Being different is no reason to be excluded.
Spend more than five minutes in the company of accessibility guru Helen Burge and you will realize that she doesn’t mince her words when it comes to assessing how companies, manufacturers and developers handle digital accessibility issues in 2015. To put it bluntly … common sense is in very short supply when it comes to ensuring that apps and devices are designed for everybody.
As an acknowledged expert in accessibility testing, Burge deals with companies and testers on a daily basis who, in her opinion, are not testing with every end user in mind and don’t understand the accessibility bottlenecks that can exist on both mobile and Web platforms. For Burge, the answer is obvious—companies need to keep it simple.
In other words, remember that not every user has the same abilities.
Accessibility is a legal mandate that relates to the development of products, devices or environments for those with disabilities. It has two distinct aspects – direct access and indirect access.
Direct access means that an individual can use the product etc without assistance, while indirect access refers to compatibility with that individual’s assistive technology—screen readers, for example.
Access to our constantly evolving digital world on 24/7 basis is so ingrained in modern society that it is easy to forget over the plain truth that there are hundreds of millions of people who are disenfranchised through no fault of their own. Tech companies know that they are there and make every effort to cater to their requirements, but the reality is that universal inclusion can be an illusion.
Disability Is Not Always A Disease
The World Health Organization has said that there are over a billion people in the world that have some form of identified disability, a figure that equates to around 15% of the total population. These disabilities cover a vast range of conditions—not limited to health or age—and impact how an individual functions in every aspect of daily life.
Before the Internet, the Web, computers, smartphones, tablets and any other device that requires sight, sound, touch or manipulation, being able to function efficiently in multiple life areas did not rely solely on technology. Individuals who were classed as disabled could interact in any number of ways. Wheelchair users, for example, could enter an office or retail store via a legally mandated access ramp, sign language allowed the deaf to communicate and braille was a universal language for the blind.
In the digital world, it is not that simple.
The U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities says that access to information and communication technology is a basic human right. That right takes on a significant amount of importance when assessing how accessible a device or app actually is when it enters the real world.
In 2015, deaf does not mean being able to hear nothing at all. Blindness covers a range of visual abilities, disabled is just differently-abled and restricted mobility can still allow degrees of movement.
Being disabled can trap an individual in their own body. Essentially he or she has limited opportunities for “normal” activity and are restricted in terms of participation. Having any form of disability is hard enough in the physical sense, but if you take into account the increased reliance society has on the digital and mobile world then it becomes even more important to make sure that barriers are kept to a bare minimum.
Accessibility Allows Individuals To Function
The WHO estimates that between 110 million and 190 million adults face functional challenges every day of their lives and this figure is not likely to diminish in the near future. Disability is not limited to those who are currently impaired, rather it is a universal condition that has no set path or pattern in terms of who it can affect or even when it becomes an issue.
Slate reports that the National Council on Disability tweeted in December 2014 that 25% of people would acquire a disability during their working lives … although only 2% of respondents to a NCD survey thought it would happen to them at all.
Given the figures, the challenges facing developers and device manufacturers become more pronounced. About 92% of people who have a current registered disability own at least one mobile device and are likely to access the Internet on a regular basis.
Making the Internet available to all requires the removal of potential obstacles which rely heavily on Web and mobile accessibility. It would be reasonable to assume that companies and app developers would be aware of their responsibilities to all end users and not just the ones that are relatively able-bodied. Sadly, this is not often the case.
Usability Is Not Accessibility
According to Burge, the main reason why app publishers often neglect accessibility issues is because technology companies and developers don’t take accessibility into account until the very last minute. In Burge’s opinion, they then confuse the need for accessibility with overall usability. In an interview with ARC*, Burge said testing was always the last part of any project, but accessibility was “ultra last.”
Usability is a subjective medium. People think that because it is under the same user experience umbrella [in development], we can apply those principles to accessibility. Basically, because usability is subjective and it comes down to what people think and how they feel things should be … their own opinion is all they focus on. They translate that to accessibility and they think it is the same … when in actual fact it is not. In accessibility it is either pass or fail.
The idea of pass or fail seems simple but is at the core of accessibility criteria for developers and device manufacturers. If you were to actually ask them on what side of the fence they believed they were on, then it is extremely likely that they would opt for a passing grade at the very least. Ask the same question to the millions of disabled people that use mobile devices, desktop browsers and any other product that supposedly has assistive technology and you would probably get a different answer.
Founder and director of the W3C Sir Tim Berners-Lee (i.e., the man who created the Web) has said that the power of the Web lies in it’s universality and that access to the Web should not be affected by disability or end user limitations. Equal participation is no longer just a requirement but a mandate for how society deals with the demands of a population that has different needs and abilities.
So the question must be asked … why is accessibility the last consideration in the mobile and digital spaces? The answer may lie in how companies and developers view the end user.
App Developers Should Address Every User
Think about the devices that most people use on a daily basis—smartphones, tablets, phablets, desktop computers and wearables. All of these means of accessing the Web or communicating are by their very nature … different. None of them are a one-size-fits-all device and that is where making time for accessibility concerns can be a problem.
Android app developers know that there are over 24,000 devices in the marketplace that can potentially run their app. The number of end users that can be reached is staggering and that sheer volume of individuals means that app developers tailor their build for the majority of users and not the minority. iOS developers don’t have the same level of device fragmentation but there are over 1.5 billion apps in the App Store and (again) millions of end users to think about.
With so many users, app developers and companies could be forgiven for leaving accessibility to one side while building an app. Dealing with accessibility last is not the issue that frustrates accessibility advocates. Instead, the concerns stem from the fact that all the resources a developer needs to either comply with accessibility legislation or produce a truly accessible app are hidden in plain sight.
The Web Accessibility Initiative (from the W3C) has published Web Content Accessibility Guidelines that specify the areas that should be addressed in order to make all Web content accessible. The Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative has published an exhaustive set of criteria for Android app developers that will tell them if their app is accessible or not to any user with vision, hearing, speech, cognition or mobility impairments. And these are just two of the resources that developers can access.
Removing Barriers Through Education
Making information available and providing resources is only one half of the equation—the rest is education and awareness. Burge said that developers often make apps over-complicated just so that they look good on a device and don’t take into account the people—both able-bodied and disabled—that will actually use them. Flash sites, say, can bring on epileptic seizures and color contrast ratios are not restricted to the color blind.
Accessibility is not an issue that has been swept under the carpet by leading device manufacturers. Apple, Google and Microsoft all have websites dedicated to how accessibility features work across all their products and guidelines for app developers and businesses to make sure they meet the needs of all end users within a designated community.
At the very least, making an app accessible to all is a sensible business decision. Accessibility is not only about the end user but also the tools that make our lives easier and everyone wants those tools. For any app developers who want an insight into how their app will perform in the real world, appealing to the differently-abled end user would be a good place to start.
*Disclosure: Helen Burge is a paid consultant for ARC’s parent company Applause.
Image: “Senior WordPress User,” by Flickr User Michael Cannon, Creative Commons
Middle and Fourth Image: “Keith, avid iPhone user,” by Flickr user Nick Sherman, Creative Commons
Third Image: “Sir Tim Berners-Lee,” by Flickr user Southbank Centre, Creative Commons