Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thinking About Accessibility

Morgan Watkins in his office
GDB Board member Morgan Watkins is a retired information technology director from the University of Texas at Austin. In his career, as in his daily life, he uses adaptive technology to accomplish routine tasks like surfing the internet, checking email, reading a book, etc. He's an expert on software accessibility, among other things. The following are exchanges from a couple of Morgan's colleagues on the topic of accessibility, including several informative videos on the subject.

From Daniel A. Updegrove, consultant on IT in higher education:
Whenever I walk through cities with my rolling suitcase behind me, I'm aware of how wonderful curb cuts are. (And I do this a fair amount these days, since I've found that walking from hotel to train or subway station can can take me past interesting parks, historical sites, contemporary architecture, and city life.)

But I don't think I ever would have understood the challenge of website/software accessibility if I hadn't worked in the same building with John and Morgan. Not only was I aware, on a daily basis, that my colleagues were sightless, but also they allowed me to observe and listen to their interactions with systems and services I was familiar with (the web, email, et al.) as well as assistive technology I wouldn't have known about or experienced (such as Jaws). One startling lesson was that John and Morgan could listen faster than I could read, whereas I'd assumed any long email or document put them at a significant disadvantage.

I wonder if the comparatively slow progress in deploying universal design on a broad scale is related to the fact that most designers, legislators, and purchasing managers have no understanding - or experience - of either disability or of the possibilities offered by assistive and universal design. Having done a lot of work over the years with models and simulation - and having been in a DC-10 simulator at FedEx headquarters in Memphis - I'm led to ask if it would be valuable to produce a set of disability and disability-remediation simulators that people could experience.

For example:
  • Make a cell phone call or order a book from Amazon with eyes closed
  • Navigate a website or city street that's recast as seen by someone who's color blind
  • Do ten everyday actions with your left hand, or with one hand, or ...
A high school friend of mine, now an MD, once walked around NYC with sliced up ping pong balls over his eyes to try to understand the experience of a blind pedestrian. People scoffed, "That's just Ted." Perhaps he was on to something.

From Glenda Sims, University of Texas at Austin, accessibility and web standards advocate:

Dan, you are right on target. I have found that often a few videos do the trick. A colleague of mine at University of Tennessee uses these videos to help her web design/developer classes understand the impact of accessibility. She says once her students have seen these videos they "just get it" and she never has to "sell accessibility" to them again. They become self-motivated to create accessibility as a standard part of all sites.

Links to videos; check them out to learn more:

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