Often, when working to promote accessibility of the digital environment, we look to the physical environment for comparisons and analogies. A PhD study at the School of Architecture here in Dundee has made me realise just how many parallels there are in the challenge of raising the profile of accessibility both amongst architects and amongst web and software developers.
Lesley McIntyre’s work aims to explore how architects can be provided with tools to help them understand better the impact of design features on the navigability of a building to visually impaired people. As with the Web, the attitude of architecture towards accessibility and considering disabled people in design is typically positive, but may be defined – and probably perceived as being constrained – by the need to comply with legislation (in the UK, “DDA compliance” can sound as doom-laden to architects as it does to web designers!) rather than as an opportunity to improve the quality and usability of a design. So there is a need to help architects understand the problems faced by people with sensory, physical and cognitive impairments when navigating the built environment, and how design can help to minimise the chances of these problems occurring.
Part of Lesley’s work involved asking a number of people, each with some form of visual impairment, to navigate through an unfamiliar building, and tracking their journey to identify the location of barriers to progress. She now has a rich collection of data and is working on ways in which this can be presented to architects in a meaningful and helpful way. The aim is to use this data – whether presented through videos, illustrated scenarios, guidelines, manuals, whatever -to help architects avoid making incorrect assumptions about disability, and instead give them a more accurate understanding of the common – and different – problems that face visually impaired people when navigate a building that might be unfamiliar to them (which, let’s not forget, might include sighted people trying to leave a smoke-filled building in an emergency). In turn, the hope is that this knowledge helps them to avoid well-recognised design pitfalls and inspires them to think of new solutions to make the built environment more accessible.
People who create, design and construct objects, whether physical or virtual, benefit from appreciating the diversity of their target audience, which in turn gives meaning to accessibility-related design guidelines, and thus a sense of the constraints and freedom that such design guidelines offer. As Ann McMeekin (@pixeldiva) and Graham Pullin have both recently and brilliantly demonstrated, designing for disability can lead to great design rather than compromised design.
I’m looking forward to exploring how web accessibility can learn from (and contribute to) Lesley’s work.