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Category Archives: It’s not about the technology
Not a rigorous economic analysis, but a powerful consumer statement about hearing loss, technology, and what it takes to keep communication functioning. Another reminder that technology is only part of the picture — it’s those human beings who cause all the trouble!
A recent post on the great Fred’s Head blog (from the American Printing House for the Blind, Inc. — APH) points out that many companies and organizations seem to expect accessibility help from blind consumers for free. No doubt! One reason is that accessibility is as much a social movement as it is a field of technological expertise, and our evangelical zeal leads us to offer our advice freely, hoping that our audience will be ‘converted’ and join our movement. But even churches need money to sustain themselves. The technological expertise that some consumers have gained took time and effort on their part, and in order for it to continue and develop, it must be supported somehow. The companies and organizations that benefit from accessibility guidance have learned how to pay for other consulting services, and they should be encouraged to pay for this one.
There’s another side to the equation, though. Here’s what I’ve seen and heard about consumer experts that can undercut their otherwise righteous claim of professionalism:
- “I have disability X; I speak for all Xers everywhere.” We know there’s a range of severity of all disabilities, plus lots of individual differences in how people want to achieve access. Learning about this diversity will improve your ability to provide the good advice your clients deserve.
- “I have disability X; I speak for people with disability Y and Z.” You client may need advice across all disabilities. Learning about other disabilities and their typical needs and preferences increases your value greatly.
- “I won’t be satisfied until accessibility is as important to you as it is to me.” Your client may only be trying to make small accessibility improvements because accessibility is not their mission, which is selling more stuff, getting more members, whatever. They have many other things to be concerned about in the course of their work. The more you respect their mission and the way they go about it, the more valuable your services are.
The new version of the Access Wireless website is fantastic — you can search for phones with the features you need by disability category, manufacturer, even wireless carrier. Although not every manufacturer and model shows up, there is lots of detailed information that will definitely help you make a purchasing decision.
So much for the ‘pre-sale’ experience. What about ‘post-sale’? Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to see all the tips and tricks that disabled users have discovered or invented, for each model in the database? And reviews and comparisons by expert consumers? That’d spark an online co-development dialogue, focused on solutions, that could really drive innovation in accessibility.
A recent Pew Internet survey finds that 2% of US adults have a disability that makes using the Internet harder or impossible; 8% of people with disabilities report this problem. There’s some more detail and an online dialogue about the study. Pew will be releasing more reports soon.
Meanwhile, the UK Ofcom 2009 report on consumer experience finds that 7% of the total population, and about 20% of people with disabilities, have difficulty using a computer (which is not quite the same as the Internet, of course, but pretty close).
There may be many reasons for the disparity, but both studies are moving us closer to what industry and advocates need: a clear picture of how many people are disadvantaged by inaccessible technologies, down to a level of detail that will help designers and consumers.
By the way, another statistical tool that also helps frame the role of design decisions in inclusion is the aptly named Exclusion Calculator from the University of Cambridge Engineering Design Centre.
Update: the Ofcom 2010 Consumer Experience report shows an even disparity between disabled and non-disabled users regarding difficulty using a computer (see Table 206).
Here’s an interesting report on what might be called “accessibility backsliding”: http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/17483100903387424. Apparently some universities improve their web accessibility at one point in time (often when they have external training and support), but then fall behind when the external support goes away or internal motivation fades, and when new technologies jeopardize access, unbeknowst to the developers.
Add to this a study of Greek public websites that seem to have declined in accessibility over a 4-year period, possibly due to having more inaccessible Flash and uncaptioned videos: http://www.springerlink.com/content/l23x52751j3v1557/?p=c1456fad679f4d79bf353d68ae78e12d&pi=5
and we may come to question any assumptions about continual progess. Accessibility tools are definitely improving, so it’s probably true that it’s easy to create sites with exemplary accessibility, and maybe there are more such sites than there used to be. But it may also be true that the continuum is stretching out in the other direction at the same time: there are more inaccessible sites than there used to be, and their number is growing faster.
(Of course, this all raises the question of what an “accessible site” is, but I’m going to leave that alone for now.)
What if we were to think of inaccessibility as analogous to an infectious epidemic? We have infectious agents — web technologies — that are both permeating the environment and rapidly mutating. We have populations, most of which are immune but some of which are susceptible to the inaccessible features. We have some individuals and organizations performing the role of medical researchers: identifying new jeopardies, developing diagnostic tests and clinical solution, and they are under-resourced. But we have almost no one scanning the entire environment from a “public health” perspective: how many new cases, what is the rate of cure of different treatments, etc.
We know that all the assistive technology compatibility and built-in accessibility features don’t mean a thing if the user never learns about them. Retail has often been the Bermuda Triangle of accessibility. The bottom-line fever of the undertrained, commission-driven sales staff makes customized service unlikely. Now Computers Made Easy in Fort Worth offers another model of retail. It caters to people with disabilities and the rest of us who nervously wonder if we can operate the latest gadget or program. The name alone is relaxing! Let’s hope this becomes a chain, and reminds its big box brethren that customers come in all shapes and sizes.