The role of accessibility in the usability profession today – and tomorrow

I had the honour of taking part in a panel session discussing How Does Accessibility Fit into Today’s Usability Practice? at the Usability Professionals’ Association Conference (UPA 2010) in Munich last week. The session was organised by Shawn Henry of the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative and provided an opportunity to debate the challenges of promoting and supporting accessible ICT design within a wider usability context. A number of interesting discussion points emerged – here are my reflections on the panel session.

The format of the session was that each panellist was provided with a few minutes to present a position statement on accessibility in today’s practice, and this was followed by questions and discussion. In the short time available to them, my fellow panelists each took a specific angle on accessibility:

  • Liam McGee (Communis) argued that usability is ‘accessibility for sissies’, and illustrated how he viewed accessibility as a term that covered many objectives of usability and search-engine optimisation.
  • Amy Chen (Senior Usability Secialist at Oracle) described how a large technology vendor can adopt accessibility as part of the design, development and implementation of their technology products.
  • Rolf Molich (DialogDesign). As a highly respected and highly influential figure in the usability and HCI field, Rolf took on the mantle of devil’s advocate, arguing that the message of accessibility advocates can sometimes be obfuscated, disguising general good practice in usable and user-centred design as complexly-worded accessibility guidelines.

The role of the accessibility specialist in the usability profession

I decided to focus on what I saw, based on my experience over the last 10 years, were the key roles that an accessibility specialist should perform – whether as a member of a web/software development team, or as an advisor to a large organisation procuring and implementing technology to help it perform its day-to-day activities. These were:

  1. Technical advisor – someone who understands the principles behind and implementation techniques of accessibility guidelines, and how to evaluate whether they have been successfully met. Someone who is up to speed on the accessibility benefits and shortcomings of relevant programming languages and digital information formats, whether established or emerging.
  2. Motivator – someone who generates empathy for the objectives of accessible design, by encouraging others to appreciate the diversity of ways in which people access and use technology, and the impact accessibility (or lack of) can have on them. Someone who shows that accessibility is something that can inspire innovation and spark creativity, rather than constraining what can be done to the mundane and unexciting. (at this point I had to yet again plug Graham Pullin’s excellent book Design meets Disability 🙂 )
  3. Translator – someone who can effectively present accessibility requirements in their appropriate context – from legislative requirements to practical, pragmatic design requirements. Someone who can ensure that accessibility requirements expressed in an invitation to tender or internal policy are achievable, unambiguous and, if met, genuinely lead to more inclusive technology. Organisations who express accessibility requirements in a coherent and appropriate way are more likely to encourage technogy suppliers to meet those needs. I recounted here examples of where I’ve seen poorly expressed accessibility requirements in a technology specification that could not feasibly be met let alone tested.
  4. Gerontechnologist – perhaps my most left-field suggestion, I think accessibility specialists should recognise the particular benefits of involving older people in user centred design, for the added-value that they are likely to provide as participants in requirements gathering activities, and evaluators throughout the design lifecycle. Arguably accessibility guidelines focus on the more extreme end of impairment, at the expense of those with less severe, but multiple, impairments. Evaluating with disabled people is important, and rewarding, but recruitment and scheduling can sometimes be difficult. So the unpredictability of the presence of any age-related sensory, dexterity or cognitive impairments make recruitment of older participants for participatory design and usability testing a particularly attractive option, particularly if resources are tight (see Henny Swan’s comments on the value of testing a web browser with older people).

I offered these definitions as a way of helping people decide whether an accessibility specialist was indeed a specialist, or whether this was a role a usability professional could or should take on.


The focus of the discussion with the audience was, from my perspective, largely focused on the challenge of selling accessibility, a topic that is always near the top of the discussion charts and which has received much attention in recent blog posts from Gary Barber and Vlad Alexander.

It’s hard to argue against the objective of accessibility, but in a financially driven context, we’re all too aware that accessibility can sometimes be perceived as a luxury, as a lot of effort for a small group of people. Several members of the audience gave examples of how they have found it difficult to persuade others of the value of investing in accessibility considerations.

Of course, one way to counter that argument is to downplay accessibility as a separate objective – most of good practice in accessibility is general good practice in user-centred design; the SEO overlap is also a powerful argument. That’s more difficult to sell when there is obvious additional work to do, like synchronised captioning.

We can also argue that for every group of disabled people who benefit from a particular accessibility intervention, there is another group of ‘situationally disabled’ people who will also benefit at a particular time and place. But how do we provide hard figures for the number of unexpected beneficiaries of accessibility interventions? And isn’t it an awkward dilemma for an accessibility advocate to be faced with: providing hard statistics that help to calculate cost-benefit of an accessibility requirement when that effort may actually lead someone to justify exclusion?

The most powerful tool seems to be more examples of how accessibility is done well, and in particular how it can spark or encourage innovation. There are plenty examples out there of where this has happened, and it was great to hear that WAI is collecting such examples for an addition to their suite of resources arguing for accessibility. We need to be able to show sceptics examples of where innovation in accessible web design can genuinely lead to benefits for end-user and provider, because if we can’t, it makes advocating inclusive design that much more difficult.

What does all this mean for the usability profession? Do we need accessibility specialists, or is this knowledge and skills that all usability professionals who acknowledge human diversity should expect to have? What do you think?


2 thoughts on “The role of accessibility in the usability profession today – and tomorrow”

  1. David, thanks for this synopsis of a too short but still highly helpful discussion. The answer is absolutely yes — we need accessibility specialists, and this knowledge is essential to anyone practicing usability.

    Here’s a parallel concept: Not everyone who practices usability is an expert in information architecture, but I think everyone would agree that the fundamental principles of information architecture are essential knowledge for usability professionals.

    An important role of the information architect, then, is to develop new strategies for getting IA done right. Another important role is to educate the rest of us about the most useful of those strategies.

    Similarly, it’s important for everyone who works on the Web to know about accessibility and do their best to make their content and its features accessible. But most people can’t review their design from the standpoint of all the different scenarios that can arise with respect to accessibility. That’s one place where an accessibility expert can help.

    Accessibility experts can also help people see the value of their efforts to make a document more accessible. Take your example of synchronized captioning. Most employees where I work are not provided computers with speakers. Some don’t even have audio cards. How are they supposed to follow the sound track of a training video? Synchronized captioning would solve that.

    Admittedly, that lack of hardware is becoming less of a problem as more older computers are being replaced. But what about someone who is constantly on the phone and works in a cube? Should they have to go back and forth from headphone to headset as they follow a video between calls? Synchronized captioning would remove that problem.

    Just as with curb cuts for sidewalks, improvements to the accessibility of electronic information ease many predicaments beyond those of the targeted group. Helping the average practitioner see those benefits is an important part of the accessibility expert’s role.

    Think of the accessibility expert as mentor, guide, and coordinator. Others still need to do the work, but the expert shows them the way.

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