Tag Archives: accessibility

Let’s talk about disabilities, technology, and design

We don’t always know what words to use when talking about disabilities, and this keeps us from having important conversations and making progress.

We all have disabilities. Those of us who fall into the category of  “disabled” are people whose conditions are considered limiting enough to need accommodations in order to be self-sufficient and live independently. That said, the disabling effect of conditions can be dependent on context.

Disability becomes a handicap only when we encounter barriers.
—George Covington and Bruce Hannah, Access by Design

Design can make a condition disabling—or irrelevant. And technology has a huge role to play in minimizing barriers. We must be able to talk about disabilities without letting awkwardness about language get in the way.

Minimizing language barriers

We all want to be considered for who we are, not only our age, gender, clothes, or hair color. A disability is one attribute of many. It does not define a person.

People-first language is a concept that emphasizes the person first—“people with disabilities” versus “disabled people,” “person who uses a wheelchair” versus “wheelchair-bound.” It also minimizes negative connotations of disability—“disabled” versus “handicapped,” a person “with muscular dystrophy” versus “afflicted by muscular dystrophy.” Using a people-first approach when talking about disabilities may help alleviate concern about saying the wrong words.

The people-first approach is based on a conceptual framework of placing the actor (“person”) before the attribute (“who is blind”). There are other schools of thought, including inclusive language in the UK.

The table below is adapted from the helpful Resource Guide for Teaching Students with Disabilities (PDF) from Cornell University. The purpose of the table is to demonstrate the difference between affirmative and negative phrases, and to show a “people-first” framework for talking about disabilities.

Words matter and people matter. But let’s not let hesitancy about using the right words keep us from talking about how to minimize disability through technology and design.

Affirmative phrases Negative phrases
Disability, disabled Defect, crippled, handicapped, invalid
Non-disabled, person who does not have a disability Normal, able-bodied
Person who is blind, person who is visually impaired, person with low vision The blind
Person who is deaf, person who is hearing impaired, person who is hard of hearing, person who has hearing loss Suffers from hearing loss, deaf
Person who has multiple sclerosis Afflicted with multiple sclerosis, suffers from multiple sclerosis, victim of multiple sclerosis
Person with epilepsy, person with a seizure disorder Epileptic
Person with depression Suffers from depression
Person who uses a wheelchair, wheelchair user Wheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair
Person who is unable to speak, nonverbal Dumb, mute
Person of short stature, person who has dwarfism Dwarf, midget
Person who stutters Stutterer

Table adapted from Cornell University Resources Guide for Teaching Students with Disabilities (PDF) section on “Communicating with People with Disabilities”

Organizations, accessibility, and change

In the past years I’ve often found myself in the role of change agent—someone responsible for advancing new ways of doing things. It’s the most challenging role I’ve ever held, and I’ve reflected quite a bit on what works and what doesn’t. More recently I’ve been in the role of assisting other change agents. I have had to move beyond reflection to being able to articulate beliefs, approaches, and methods.

The expression “herding cats” had to have been coined by a change agent. It’s hard work, advancing a new program or belief—particularly one that is not widely valued within the community. Getting a group of freethinking individuals headed in the same direction can require coaxing, cajoling, and treats.

Not everyone is inclined to cat herding. I’m more of a dog person, myself, and believe effective change management needs more of a pack approach, with clearly defined roles and strong leadership.

Here I outline some key factors that influence success in leading and governing change to integrate accessibility into culture and practice within an organization.

Define and observe roles and responsibilities

For the Harvard Web Publishing Initiative we started each new project with a project charter. One of the key components of the charter was a section on project governance, where we identified roles. To create the governance matrix we asked questions like, Who has the authority to initiate the project? Who has the authority to approve the design? Who is responsible for defining the strategic direction? Who is responsible for the quality of the content? Who is accountable for misinformation? We required that they identify one person in answer to each question.

Projects worked best when these three attributes came together—when the person responsible for taking action also had the authority to make decisions and was accountable for the result—for example, when the person responsible for developing content also had authority to make decisions about content strategy and was accountable for misinformation. Projects that were more difficult to bring to fruition were those where the roles were divided among team members, or where the understanding of defined roles was not clear, or the roles were not universally accepted and heeded. All the projects in the initiative were successful in the end, but in some cases, progress was more challenging.

For accessibility to be successfully integrated into an organization, everyone involved in making decisions that affect accessibility needs to understand their role and responsibilities, and appreciate how their decisions affect the ability of others in meeting their responsibilities. Starting from a governance structure that everyone understands—and believes in—is a key step in advancing toward a practice of accessibility.

Confer authority along with responsibility

At The Paciello Group, or TPG, we help organizations achieve and sustain accessibility in their digital product and service offerings. I would characterize many of these efforts as “disruptive” in the sense that accessibility is not always universally valued, within the organization or in the market it serves.

That said, in many cases accessibility is a requirement, and there is a growing understanding within product development that, while retrofitting for accessibility may meet obligations, it is costly and the result is not satisfying for anyone—the equivalent of putting a wooden ramp on the side of a building to provide access. Instead of waiting until QA to consider accessibility, product development teams are taking a more mature approach to accessibility, and are looking to increase their knowledge and skills, and embed accessibility into their processes from the start.

Because this shift in approach requires organizational change, one person typically leads the activity. The role is often characterized as an “accessibility evangelist”—a person responsible for organizing the effort, raising awareness, providing training and resources, reviewing products and identifying accessibility issues for repair. This is usually not a senior role within the organization. It is often someone in an existing role within the organization who has an interest in supporting people with disabilities.

I remember one of my good friends, Professor Mark Williams, commenting to me at some point when I was at Dartmouth, “So you have been given lots of responsibility and no authority.” I don’t recall the specific project he was referencing. Many of my projects relied on my ability to persuade people of the validity of taking a certain path, and the strength of the commitment of the community. But his observation helped me understand at least one reason why the work was so difficult.

Now that I am advising organizations on how to advance accessibility, I believe one key is to move away from roles that have responsibility but no authority, and that rely on persuasion and good will to be successful. Accessibility means changing values and culture. To successfully shepherd a community through fundamental changes, we need to give the people with responsibility for making things happen the authority to make decisions.

Assign accountability for accessibility

With authority and responsibility come accountability. Accessibility in practice requires significant change to processes and skillsets. It also involves making accessibility a “non-negotiable” requirement, on par with security and privacy. Those responsible for implementing accessibility in practice must also be given the authority to make decisions that influence its success, and must be held accountable when products are released with features that do not comply with accessibility standards, and are found to be inaccessible.

Moving from assigning an “accessibility evangelist” to making someone accountable for inaccessible products is quite a leap. Very few organizations have raised their accessibility program to such a stature. A search for “Chief Accessibility Officer” on LinkedIn returned seven (7) results. But organizations that are truly committed to building accessible products would be wise to make the leap.

Because what’s the likelihood of getting a herd of cats to go in the same direction? By identifying a person who can lead the initiative— someone who has the authority to define roles and responsibilities and who is responsible for ensuring accessibility obligations are met—organizations can take long strides verses short, incremental steps toward building a culture and practice that supports accessibility.

In the meantime, back in the real world…

As noted, not many organizations have made accessibility a “chief” concern. I think we will see more of this level of commitment in the coming years. In my opinion we should be appointing Chief Experience Officers with accountability for accessibility as part of providing a quality user experience. But that’s a topic for another day.

In the meantime, how do we make organizational progress toward building capacity and support for accessibility, without leadership and governance?

BJ Fogg has a “flip book” that I love called Designing for Lasting Change. It’s a great source of insight and inspiration, confirming the value of “baby steps” and providing encouragement to hold fast in advocating for radical change. I highly recommend giving it a read, and keeping it close at hand.

Here are some thoughts for baby steps:

  • Look for projects and initiatives where accessibility can hitch a ride, such as quality initiatives, responsive web design, or website or app redesigns. If people are looking at some aspect of a product or practice with an eye toward improvement, accessibility fits in perfectly, as an improvement that benefits people with disabilities—and everyone else.
  • Find places where accessibility fits into existing resources. Do you have a style guide? Weave accessibility best practices in with other styles and conventions. How about training materials? Integrate accessibility guidance as just another competency.
  • If you are involved in any way in hiring decisions, push to make accessibility part of position responsibilities, and evaluate candidates on their accessibility knowledge and experience.

As BJ Fogg notes, “Don’t underestimate the concept of small changes.” Incremental steps put people on the path to bigger changes. Making accessibility easy and part of existing practice will build momentum and lead to more significant changes.

Year in Review: A Web for Everyone and Accessible UX

It’s been a year since I made the leap from higher education to a job in accessibility at The Paciello Group, or TPG as we are more commonly known. Here in my anniversary post I reflect on some of the good stuff that’s happened this past year.

Whitney Quesenbery and I completed our book, A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences, and Rosenfeld Media sent it out into the world in January 2014. We’ve been getting great feedback about how accessible and usable the book is, which is just what we were shooting for—to make accessibility approachable and achievable. There’s an excerpt from the interaction chapter at A List Apart and the personas are on UX Magazine.

We included interviews in the book, which we really enjoyed doing—chatting with people in the accessibility community about topics near and dear. We wanted to keep doing that so we launched A Podcast for Everyone, with help from Rosenfeld Media, UIE, TPG, and O’Reilly. We plan to keep cranking out episodes every two weeks, indefinitely.

My work at TPG has been intense—in a good way. I started out doing technical reviews of websites, web applications, mobile sites and apps, desktop apps, even telephone services. With my TPG colleagues—the best accessibility mentors in the world (and who are, incidentally, located all over the world)—readily available in my Skype window, I learned a ton about the technical underpinnings of accessibility in digital products and services. I continue to learn new things from my colleagues every day. Today I learned about taps, swipes, and other touch events from Patrick Lauke.

The other focus of my work at TPG has been on building out a practice of Accessible User Experience. TPG has been doing user research activities for a long time, and when I came on board I was tasked with formalizing and building out those services. Fortunately, TPG hired David Sloan around the same time as they hired me. Dave worked for many years as a researcher, teacher, and consultant at the University of Dundee and is an expert the impact of accessibility on user experience. We’ve been reviewing mockups, wireframes, and prototypes to advise on accessibility implications at the design phase. We had several user research engagements, doing stakeholder interviews and usability studies. We have a series of Accessible User Experience training webinars that teach ways to bring accessibility into UX activities. We had a really interesting and challenging engagement creating a roadmap for integrating accessibility into the culture of a large multinational.

Overall, it’s a great time to be working in accessibility with a focus on user experience. Companies are becoming more aware that accessibility cannot be addressed after-the-fact and result in an acceptable outcome for anyone. The costs are high, for producer and consumer. I look forward to continuing work with my TPG colleagues and the accessibility and user experience communities to bring accessibility into user experience, so that products and services are accessible and enjoyable for everyone.

A day job in web accessibility

I started learning about web accessibility in the early 2000s when I was asked to speak on the topic at a conference. Since that time I have had opportunities to develop my knowledge and expertise, but always as an adjunct to my day job. Web accessibility became a passion that I would weave into my other job responsibilities, and write and present about on my own time.

And I’ve had some really great day jobs, all in higher education, and all having something to do with designing and coding interaction. In recent years I’ve been less of a doer and more of a leader and strategist. I’ve had a great run in higher ed, with wonderful colleagues and countless opportunities to learn and grow. I am very grateful.

But! I have a new position as Director of Accessible User Experience and Design with The Paciello Group. A day job, doing accessibility! And accessible UX and design, to boot! And with TPG, working with colleagues who are the best in the business! (Can you tell I’m excited?!)

I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to combine my day job and my passion into one focused effort, and join others working to make the web accessible for everyone.

The Future of Web Accessibility: A Multi-Voice Choir

Back in May of 2011 I wrote an article about a new book project, Universal Design for Web Accessibility. Since then my co-author, Whitney Quesenbery, and I have been plugging away, stealing writing time in between moves, job changes, elections, violent weather, and the many other disruptions that come with living a full life. We are now about 90% of the way to a final draft and are shooting for publication in the spring. (If you are interested, you can sign up to be notified when the book is published.)

The book has evolved quite a bit from our original thinking. We had planned to use the Principles of Universal Design to frame the discussion, but in the end we drew on many principles, guidelines, and approaches to design that can be used to support accessibility. We ended up creating a framework for incorporating accessibility into the design and development process, with the goal of creating accessible user experiences.

One aspect that did not change is our desire to include many voices in the book. Web accessibility is a shared concern, with many viewpoints to shed light on the topic. Each chapter features a profile, where people with deep expertise in areas that influence accessibility provide helpful context and guidance on specific topics. We also introduce a set of personas in the beginning of the book and include them throughout, providing a first-person viewpoint on different aspects of a design.

Now we are working on the final chapter of the book, The Future of Web Accessibility. This is where we set out to inspire readers to put the guidance from the previous chapters into practice, making accessibility an integral part of their process.

We need your help to provide that inspiration. Whitney and I can say plenty about where we see hope and what we believe needs to change. But we are only two voices. Many voices together are more powerful, more inspiring. We would like to close the book with the force of a multi-voice choir.

To that end we created a web form where we invite you to submit your thoughts about the future of web accessibility. We would like to know:

  • What is your vision of a web for everyone, and how will we know we have reached it?
  • What signs are there that we are moving towards that goal?
  • What holds us (and the web) back from that vision?

We would also like to know a bit about you so we can represent your views accurately and provide proper credit. You can share your thoughts via the future of web accessibility interview form or using the commenting feature, below. You can also email me your thoughts at sarah.horton@gmail.com.

We will use the responses to compose a collective argument in favor of adopting web accessibility practices, and together take steps toward building a web for everyone.

Please, add your voice!

Storytelling, empathy, and finding purpose

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.

Universal Design for Web Accessibility

I’m just gearing up to start work on a new book. The book is called Universal Design for Web Accessibility. Whitney Quesenbery is my co-author, and Rosenfeld Media is the publisher. I am honored and grateful to work with Whitney, and to have the confidence of Lou Rosenfeld and the readers who reviewed our proposal. This will be an important book and I am eager to get started.

In many ways I have been working on this book since my first presentation on web accessibility in 2001, 10 years ago. I had been hearing talk of how the design of website elements could create barriers on the web, similar to staired entryways and revolving doors on buildings. I had been building websites guided by concerns other than accessibility. This was at a time when designers like me, who were concerned with layout and typography, used the rudimentary technologies available to coax (or hack) out well-designed sites. The code beneath the designs was not pretty, but the websites were. I was proud of my resourcefulness and my designs – until I learned more about accessibility.

I accepted the invitation to present on accessibility primarily as a push to learn more on the topic. I learned how people with disabilities use the web. I learned how web technologies, when used according to standards and guidelines, open up access to a world of opportunities. And in the process of learning about web accessibility I grew into my role as a designer. By understanding the impact of my decisions, I assumed responsibility for my work that goes much more than screen deep.

Since then I have been looking for ways to provide attractive designs that transform elegantly for different users in different contexts. I have found the universal design principles that guide the best accessible designs in the built environment to be a useful framework for designing digital access. I have also looked to architects and builders to understand how the profession has taken on responsibility for access requirements.

Whitney and I have high hopes for this book. The user experience profession will be asked to absorb responsibility for accessibility compliance. We want our book to provide solutions that are both practical and inspiring. And we want to establish a universal design framework for web development that will give rise to accessible design solutions.

Please help us by participating in the creation of the book. Our book website will be very active during development, and we will follow a reader-centered authoring process. Tell us what you need, respond to our requests for feedback, send us inspiring examples. Let us learn from you!

Google (in)accessibility videos from the National Federation of the Blind

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) recently raised the possibility of civil rights violations arising from the use of Google Apps for Education, and asked the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division to investigate. In their March 15, 2011 press release, Adoption of Google Apps Program Discriminates Against the Blind, they claim that both New York University (NYU) and Northwestern University, along with several Oregon public schools, have committed civil rights violations by utilizing these applications that have “significant accessibility barriers for blind people” to deliver email, calendaring, and collaboration tools to their students and faculty.

In following the story I discovered that NFB has devoted resources to preparing (captioned) videos demonstrating the types of barriers encountered by screen reader users in using these tools. As a long-time advocate of accessibility, who has tried countless methods for raising awareness about nonvisual access to webpages, this video collection is a goldmine. The videos illustrate both the challenges of nonvisual access, but also the ease of solving these challenges using good coding and design practices. The issues demonstrated using Google as an example are transferable (unfortunately) to many—maybe even most—web-based applications. Developers should view and learn from these videos, and avoid making the same mistakes.

I have long admired NFB for their work in ensuring equal access for nonvisual users. To admiration I now add my gratitude for providing exceptional content that can be used for education and awareness-raising by accessibility advocates, and to make real the barriers as well as the solutions for the people who code the pages.

Thank you, NFB!

Web design articles for Peachpit

Screenshot of Peachpit article page

Peachpit is one of the most well known publishers in the design and technology industry. In particular, their New Riders imprint is the stomping group for the field’s most prominent experts, through the “Voices That Matter” series. I have had the honor and privilege of publishing a book, Access by Design, and many articles under the Peachpit masthead.

My most extensive series of articles has been for Peachpit’s Web Design Reference Guide. Alongside web gurus such as Andy Clarke, Robert Hoekman, Jr., Molly Holzschlag, and Dave Shea, I published 20 articles for readers interested in learning best practices for web design. For the most part, my articles focus on usability and accessibility concerns, including usable forms, flexible layouts, and data tables.

More recently I published two articles with Peachpit on user-directed design: one on making the case for user research and a second describing the components of a project charter.

Access by Design

Access by Design book cover

My work as a web designer became more meaningful when I became involved with web accessibility. I found using design to address issues facing people with disabilities more rewarding than focusing on aesthetic concerns of flash and visual impact. And in learning more about universal design in other disciplines, I learned that accessibility and good design go hand in hand.

When I first became aware of web accessibility much of the attention  was in the form of guidelines and best practices. I was interested in integrating accessibility into design rather than considering it as an afterthought or as part of a validation process. All too often, accessibility is brought to the table at the end of the design cycle.

Usability through user-centered design was also gaining a foothold in the years leading up to Access by Design. Slowly but surely, design requirements for web sites and applications were being defined by user needs rather than the preferences of those making design (or business) decisions.

Access by Design integrates concerns for usability, accessibility, and universal design into a design methodology—universal usability. Human-computer interaction pioneer Ben Shneiderman defines universal usability as “enabling all citizens to succeed using communication and information technology in their tasks.” My goal in writing Access by Design was to provide practicing user experience professionals with a toolkit for achieving universal usability on the web.

As with Web Style Guide, the complete text and illustrations from Access by Design is online, along with additional resources to support further exploration and understanding.