Accessibility—not just for the disabled

Somehow, the other day I managed to cut my right index finger on a package of butter. Just a stupid paper cut, but you know how much they hurt. So I wrapped it up in a band-aid and headed to work.

Here’s what happened because of that band-aid:

  • I couldn’t feel the bump on the home key of my keyboard, so all day I was tu[ping emal;s wrpng.
  • I had to use my iPhone with my middle finger because my index finger was encased in rubber.
  • I’m extremely right-handed, and all day I was conscious of not being quite as dextrous as usual.

Luckily, this was just a temporary affliction. But it serves as an example of how quickly devices become difficult to use, even for the mildly or temporarily disabled.

Who hasn’t heard this from their boss, developer, or project manager: “We don’t need to worry about accessibility because I sincerely doubt many blind people are using our product”?

Here’s the thing—you never know when someone is using your website, application, or device with a permanent or temporary disability.

We all know that accessibility is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, the moral argument feels like a “nice to have” when you’re staring down a deadline with limited resources. Instead, I propose we abandon the moral argument in favor of pragmatic ones that, like it or not, carry more weight with those who haven’t drunk the accessibility kool-aid.

Everyone experiences periods of disability

At any given time some not-insignificant portion of the young, active public is getting around with a crutch, a broken leg, or an orthopedic boot. We would never stereotype these people as “cripples,” or make assumptions about their mental capacity or ability to use technology. But if you don’t have a ramp on your building, they’re going to have just as much trouble getting to work as someone who’s been wheelchair-bound their whole life.

If you have a touchscreen interface, there’s no difference between a user with no fingers and a user with band-aids on every finger. Neither person is going to be able to use your product. Imagine if I’d had to take a sick day because of my paper cut!

I had a colleague who mysteriously went deaf for two years. He could easily have lost his job because of this, but mercifully, his workplace was willing to make accommodations—including hiring a personal aide to answer the phone—so he could continue to do his job. Viewed this way, accessibility is a basic productivity measure that ensures we can keep doing our jobs when we’re not in fact too sick to work.

Some contexts might as well be a disability

I owe this insight to my colleague John Yuda, who pointed out: If you’re using the text-to-speech feature on your phone so you can hear emails while you’re driving—as far as the device is concerned, there’s no difference between you and a blind user with a screen reader.

Have you ever tried to write an IM on a moving bus? Didn’t you wish those virtual keys were bigger or that autocorrect wasn’t so unreliable? Now you know what it’s like to type with palsy or motor skill difficulties.

The portability of mobile devices takes your product out of its idealized office desktop setting and exposes it to the noisy, shaky, damp, bright, and unpredictable world. You can’t assume that your product has the user’s full attention or that she’s capable of typing right now. Features like voice commands, speech recognition, meaningful link names, and thoughtful use of focus assist all users—not just those with assistive technologies.

Expert users prefer the keyboard

Switching back and forth between keyboard and mouse is much slower than staying with one input device. If you watch expert software users, they keep their hands on the keyboard as much as possible, switching to the mouse when they have no other choice.

If you have expert users, you’re doing them a favor and helping them work faster by providing keyboard commands for your user interface and being smart about where the cursor focus is. Which, coincidentally, is how you make your product more usable for people with screen readers.

I was thrilled when I heard Derek Featherstone say at a recent conference that “90% of accessibility is keyboard commands.” Keyboard commands are a feature I can actually sell my team because of our expert users. I don’t have to make a moral argument—I can make a business argument.