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Accessibility is for Everyone


Accessibility is for everyone. I say that whenever an abled person finds a way that an accessibility feature benefits them. But that’s not all that it means. There are really three different meanings to that phrase:

  • Accessibility exists to make things accessible to everyone.
  • At some point, everyone has some kind of impairment which accessibility can help them with.
  • Changes that make things more accessible can be useful, convenient, or just plain fun, even for people who are 100% unimpaired.

Is this article for everyone?

This is a bare-bones outline of ways accessibility is for everyone, with a few lists of examples from my personal experience, and not much prose. This topic is fractal, though, and like a Koch Snowflake, even its outline could extend to infinite length. I’ve linked to more in-depth references where I knew of them, but tried not to go too far into detail on how to make things accessible. There are much better references for that — let me know of the ones you like in the comments.

I am not everyone

Although I do face mobility challenges in the physical world, as a software developer, I know the most about accessibility as it applies to computers. Within that, I have most experience with text-to-speech, so a lot of the examples relate to that. I welcome comments on aspects I missed. I am not an expert on accessibility, but I’d like to be.

The accessibility challenges that affect me the most are:

  • A lack of fluency in the language of the country I live in
  • Being short (This sounds harmless, but I once burnt my finger slightly because my microwave is mounted above my line of sight.)
  • Cerebral palsy spastic diplegia

That last thing does not actually affect how I use computers very much, but it is the reason I’ve had experience with modern computers from a young age.

Accessibility makes things accessible to everyone

Accessibility is for everyone — it allows everyone to use or take part in something, not just people with a certain range of abilities. This is the real goal of accessibility, and this alone is enough to justify improving accessibility. The later points in this article might help to convince people to allocate resources to accessibility, but always keep this goal in mind.

Ideally, everyone should be able to use a product without asking for special accommodations. If not, there should be a plan to accommodate those who ask, when possible. At the very least, nobody should be made to feel like they’re being too demanding just for asking for the same level of access other people get by default. Accessibility is not a feature — lack of accessibility is a bug.

Don’t make people ask

If some people have to ask questions when others don’t, the product is already less accessible to them — even if you can provide everything they ask for. This applies in a few scenarios:

  • Asking for help to use the product (e.g. help getting into a building, or using a app)
  • Asking for help accessing the accessibility accommodations. For example, asking for the key for an elevator, or needing someone else to configure the accessibility settings in software. Apple does a great job of this by asking about accessibility needs, with the relevant options turned on, during installation of macOS.
  • Asking about the accommodations available to find out if something is accessible to them before wasting time, spoons, or money on it. Make this information publicly available, e.g. on the website of your venue or event, or in your app’s description. Here’s a guide on writing good accessibility information.

Asking takes time and effort, and it can be difficult and embarrassing, whether because someone has to ask many times a day, or because they don’t usually need help and don’t like acknowledging when they do. 

In software, ‘making people ask’ is making them set up accessibility in your app when they’ve already configured the accessibility accommodations they need in the operating system. Use the system settings, rather than having your own settings for font size, dark mode, and so on. If the user has to find your extra settings before they can even use your app, there’s a good chance they won’t. Use system components as much as possible, and they’ll respect accessibility options you don’t even know about.

If they ask, have an answer

Perhaps you don’t have the resources to provide certain accommodations to everyone automatically, or it doesn’t make sense to. In that case:

  • make it clear what is available.
  • make asking for it as easy as possible (e.g. a checkbox or text field on a booking form, rather than instructions to call somebody)
  • make an effort to provide whatever it is to those who ask for it.

Assume the person really does need what they’re asking for — they know their situation better than you do.

If the answer is ‘no, sorry’, be compassionate about it

If you can’t make something accessible to a given group of people, don’t feel bad; we all have our limitations. But don’t make those people feel bad either — they have their limitations too, and they’re the ones missing out on something because of it. Remember that they’re only asking for the same thing everyone else gets automatically — they didn’t choose to need help just to annoy you.

If you simply didn’t think about their particular situation, talk with them about steps you could take. Don’t assume you know what they can or can’t do, or what will help them.

Everyone can be impaired

Accessibility is for everyone. But just like how even though all lives matter it is unfortunately still necessary to remind some people that black lives do, to achieve accessibility for everyone, we need to focus on the people who don’t get it by default. So who are they?

Apple’s human interface guidelines for accessibility say this better than I could:

Approximately one in seven people worldwide have a disability or impairment that affects the way they interact with the world and their devices. People can experience impairments at any age, for any duration, and at varying levels of severity. Situational impairments — temporary conditions such as driving a car, hiking on a bright day, or studying in a quiet library — can affect the way almost everyone interacts with their devices at various times.

Almost everyone.

This section will mostly focus on accessibility of devices such as computers, tablets, and phones. It’s what I know best, and malfunctioning hardware can be another source of impairment. Even if you don’t consider yourself disabled, if you haven’t looked through the accessibility settings of your devices yet, do so — you’re sure to find something that will be useful to you in some situations. I’ll list some ways accessibility can help with hardware issues and other situational impairments below.

Apple defines four main kinds of impairment:

Vision

There’s a big gap between someone with 20/20 full-colour vision in a well-lit room looking at an appropriately-sized, undamaged screen, and someone with no vision whatsoever. There’s even a big gap between someone who is legally blind and someone with no vision whatsoever. Whenever we are not at the most abled end of that spectrum, visual accessibility tools can help.

Here are some situations where I’ve used Vision accessibility settings to overcome purely situational impairments:

  • When sharing a screen over a videoconference or to a projector, use screen zoom, and large cursor or font sizes. On macOS when using a projector, you can also use Hover Text, however this does not show up when screensharing over a videoconference. This makes things visible to the audience regardless of the size of their videoconference window or how far they are from the projector screen.
  • When an internet connection is slow, or you don’t want to load potential tracking images in emails, image descriptions (alt text) let you know what you’re missing.
  • When a monitor doesn’t work until the necessary software is installed and configured, use a screenreader to get through the setup. I’ve done this on a Mac, after looking up how to use VoiceOver on another device.

Hearing

There’s a big gap between someone with perfect hearing and auditory processing using good speakers at a reasonable volume in an otherwise-quiet room, and someone who hears nothing at all. There’s even a big gap between someone who is Deaf and someone who hears nothing at all. Whenever we are not at the most abled end of that spectrum, hearing accessibility tools can help.

Here are some situations where I’ve used Hearing accessibility settings when the environment or hardware was the only barrier:

  • When one speaker is faulty, change the panning settings to only play in the working speaker, and turn on ‘Play stereo audio as mono’.
  • When a room is noisy or you don’t want to disturb others with sound, use closed captions.

Physical and Motor

There’s a big gap between someone with a full range of controlled, pain-free movement using a perfectly-functioning device, in an environment tailored to their body size, and someone who can only voluntarily twitch a single cheek muscle (sorry, but we can’t all be Stephen Hawking.) Whenever we are not at the most abled end of that spectrum, motor accessibility tools can help.

Here are some situations where you can use Physical and Motor accessibility to overcome purely situational impairments:

  • When a physical button on an iPhone doesn’t work reliably, use Back Tap, Custom Gestures, or the AssistiveTouch button to take over its function.
  • When you’re carrying something bulky, use an elevator. I’ve shared elevators with people who have strollers, small dogs, bicycles, suitcases, large purchases, and disabilities. I’ve also been yelled at by someone who didn’t think I should use an elevator, because unlike him, I had no suitcase. Don’t be that person.

Literacy and Learning

This one is also called Cognitive. There’s a big gap between an alert, literate, neurotypical adult of average intelligence with knowledge of the relevant environment and language, and… perhaps you’ve thought of a disliked public figure you’d claim is on the other end of this spectrum. There’s even a big gap between that person and the other end of this spectrum, and people in that gap don’t deserve to be compared to whomever you dislike. Whenever we are not at the most abled end of that spectrum, cognitive accessibility considerations can help.

Here are some situations where I’ve used accessibility when the environment was the only barrier to literacy:

  • When watching or listening to content in a language you know but are not fluent in, use closed captions or transcripts to help you work out what the words are, and find out the spelling to look them up.
  • When reading in a language you know but are not fluent in, use text-to-speech in that language to find out how the words are pronounced.
  • When consuming content in a language you don’t know, use subtitles or translations.

Accessibility features benefit abled people

Sometimes it’s hard to say what was created for the sake of accessibility and what wasn’t. Sometimes products for the general public bring in the funding needed to improve assistive technologies. Here are some widely-used things which have an accessibility aspect:

  • The Segway was based on self-balancing technology originally developed for wheelchairs. Segways and the like are still used by some people as mobility devices, even if they are not always recognised as such.
  • Voice assistants such as Siri rely on speech recognition and speech synthesis technology that has applications in all four domains of accessibility mentioned above.
  • Light or Dark mode may be a style choice for one person and an essential visual accessibility tool for another.

Other technology is more strongly associated with accessibility. Even when your body, your devices, or your environment don’t present any relevant impairment, there are still ways that these things can be useful, convenient, or just plain fun.

Useful

Some accessibility accommodations let abled people do things they couldn’t do otherwise.

  • Transcripts, closed captions, and image descriptions are easily searchable.
  • I’ve used text-to-speech APIs to generate the initial rhyme database for my rhyming dictionary, rhyme.science
  • I’ve used text-to-speech to find out how words are pronounced in different languages and accents.
  • Menstruators can use handbasins in accessible restroom stalls to rinse out menstrual cups in privacy. (This is not an argument for using accessible stalls when you don’t need them — it’s an argument for more handbasins installed in stalls!)

Convenient

Some accessibility tech lets abled people do things they would be able to do without it, but in a more convenient way.

  • People who don’t like switching between keyboard and mouse can enable full keyboard access on macOS to tab through all controls. They can also use keyboard shortcuts.
  • People who don’t want to watch an entire video to find out a piece of information can quickly skim a transcript.
  • I’ve used speak announcements on my Mac for decades. If my Mac announces something while I’m on the other side of the room, I know whether I need to get up and do something about it.
  • Meeting attendees could edit automatic transcripts from videoconferencing software (e.g. Live Transcription in Zoom) to make meeting minutes.
  • I’ve used text-to-speech on macOS and iOS to speak the names of emojis when I wasn’t sure what they were.
  • Pre-chopped produce and other prepared foods save time even for people who have the dexterity and executive function to prepare them themselves.

Fun

Some accessibility tech lets us do things that are not exactly useful, but a lot of fun.

  • Hosts of the Lingthusiasm podcast, Lauren Gawne and Gretchen McCulloch, along with Janelle Shane, fed transcripts of their podcasts into an artificial intelligence to generate a quirky script for a new episode, and then recorded that script.
  • I’ve used text-to-speech to sing songs I wrote that I was too shy to sing myself.
  • I’ve used text-to-speech APIs to detect haiku in any text.
  • Automated captions of video conferencing software and videos make amusing mistakes that can make any virtual party more fun. Once you finish laughing, make sure anyone who needed the captions knows what was really said. 
  • I may have used the ’say’ command on a server through an ssh connection to surprise and confuse co-workers in another room. 😏
  • I find stairs much more accessible if they have a handrail. You might find it much more fun to slide down the balustrade. 😁

Advocating accessibility is for everyone

I hope you’ve learnt something about how or why to improve accessibility, or found out ways accessibility can improve your own life. I’d like to learn something too, so put your own ideas or resources in the comments!

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