Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Editor’s Note: Why Usable Accessibility?

Say the word “accessibility” in a room full of usability professionals and you will get many reactions. For some it’s a cause. To others, it’s yet another requirement that has to be met. For many of the authors in this issue, it is simply part of usability. The ISO 9241-20 standard agrees, defining accessibility as “the usability of a product, service, environment, or facility by people with the widest range of capabilities.”

It’s easy to recite the challenges in making the Web and information technology accessible to all. Despite a strong body of knowledge on eliminating barriers, too many websites, applications, and phones are not accessible. Too many in our field believe accessibility can stifle innovation. Accessibility is not just the right thing to do. It can be an economic and social lifeline.

The economics of international development affect access to the Internet, as Alice Preston writes in her article about working on a science project in Africa. Web services are much more usable and accessible with a fast connection. It’s easy to forget that bandwidth is not free.

For many, to have a disability is to be poor. According to a survey in the UK, people on low income are twice as likely to have a disability as those with above average income. Adding to the problem, assistive technologies such as screen readers, can be expensive.

Socially, assistive technology can reduce the impact of a disability, making it easier for some 650 million people to participate fully in society. To paraphrase the popular cartoon, on the Internet no one knows you have a disability.

Sometimes the barriers persist simply because no one has paid attention to removing them. Karen Mardhal shares how the Society for Technical Communications (STC) created an accessibility guide for their annual conference. The guide grew from a niche product to one that benefits a much larger audience.

Another trend is an expanding and inclusive view of who “accessibility” can help. Shawn Henry writes about the many projects at the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) that look at the benefits of accessibility for older adults, people on limited bandwidth, and users of mobile devices such as Blio, a book reader for visual disabilities now moving into a mainstream market. Two articles look at usability for people with cognitive disabilities or who do not read well.

When we look at disability as social rather than medical, we include cultural factors. Jungmin Kang and Sunjae Kim’s article on social networks for seniors is based on people living in Korea today. Those experiences may be different for seniors in other places and at other times.

There are signs of progress. On the political front, Axel Leblois reports in “The View from Here” that countries representing 70 percent of the world’s population have signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

For all the progress, even products that meet basic requirements can still be frustratingly difficult to use. As usability professionals, we know a little bit about frustration and how to eliminate it. All of our skills and methods work just as well for people with disabilities. The articles in this issue explore how we can do that.

Kate Walser suggests that we may have the equation backwards. Instead of seeing accessibility as a checklist item, she shows how addressing accessibility objectives can help us tackle some “squirrely UX challenges.” Maybe you want to include people with disabilities in your regular usability testing program. Mary Utt has some ideas that can help you get started. If you think that virtual worlds like Second Life can’t be accessible, Kel Smith offers some reasons to think again.

Usability professionals have an opportunity to be leaders, taking a broad view of usability as including people of all abilities and insuring that our products don’t create barriers.