Siri as shown on an Apple iPad

Designing a Manifesto for Accessibility

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Outdoor wheelchair ramp

Outdoor wheelchair ramp. Photo by Tobias Abel (CC BY-ND 2.0)

It might be easy to assume that design and accessibility are two very different concepts. After all, a ramp and automatic door opener are not particularly remarkable architectural features and for the average Canadian, they often go unnoticed. For someone who uses a scooter or power wheelchair, however, a motorized sliding door and small incline give independence.

The same goes for those tiny computers we carry in our pockets. Modern smartphones feature some variation on the “personal assistant”: Siri, Cortana, Google Now. As each of these assistants is operated using just voice, barring some limitations, users can complete most basic functions without laying a finger on their device. For someone with limited mobility or another who is blind, voice activation can instantly make an inaccessible touch screen accessible.

Some more obvious than others, these accessibility features are built into our physical and digital worlds… but they are not used solely by people with disabilities. A parent pushing a baby stroller benefits from a door that swings open on its own. Or, while driving to work, a perpetually late employee might need to text their boss; Google Now has their back.

Design It Once

It’s no coincidence that anyone can use these accommodations in a building or on a smartphone. Today, a large part of our world is built with universal access in mind, providing everyone the equal opportunity to use a space or product.

Siri displaying the definition of

Siri displaying the definition of “accessibility” on an Apple iPhone

Universal design isn’t flawless though. Sometimes, accessibility features aren’t the most intuitive to use. “Ultimately, we’re trying to help people with disabilities complete tasks and achieve goals just like anybody else,” says David Sloan, head of user experience research at the Paciello Group, an accessibility consulting firm. He believes that when it comes to designing with accessibility in mind, designers are too focused on conforming with rigid standards rather than creating pleasurable, simple experiences. “Everybody wants a good user experience.”

Sloan, along with colleague Sarah Horton, wants to change that. They have written a manifesto that they hope will inspire designers to approach accessibility differently. To start, digital products — whether a website, smartphone app, or cable box — should be accessible from the beginning of the product’s lifecycle. Too often, accessibility features are thrown in after shipment through a half-baked update that does not work well. “Retrofitting [products] is difficult and time-consuming, and I don’t see that happening,” says Horton, user experience strategy lead at Paciello Group.

A web designer herself, Horton acknowledges that while the underpinnings of the internet already include accessibility features, those who make websites do not always utilize them. Until they do, David Sloan believes that many are being left out. “This is a human rights issue, and ultimately it’s about people and making it possible for people to do things.”

Connecting The World

The world’s largest social network, Facebook, seems to embrace that same idea. Despite some early missteps — up until just a few years ago, the website was difficult to access for those who use screen readers, software that reads aloud text on a computer for blind users — the company’s Accessibility Team works to make the website useable by a wide-range of users. Earlier this year, they launched the Accessibility Toolkit, which according to their blog, “is a single destination to learn about how Facebook handles accessibility when it comes to quality assurance, documentation, engineering training and more.”

“Sometimes accessibility, for those that do not know about it, can sound daunting and difficult to understand,” says Ramya Sethuraman, an engineer at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters. Her team works with engineers from across the company to help them understand the needs of persons with disabilities and those who access the service in different ways.

Facebook Headquarters Front Sign

Facebook Headquarters Front Sign

For users that cannot operate a mouse, the website is navigable with just a keyboard. Closed captions can be added to video for those who are d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing. The website can automatically create photo descriptions based on available metadata that is read by screen readers. Each of these features is crucial in helping Facebook to meet their mission: to connect the world.

Today, thanks to accessibility enhancements, like-minded users from varied backgrounds are able to meet in groups on the social network to share stories and experiences. To get there, however, the accessibility engineers had to help those unfamiliar with these accommodations understand how they could be implemented. So, Sethuraman built something she calls the “Empathy Lab.”

A living installation in the “heart” of the Facebook campus, the lab is a space where visitors can test the website using various assistive technologies. If an engineer wants to experience the service like someone who is visually impaired, for example, they can try out a screen reader. Maybe they would like to see the website on a mobile device with a slow connection — much like how a user in the developing world might — they can find that option too.

That last point is especially important to the team. Jeff Wieland, head of the Accessibility Team, knows that accessibility extends beyond accommodations for persons with disabilities. Wieland argues that in connecting the world, “we need to make sure that we understand the diverse audiences that are using Facebook and understand how we can build experiences that are robust for them.” In an important step, engineers designed the website’s experience so it is familiar no matter who is using it and how.

One-Size-Fits-One

How do designers qualify whether an experience is positive, though? Even if all products are accessible, we miss the target if they are not enjoyable to use. From David Sloan and Sarah Horton’s perspective, designers should strive for positive, pleasurable experiences. While a service like Facebook can do that by connecting friends and loved ones, the enjoyment factor is not so clear with other assistive technologies. Perhaps the key is in personalization.

Universal design is great in that it provides many access to spaces and technologies, but some individuals have unique needs that can only be addressed through design. That’s where inclusive design comes in.

Digit Kit. Photo credit Rickee Charbonneau.

Digit Kit. Photo credit Rickee Charbonneau

Designer Rickee Charbonneau has created a customizable prosthetic that’s virtually limitless in its possibilities. The platform, known as “DigitKit,” allows users to 3D-print interchangeable attachments that simply snap onto a fitted base. Among the accessories, Rickee has designed a screwdriver, a comb, even a spatula (though the latter is not yet usable).

Charbonneau created DigitKit with the belief there is too much attention placed on replacing the function of the human hand. “I find that by replicating the hand in particular, you’re losing a lot of potential function, because you can kind of re-imagine that space… you’re kind of narrowing your imagination.”

“Someone wanted me to make a crochet hook. Some people want iPhone mounts,” says Charbonneau of requests from potential users. Eventually DigitKit owners will be able to create these pieces on their own using an app with preset designs available to print with a 3D printer.

The device is revolutionary as individuals with limb deficiencies no longer need to rely solely on prosthetics that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. 3D printers can create these pieces for just dollars. For children, especially, the benefits are immeasurable. As they grow, a new prosthetic can be fitted and made within a few hours.

While the system is a prototype, the designer hopes to soon conduct field tests. In discussing whether design and accessibility are mutually exclusive, Charbonneau believes that assistive technologies can benefit from something called participatory design. “[Something] that maybe engineers don’t always do, is making these solutions alongside individuals who would be using them.”

An Accessible Future

Both Facebook’s accessibility initiatives and DigitKit show how designers can improve experiences for people with disabilities. Still, much more remains inaccessible to those who are blind, partially sighted, deaf, hard of hearing, or mobility-restricted. Part of the reason, according to Sarah Horton, is that designers are not considering who actually benefits from products. “We don’t have an inclusive idea about who we’re designing for and… we don’t engage in user-centered design.” Rickee and Facebook’s Accessibility Team have worked directly with persons with disabilities to improve their products.

Moving forward, companies also need to dedicate more resources to the area. David Sloan finds that organizations are slow to pick up on the trend as it is challenging to implement plans widely. While often there is one person or a small team who cares about accessibility, “they need help in moving accessibility from something that’s a very narrowly defined activity within an organization into something that everybody has a role to play.” Many companies today — particularly those in the tech world such as Apple, Google, and IBM — have dedicated accessibility teams.

Finally, designers must erase the idea that designing with accessibility in mind is unattractive and difficult. As Horton argues, “an attractive and functional and enjoyable website can readily also be an accessible website.” In designing DigitKit, Charbonneau actually created a piece of jewelry in customizable colours for potential users. We are well beyond boring, white-on-black text only websites.

In the words of the David Sloan and Sarah Horton, designing with accessibility in mind isn’t a challenge to creativity, it’s “a creative challenge.” Now it’s time to test the boundaries.

This post is based on the documentary Design for All: A Manifesto that I produced for Accessible Media Inc.

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