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Book Review: Providing Access for All

book cover

A review of

The Universal Access Handbook 

Edited by Constantine Stephanidis

CRC Press: 2009

In less than a decade, concern for designing products and services for the less able, the elderly, and other non-typical users, has gone from a peripheral issue on the agenda of usability and user-experience conferences—and awareness of professionals—to a core concern. In part, this change is due to the natural aging of developers and users who must come to terms with their diminished capabilities. A decade ago, it was known that Japan would, within a few decades, have the largest percentage of old people of any nation. Universal access conferences held in that country already displayed strong corporate support for products designed for those with visual, auditory, and mobility challenges. In the USA, the government required government websites to conform to basic website accessibility.

Consequently, publications on universal access began to appear for UX professionals. Typical examples are Thatcher et al.’s Constructing Accessible Web Sites (2002) and Shawn Lawton Henry’s Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design (2007). While these very books have helped to increase awareness and educate UX professionals, the industry has lacked a comprehensive treatment of the subject in print. That general reference was provided by Constantine Stephanidis, who for years has championed the Universal Access or User Interfaces for All movement for many years. His first publication User Interfaces for All: Concepts, Methods, and Tools (2001) was the first attempt to devote a major publication to a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to all human-computer interaction and communication technologies.

The current version of that publication, The Universal Access Handbook (UAH) (2009), continues the original objectives in a more massive and complete treatment. The nine parts of this handbook address what constitute, for the editor, all major dimensions of universal access, including:

  • Historical roots of universal access
  • Current perspectives and trends
  • Implications for development lifecycle of products and services
  • Implications for user-interface architectures
  • Support tools for development of universally accessible products
  • Examples, case studies, and best practices
  • Future perspectives, especially with regard to universal access in ambient-intelligence environments

Within this grand schema (including ninety-six contributors and forty-eight reviewers) one finds in this massive tome what one might expect: general principles as well as details, thoroughness, extensive references, and an understandably slight variance of writing tone. However, it is to the credit of the editor and his twenty-one member advisory board that a fairly constant and rigorous high level quality is maintained throughout (full disclosure: the author of this review served as a reviewer, contributor, and advisory board member for this book).

In the scope of this short review, it is impossible to treat in detail the many topics covered in the sixty-one chapters of the UAH. What one can say is that a twenty-two page index serves as a reasonable jumping off point for the reader in search of a specific topic. For those interested in a more prose-oriented approach, each chapter is very clearly organized by easily skimmed titles and subtitles, in order to find the specific content that might be of interest to the reader seeking a reference or training manual. The only concerns one might have is the minimal graphic design given to the text page design, the modest amount of illustration, and the non-sequential page numbers (they are linked to each chapter). Overall, these conditions create a somewhat academic and dry appearance, which may be quite desirable, even necessary, for some readers, but may leave others who desire a more visual or new generation approach slightly unsatisfied.

To its credit, the UAH touches upon a number of non-technology issues in its closing sections. For example, contributions discuss policy and legislation issues as a framework for accessibility, the creation and maintenance of standards and guidelines, the management of design-for-all programs, security and privacy issues, and what constitutes best practices.

Perhaps the only topic lacking here is a political action manual for how to convince the world (legislators, politicians, executives, and professionals) to promote, educate, and persuade key stakeholders to make universal access even more central to the development of all products and services.

At the very least, which is to say a lot, this compendium provides an outstanding repertoire of vetted, comprehensive, up-to-date theoretical and practical knowledge that provides intellectual tools for those who are, or will be, active in changing the world by making its products and services more available to all who could benefit from them