Access For People Without (Yes, Without) Disabilities

Silver colored tea kettle from OXO, with cork handle designed for ease of use
OXO Uplift Tea Kettle, designed to be used by those with difficulty using their hands.

Sometimes, when people think of accessibility, they picture wheelchair ramps running up side entrances of buildings, on-board lifts on public buses, and large toilet stalls in many public bathrooms. Although these features provide invaluable and needed access to people with disabilities, they are “potent symbols of separateness,” as University of Oregon professor Polly Welch put it. If they are usable only by a person with a disability, the wider community does not typically appreciate the value of inclusion for this person.

But if everyone else also uses this accessibility feature, it has two dramatic effects: it increases the market reach for the business that sells and markets this product, and increases awareness of the economic and cultural value of the disability market.

The concept of designing an accessibility feature that is usable by everyone – known as inclusive design or universal design – was illustrated by two events this past week: Apple’s iOS 6 announcement, and a push by the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to increase awareness about online captioning not only for themselves but for everyone.

Why is inclusive design important? Simple. The easier it is to use a product, the more customers will buy it or use it.

On Monday, Apple announced the new iOS 6 operating system for their mobile products, and new MacBook Pros and Airs with Retina Display. Prominent in this announcement was the launch of new features promising increased usability by people with disabilities. Among these features (summarized here by Luis Perez):

  • “Guided Access,” which can be used by autistic users, and also intended to be used by everyone.
  • Expansion of FaceTime to cellular transmission via the iPhone 4S and new iPad, enhancing access for deaf and hard-of-hearing users.
  • “Made for iPhone” hearing aids, which interface with the iPhone.
  • Integration of VoiceOver with AssistiveTouch, improving usability among people with multiple disabilities.
  • Siri’s launch-app feature, expanding usability to blind and low-vision users.

What Apple has attempted to do is ensure that anyone – you, me, or someone else – is able to use its products without having to create a separate product.

Last week, advocates in the deaf community launched a social media-based movement to increase awareness of the lack of captioning of online content. The #captionTHIS movement – which uses a Twitter hashtag to spread the word – highlighted the frustration among deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers who are seeing their video content become increasingly inaccessible as it migrates to the Web. Whereas captioning is available on most major television and cable channels, there is no equivalent level of accessibility on the Internet. While MSNBC provides subtitling on many of its online news clips, none of CNN’s online videos are captioned – prompting a lawsuit in California by the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness (GLAD).

Today, the Collaborative for Communication Access via Captioning (CCAC) followed up on the #captionTHIS movement with a video of its own, where deaf and hard-of-hearing people around the world describe what it is like to be “left out” when they cannot understand non-captioned movies, videos, or conversations.

Implicit in both captioning movements is an inescapable fact: captioning is also used by those who are not deaf or hard-of-hearing. It is used in restaurants and bars, where ambient noise necessitates the use of captioning so people can watch sports events and other programs. It is used by people who want to learn English. And it is scalable in other languages: there are also Spanish-language captions on many Spanish TV channels and even on English channels.

Some content owners have opposed calls to caption their own content, citing costs, copyrights, or other issues. This misses the point: if more eyes are able to view and understand online video content, it means increased visibility for the content producers, translating to higher royalties and revenues in some cases – a win-win for both the content owners and those who view their content.

Inclusive design, in its most ideal form, means a product designed to be used by anyone. In reality, it is very difficult to ensure that a product can be used by anyone, anywhere, regardless of a disability. On the other hand, designing a product so it is usable by as many people as possible can translate into increased sales and greater visibility – and help debunk the “separate but equal” perception that continues to persist in the disability access dialogue.

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