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8 Reasons Information Professionals Should Care About Accessibility

Jay Yarrow’s 12 Most Annoying Things That Tech Companies Need To Fix Right Now gets a lot right, but misses what I consider to be a significant technology problem: lack of accessibility and poor usability for people with disabilities.

Designing for accessibility is making products and services so that people with disabilities can use them. One could easily assemble a long list of technology accessibility failures. As a budding librarian, I am dismayed by the accessibility problems of library services. Kelly Ford has written about accessibility issues with ebook services and ebook readers (e.g. Kindle). As a music lover, I am disappointed by accessibility problems in online music services like Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes for people with visual impairments who use screen readers like JAWS or Apple VoiceOver to read digital text.

1. Avoid Litigation
Many countries have policies mandating access to information technology and specifying web accessibility.  These policies typically require that all web pages follow accessibility guidelines (Foley and Regan, 2002) established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

In the United States important laws to know about are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. The ADA applies to most entities that serve the public, and Section 508 applies to US government agencies, and organizations directly providing services to the US government. In addition, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 mandates accessibility for emerging technologies.

One IT accessibility strategy is to do nothing to make services accessible to people with disabilities. Organizations that go this route put themselves at risk for being sued, and this is likely to increase in the future. Target and Southwest are examples of two companies who have recently found themselves in this situation.

The US Department of Justice has indicated that it is interested in internet accessibility. This means that more accessibility suits could be coming from the DOJ. The 508 web accessibility standards that apply to federal entities are being refreshed and harmonized with the latest WCAG Guidelines, and other Federal standards (e.g. telecommunications requirements) are being evaluated.

2. Costly Retrofitting
Organizations that fail to design for accessibility might avoid litigation, but end up engaged in expensive retrofitting when they decide to make their services or products accessible. Retrofits are almost always more expensive than designing for accessibility up-front. In addition, retrofits tend to be inelegant and less ideal for users. Retrofitting often means paying more to get less.

3. Bad PR
Accessibility failures can result in bad PR and loss of sales and customers. For example, JetBlue’s accessibility solution (customers for whom their website is inaccessible can receive assistance via telephone) satisfied the judge who heard the case, but resulted in negative PR. Also,  many universities are exploring using ebook readings to distribute textbooks. Amazon has stumbled in its efforts to provide an accessible ebook reader, and received bad PR as a result.

4. Reach a Broader Audience
People with disabilities are a large group, and their numbers are growing. Most of us will experience a disabling condition at some point in our lives. The population in the US is aging. Product developers and marketers are increasingly seeing the benefit of targeting this demographic. For detailed statistics on disability prevalence in the US, see the US Census Bureau’s report on disability.

5. Better Overall Usability
A frequent positive side effect of accommodating people with disabilities is creating better usability for non-disabled customers, for example:

  • Providing information in multiple formats accommodates different learning styles and life situations.
  • Curb cuts are useful for people other than those using wheel chairs – for example parents pushing baby strollers.
  • Automatic door opening buttons are helpful when your hands are full of packages.
  • Captioning on televisions make it possible to get news in noisy environments like the airport and the gym.

When accessibility is built into design for non-disability specific consumer products and services, the results can be beneficial for people with disabilities as well. The Apple iOS has VoiceOver technology built in, which makes it possible for users with visual impairments to use any iPad or iPhone without having to install special screen reading software. Many iPhone GPS apps designed primarily for people who are driving (e.g. Ariadne GPS and Navigon MobileNavigator) are also helpful for people with visual impairments. If these apps didn’t allow for accessibility, the designers would have lost an opportunity to serve those users.

navigon-mobilenavigator on an iPhone
Navigon MobileNavigator running on an iPhone

6. Funding
Organizations who contract with or receive grants from the federal government are often explicitly asked to provide for accessibility. For example, The National Science Foundation (NSF) proposal preparation instructions encourage projects that broaden the participation of underrepresented groups including people with disabilities. In an environment where many compete for limited funds, accessibility can’t be overlooked.

7. Opportunity for Innovation & High-Impact Outcomes
Make the World Better: Many of us at the iSchool are looking for opportunities to innovate, and would love to be the author of the next big idea. Tim Rowe from the Cambridge Innovation Center at MIT says an important element of a successful pitch for an innovative idea is that it make the world better:

“…what you’re doing has to matter… there’s so much going on in the world today, there’s so many choices we have about what to spend our time on, that we tend to put a little extra energy into the ones where we say, this is a problem that really needs attention…of the investors I know, they would prefer to have an investment which both makes money and does something exciting that makes the world a better place…I’m talking about the investors who invest in new ideas, the crazy new ideas, if you will…that kind of person is a little bit of a quirkier person, and in my experience, is someone who is more about the outcomes and not solely about the economics (TAL Episode #412, 8 minute, 30 second mark).”

Improve Negative Outcomes: People with disabilities all over the world experience a disproportionate degree of negative outcomes (poverty, underemployment, unemployment). This presents opportunities to design product and service that improve outcomes for this group.

Reducing Stigma: People with disabilities want to be able to use the same technology everyone else uses, or something that looks cool (and not like a clunky medical device). Thankfully we no longer view glasses solely as medical devices that cause social humiliation, that we should try to make invisible, but there is room for improvement when it comes to other technology useful to people with disabilities (Pullin, 2009). Hearing aids could look cool! iPhones can be used by any blind user, without any special assistive technology fixes.

Increase Independence: There are many problems people with disabilities have where technology could potentially help. For example, the LookTell currency reading iPhone app lets a person who is blind discern a $5 bill from a $20 in seconds. The VizWiz iPhone app gives test descriptions of the objects in a user’s immediate environment (try it out–this app is free). Roger Ebert gave a fascinating TED talk on the benefits and limitations of the technology he uses to speak.

LookTel App recognizing a dollar bill
LookTel App recognizing a dollar bill.

8. Fulfill Our Professional Mission
Though the types of work information professionals do vary considerably, accessibility is central to why it is we do what we do. The iSchool is committed to positive impact:

  • Vision: “To expand human capabilities through information.”
  • Goal:  “ To transform the information field…”
  • Points of Distinction:
    • We recognize that information technology and management processes are means and not ends.
    • Whatever we do, we do through information and for people.
    • Through information we transform individuals, organizations, and society.

Mission of New Librarianship: Dave Lankes, iSchool Professor and Dean’s Scholar for the New Librarianship, says, “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.”

Mission of the American Library Association: Part of the mission of the American Library Association is to “ensure access to information for all.”

Takeaway
Some people have trouble with this topic because they think it is a foregone conclusion that people with disabilities have miserable lives, so the rest of us don’t need to bother figuring out how to include them.

Others don’t listen when accessibility is brought up because they think it’s someone else’s job to help people with disabilities. Neither of these are true. Steve Kuusisto, Director of Syracuse University’s Renée Crown University Honors Program, has written about how accessibility isn’t someone else’s problem.

My hope is that I’ve left you with enough information about what’s wrong in terms of technology accessibility to get you to care, and enough about what’s right so you know that it’s within your ability to do something about it.

Contact Charlotte at charflynn5@gmail.com, on Twitter @Flynnglish or on Google+ at gplus.to/Flynnglish.


  • Matthew Gunby

    Two things that I think might be worth considering, the first is an e-reader or i-pad app that allows for a version of Braille text to be used.  I looked this up on Google and though still in the experimental stages it seems like it could definitely be one of the “next big things.”  Also, where it would theoretically use a regular device it might remove the stigma you mentioned above about clunky medicalesque (yes I realize this is not a word but it should be) equipment.  Another area to consider, particularly for libraries is the idea of purchasing a digital copyright to a work: buying a single copy that provides an MP3 version, an e-reader version and possibly a physical book form as well.  I think ultimately publishing could be moving in this direction, and I think to the extent to which we impact the conversation we should move it in this way on the grounds of providing greater access.  I will try to figure out some new and exciting ways in which we can all better fulfill our mission of providing universal access to information, and thank you for the insightful post.

    • I love your ideas, Matthew!!!
      If we are willing to make a commitment to accessibility, and not relegate it to a to-do list of things that would be nice to do sometime in the future, we can make the world a more accessible place! Some people use refreshable Braille monitors to read text output. This technology displays regular electronic text in Braille characters, which I find pretty amazing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refreshable_Braille_display

      Would love to learn more about ways to display electronic text in Braille. Did you see Sumit Dagar’s touch screen Braille phone? His TED Fellows talk is here: http://tedfellows.posterous.com/this-weeks-ted-fellows-talk-sumit-dagar-touch 

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  • Adina Mulliken

    Love your post, Charlotte!