Accessibility = Flexibility

This is the first in a series of guest blogs we’re planning over the next few weeks. Dr. Simon Harper is a Lecturer in the Information Management Group of the School of Computer Science at the University of Manchester. Since January 2006 he has been a member of the School of Computer Science in the position of Career Development Fellow in the Human Centred Web; a lab involved in the experimentation of accessibility technology, visual attention, and the Web to address the problems of Web accessibility. In short, Dr. Simon Harper is a man who knows what he’s talking about, so when he agreed to come to our blog and share his expertise on accessibility, we were quite pleased.  So without further ado, here is Simon’s blog entry. Follow him on twitter @sharpic.

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Ask any well informed Web developer to rate how important Web accessibility is, and I’d expect most to rank it high. Ask them why, and I’d expect most to talk about disabled users, altruism, and the law. An enlightened few may talk about the business case, or expand on the many technical advantages of making their sites accessible. As a professional developer you’ll know that many disabled users consider the Web to be a primary source for information, employment and entertainment. Indeed, from questioning and contact with many disabled users I have discovered that the importance of the Web cannot be under-estimated.

‘For me being online is everything. Its my hi-fi, my source of income, my supermarket, my telephone. Its my way in.’

This quote, taken from a blind user, sums up the sentiments I experience when talking with many disabled users, and drives home the importance of Web accessibility in the context of independent living. Indeed, by making sites accessible we help people live more productive lives, a view shared by Jef Raskin, creator of the Macintosh GUI for Apple Computer; inventor of SwyftWare via the Canon Cat; and author of ‘The Humane Interface’.

‘Humans are variously skilled and part of assuring the accessibility of technology consists of seeing that an individual’s skills match up well with the requirements for operating the technology. There are two components to this; training the human to accommodate the needs of the technology and designing the technology to meet the needs of the human. The better we do the latter, the less we need of the former.’

Indeed, it may surprise many designers and developers to know that when they are developing accessible code they are also, more then likely, developing aesthetically pleasing code too. But this shouldn’t be the most basic motivator for Web accessibility. Indeed, developers should also understand that accessible means mobile, or as Sears and Young put it, situational. The notion of the situationally-induced impairment, by which they do not mean an actual impairment of the person directly, but indirectly by the computational device or the environment in which it must be used. They point out that able-bodied individuals can be affected by both the environment in which they are working and the activities in which they are engaged, resulting in situationally-induced impairments. For example, an individual’s typing performance may decrease in a cold environment in which one’s finger does not bend easily due to extended exposure at low temperature, or the similarities between physical usability issues on both small-devices, such as a Mobile Telephone, Personal Digital Assistant, or any other hand-held device with a small keyboard and display, and accessible interaction scenarios. This means that by making your Web site accessible you can transfer accessibility solutions into the mobile and situational context. It’s a lot easier to make a Web page mobileOK if it is already accessible.

This support for the situational impairment, through flexibility, adaptability, and the ability to personalise the content, in other words transformable content, is important for access in developing regions too. Web use in developing regions is currently characterised by constrained operating modalities. Slow speed, low computational power, reduced bandwidth, compact keyboards, small screens, and limited power, all compound the problem of access and inclusion. In addition, interaction is sometimes without conventional written language and illiteracy is also a barrier to information and services. However, the benefits of Web technology are so great that the peoples of these regions often adopt resourceful methods of interaction and access sometimes repurposing Web resources so that they are put to a different use than for which they were intended. The most obvious example was noted when Nokia sent a team to Africa and realised that people where using mobile phones, able to connect to a carrier or not, as a torch. There is also the well known use of Pringle tubes to direct a single point of wifi around a village community.

Understanding that content must be transformable also supports users at home who are conventionally excluded. Currently, the opportunities created by Web technologies are not enjoyed by the whole of society, indeed, there is a strong correlation between Web exclusion and social exclusion. There are significant and untapped opportunities to use the Web better on behalf of citizens, communities, and digitally disenfranchised groups. However to achieve inclusion, systems must be created seeing the human factor, not as an adjunct, but as a part of an integrated solution from the outset. We know that the multiplicity and ubiquity of devices and their interfaces are key to successful inclusion, households may very well have a games console or digital television, but no general purpose computer system. Being able to deliver content to any device, and support the users needs as opposed to the developers is key to making good Web resources which will be used, and which matter to real people.

Accessibility is not just about disability, if anything it is more about flexibility of mind at every level of the construction process from commissioning, through design and build, and on to evaluation. Accessibility accentuates good design and adaptability which helps future proof your sites against changes in guidelines, recommendations, and design. By making your sites accessible you also make them flexible.

Simon Harper