estimated that 7-10% of the world’s population (500 million people) lives with a disability. In the United States (1997 Census Brief), 1 in 5 people live with a disability. This number is expected to grow as people live longer—for example, predictions indicate that by 2011, people over 65 will make up 25% of Japan’s population. According to the WHO (Towards Policy for Health and Ageing, 2000), the fastest growing population group in industrial nations is the 80-and-over segment. Accessible design will help you reach more people and continue to reach them throughout their lives.

Many devices “experience” limitations similar to those experienced by people with disabilities. In 2002, Karsten Self declared that Google is a blind user. Recently, Matt May spun Karsten’s statement for the current state of issues in accessibility:

Google is, for all intents, a deaf user. A billionaire deaf user with tens of millions of friends, all of whom hang on his every word.

Bestkungfu Weblog, “Google is a deaf user”

Google video and Yahoo! video search are now available, so apparently the search giants were listening. Accessible design will increase the discovery of your design.

Some situations create limitations that are similar to those experienced by people with disabilities. A small screen on a mobile device simulates the “soda straw” experience of someone using a screen magifier on an average-sized monitor. A person using a kiosk in a shopping mall is surrounded by noise and unable to hear the audio of a presentation, simulating the experience of someone who is hard of hearing. A mechanic working on the underside of an airplane needs to access information without removing his or her hands or eyes from the task. Designing for everyone will help you create content that is used by more people in more situations.

Design ideas and considerations

Web accessibility means access to information despite limiting conditions, whether the limitation is a device, a situation, or a physical characteristic.

“It is the stairs leading into a building that disable the wheelchair user rather than the wheelchair.

It is defects in the design of everyday equipment that cause difficulties, not the abilities of people using it.

It is society’s lack of skill in using and accepting alternative ways to communicate that excludes people with communication disabilities.”

South African White Paper on an Integrated National Disability Strategy

Consider the variety of limitations and needs people in your audience may have. Are people using your content from a kiosk in the library? Are they likely to have sound? Are people using mobile devices? Are they likely to have a large monitor? Here is a quick summary of potential limitations, the need(s) the limitation creates, and exercises to inspire innovation:

Questions to inspire innovation
Limitations (device, situation, or physical characteristic) Need Questions and exercises to inspire innovation
Inability to see clearly or at all. Need visual information displayed audibly or tactually.

Need to operate computer without a mouse.

Use a screen reader or talking browser for a day. What information are you missing? On sites that you know, how do they appear different? On new sites, what signposts are missing?
Inability to distinguish certain colors. Ability to transform color combinations. Use your computer in high contrast mode for a day. Do you suspect any information is missing? What tasks are difficult to accomplish?
Inability to move easily or at all. Need to operate computer without a mouse. Unplug your mouse for a day. What features do you wish you had?
Inability to hear well or at all. Need audio information displayed visually. Mute your computer speakers or your television for a day. What did you miss?
Inability to read well. Summaries, illustrations. Think about when you have learned something new. What resource helped you learn most quickly? What are the characteristics of that resource?

Increase usability, create innovation

Innovative design inspired by accessibility will help you create Web applications that change the way we communicate, work, shop, or play and increase the number of people participating in the resulting communities. Don’t postpone providing an alternative method or direct access for years or decades. Do it today. You will design an application that will increase the usability and worth of your application for more people, and likely increase your audience and create something truly innovative.

Additional Reading

Related Topics: Accessibility, Web Design

Wendy Chisholm is a Web accessibility specialist for the World Wide Web Consortium. She is the team contact for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group and Research and Development Interest Group and co-contact for the Evaluation and Repair Tools Working Group. If it’s snowing, she’s probably out snowboarding. Otherwise, check the library or the dog park.