Yesterday, two unrelated events made me think about accessibility and communication – and in particular the impact of accessibility and usability on a communication system.
Don’t break Fix the Web
This week, Fix the Web was launched, and attracted some excellent publicity. It’s an initiative that is a potentially significant step towards empowering people who experience accessibility barriers on line to report them in a way that might increase the chances of someone fixing the problem. One great difficulty in evaluation and repair of the sheer mass of web content we have today is helping people who experience accessibility barriers identify them as such and tell someone who might be able to make a difference.
Not all disabled web users are web developers; it’s unlikely many people will have heard of WCAG, let alone be able to describe a problem with a web page with reference to WCAG success criteria. But Fix the Web gives a voice to someone with a disability to say “hey, I couldn’t add an item to my shopping cart”, and have that problem passed on to volunteer accessibility specialists who can investigate, and back up that real-world problem with a technical description of the underlying code or design defect. And the more people who identify the same problem, the louder the voice.
While Fix the Web may not be able to actually repair the page (though other crowd-sourcing approaches have taken this step, such as IBM’s Social Accessibility project ), it does give web site owners evidence of real customers being unable to use the site for its intended purpose AND informed technical information that might help them fix it.
However, there’s a problem. As pointed out on Twitter today by Eric Eggert (@yatil), Fix the Web ‘s own web site has accessibility issues. This, it’s argued, may lead to a loss of trust by the very people it’s meant to serve – disabled people who think “well, if Fix the Web can’t make their own site accessible, how can they tell other people to fix the problem I report?” This would indeed be a huge problem, if the only way to report barriers was through the site, and some people were prevented from doing so.
But it’s not. The great challenge of Fix the Web is reaching out to people who experience accessibility problems, who have never heard of Fix the Web, never heard of WCAG and who might never have considered reporting barriers. Installing browser toolbars in public access PCs is one approach, encouraging people to email or tweet details of problems is another.
The accessibility of the Fix the Web site should be as good as possible – of course it should, and it needs to be, soon. However, the credibility and viability of the initiative should be based on the quality of the reporting system – the awareness it raises amongst disabled web users, the skills of the volunteer accessibility specialists in following up problems, and the quality of the communication with web site owners.
Casting aspersions on the whole system based on the accessibility of its own site – which is, after all, an intermediary in a wider communication chain – is a waste of energy, particularly by accessibility advocates. Let’s not break Fix the Web before it has a chance to make a difference.
User-centred Design where it’s needed most
On the same day this issue was being discussed on Twitter, I attended a presentation by Simon Judge, an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) specialist working at Barnsley Hospital in northern England. I knew Simon’s name from various open source accessibility initiatives such as OATSoft and MAAVIS; he was in Dundee as a guest of my colleague Dr Annalu Waller, who leads a research group on AAC. While a busy day meant I didn’t have a chance to speak to him, it was interesting to hear his work on exploring AAC user needs and preferences (and enjoy some vintage 70s TV – Toby Churchill demonstrating assistive technology on Tomorrow’s World!)
In listening to Simon’s talk about work on the Devices for Dignity project, I was again struck by the relationship of accessibility and communication, and why we haven’t quite got things right yet.
It’s impossible to overestimate the positive impact AAC systems can have on people with severe communication difficulties. Yet, for the importance of such systems, there have been long term problems with AAC systems relating to their usability and appropriateness for the person whom they are supposed to be helping. The problem seems to stem from the medical context in which they’re usually given to people – without real appreciation of the environment or personal contexts in which they might be used. Unlike choosing, say, a mobile phone, AAC users are likely to be limited in their knowledge of what choices are available to them, and normally there will be an intermediary (AAC professional) involved in the selection process. Practical issues such as reliability and durability can reduce trust in a device that ultimately is the difference between being able to communicate and not.
Simon has spent time speaking to AAC users and professionals in order to understand the similarities and differences in their perspectives; generally users are more negative in their views. So clearly there are issues in usability of such technologies. On the surface, the apparent limited use of user-centred design by the AAC and assistive technology field might seem surprising, but traditional UCD techniques can be difficult to apply in the field of AAC design particularly since access to users early in the design stage might be challenging.
This is an ongoing area of study, but work like Simon’s, and that of Annalu, Graham Pullin and colleagues here in Dundee, will hopefully lead to a more user-centred, more context-aware design process in creating genuinely usable and useful assistive technology.
Web accessibility advocates may recognise parallels with screen reading technology too – so be forgiving of people who are not intimately familiar with their AT, and be conservative in your assumptions of the role a user’s AT plays in enhancing the quality of their web interactions.