Accessibility: What It Is And What It Isn’t

I’d be hard pressed to overstate the importance of accessible technology. The world leans so heavily on it that excluding any group from its use borders on injustice and is, at best, an unwise move. Accessibility makes good business sense. It widens audiences. It generates glowing publicity. It raises awareness. In short, it’s a win-win for basically everyone.

Unfortunately, it appears that some people with disabilities, and blind people in particular—the population I know best—have lost perspective. Accessibility is, at its core, a goal that demands that products be designed with as many people in mind as possible. Ideally, a blind person playing with, say, a new feature of Facebook should be capable of accessing it. Put another way, accessibility simply means that every button is labeled, every graphic is described, at least in simple terms, every link is clickable, and every menu is navigable via means other than the mouse. This does not even begin to scratch the surface of accessibility for all populations, but it’s a fairly comprehensive list of the things blind people hope for and expect from technology. The cost of inaccessible software alone can be devastating. It’s a real slog to mess with vital services that are inaccessible, like government websites and debit machines.

All this being said, accessibility is not inherently synonymous with ease of use. Obviously it is in everyone’s best interest that products be easy to use; user-friendly products make good sense, after all, in a world so driven by productivity. However, an app or website does not need to be a dream to use in order to be accessible. An app might be a little difficult to figure out at first, because it has an unfamiliar interface or a button whose function is not immediately and glaringly obvious. Maybe the documentation is low-quality and support lacking.

Even so, this does not mean the app or website is universally impossible to access. There are many programs I use often that other blind people consider partially or totally inaccessible, not because they are, but because it takes a little fiddling to get them to work. Unfamiliar interfaces are not inaccessible by default. User-unfriendly apps are not inaccessible by default. The world certainly owes all disabled populations a reasonably accessible environment, but it does not owe them a perfect, effortless experience. We fight so many legitimate battles over accessibility, so we cannot waste energy screaming over features that are merely tricky or troublesome, not inaccessible outright. I don’t believe that we ought to shut up and be grateful, but it is worth taking a few steps back, and remembering what accessibility is (and what it isn’t).

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