For me, accessibility was a game changer in thinking about the purpose of design.
As a starving musician, I stumbled into design in the course of trying to put food on the table. Without a design education I was never quite sure of what design was all about. As an interaction designer, I was torn between delighting the eye and quietly helping people on their way — both visible and invisible, imposing and encouraging, shouting, “Look at me!” and murmuring, “You’re on the right track.” I muddled along, confused.
In 2001 I attended a Nercomp conference on Web Accessibility and presented a talk called “Practical Accessibility in Web Page Design.” This was my second presentation on the topic, the first a few months earlier at another higher ed/IT conference. Web accessibility was new to me and new to higher education.
Before lunch, Gerald Neufeld, PhD, gave a talk called “Visually-Impaired Students and the Struggle to Survive.” Dr Neufeld is visually impaired, and he described his time as a student, listening to texts on reel-to-reel tapes. He said that he could not afford to listen to a book more than once because of the time it took. He contrasted his pre-digital experience with his current experience of reading online, demonstrating the unimaginably fast reading speed he uses with his screen reader. He spoke of how digital technologies have leveled the playing field, removing obstacles such as reading and writing time for people with visual disabilities. “In 1980, the mountain I was climbing had no end. Twenty years later, that mountain is no more.”
Dr Neufeld was a compelling storytelling. I felt his frustration and distress, and worried with him about keeping up with such compromised access to primary materials. I also felt worry transform into delight at the world of opportunity presented by electronic texts, and software to read them. And while his access was much improved by electronic documents, he had stories to tell of obstacles he encountered, such as image-based PDFs. I felt discouraged by obstacles that could so easily have been avoided — opportunities that were so close, yet still so far.
Empathy is a powerful learning tool. Dr Neufeld told stories in such a way that encouraged others to step into his shoes and broaden their knowledge and understanding of the world. From Dr Neufeld I learned that the purpose of design is delivering content and functionality, without obstacles, to as many people as possible.