Accessibility, usability, assistive technology. What does it all mean? Does it matter to you? The honest answer is that it may well not matter to you, at least not now. But it may matter to you later, and it may matter to your business right now.
As I mentioned in a previous post (Embracing accessibility – good for you, good for your business), accessibility refers to the need for products, services, and physical locations to be manageable for everyone, regardless of disabilities. In business, this includes both employees and customers. We have become somewhat sensitized to providing for mobility challenges, although we have a ways to go and often miss the mark through misunderstanding and lack of follow-up. But what about visual impairment, hearing impairment, and other speech challenges? According to the RBC Accessibility web site, within the Canadian adult population 11% have mobility, agility, or pain challenges, 5.0% have hearing challenges, 3.2% have vision challenges, and 1.9% has speech challenges. And, if for some reason these seem like a low percentage of the population to be concerned about, well, first of all, no number is too low, and, secondly, these numbers will undoubtedly keep rising.
When my friends and I started school we didn’t realize that 60 years later we were going to become the scapegoats for nearly all public expenditure challenges. There, I admit it; I am one of the very first of the baby boomers, born 16 days into that golden age of growth. This isn’t the blog in which to refute some of the blame being put on us, although that’s on my list, and there is no debating that there are more people entering their senior years each year – due both to the population bulge and the fact that we are living longer. Also, I will not try to refute that with age typically comes increased impairment in one or more of the categories of mobility, vision, and hearing. Accessibility is an issue for all ages, and can come as a result of challenges from birth, accidents, disease, and hereditary conditions. However, although my friends and I are doing our best to fight it, we are getting older and the number of us with some form of disability is going to rise. Today’s disability percentages will rise. Sorry.
Where am I going with this? Well, these days we all use technology. In order to be available to the largest possible audience, web sites and other computer interfaces, just like physical locations, need to be accessible to all. Furthermore, if you are offering a public service or expecting an employee to use your interface, it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. This isn’t as big an issue or cost as you may think; it just requires prior knowledge on the part of your developer or platform provider (e.g., wordpress, FaceBook). A web site’s design needs to provide support for assistive technologies such as screen readers (for visually impaired users), adjustable text size, and consider alternative prompts to sounds (for hearing impaired users).
So, if that’s accessibility, what is usability? They sound the same, but they’re slightly different. We’ve all had experience with web sites that are not user-friendly: you can’t find what you are looking for; you can’t read it because of poorly-considered colour combinations, crazy fonts, or tiny font size; you enter a requested response and nothing seems to happen; or, maybe it keeps flashing at you, causing a headache. The list of poor design elements and badly functioning web sites is very long, and is a measure of its usability. Ensuring that your web site is user-friendly is critical to its success. Ensuring that your web site is fully accessible is critical to satisfying yourself that it is user-friendly for every potential user, regardless of physical ability. It also ensures that you are compliant with the law.
Just as it is important that you should expect to have the same positive experience with a web site regardless of whether you are using a Mac, Windows, or another browser – or whether you are using a desktop computer or a mobile device, it is important that you should have the same positive experience with that web site regardless of what speech recognition software – or other assistive technology – you may rely on. All these issues of usability and accessibility should be part of the designing, developing, and testing repertoire of all web developers. Design guidelines for accessible web sites are laid out in the Worldwide Web Initiative and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The principles are supported far and wide by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the World Wide Web Consortium, and the laws of many countries, states, and provinces. They just need to be more widely recognized and followed.
Why is it important that we get it right? As more and more commerce is transacted on-line, customers will vote with their eyes, ears, and fingers – either directly or by using their assistive technologies. If your site doesn’t make doing business easy, there will be another site that will. It’s worth the extra thought and testing to get it right.