(Image of a computer keyboard with a wheelchair symbol on one of the keys. David Berman appears on screen and faces the camera for the duration of this video. David is wearing a dark grey suit with a black shirt and tie.)
The best way to get the best results from from web accessibility is to understand the type difficulties and the kind of technologies we use to mitigate those challenges. And so my plan now is we’re going to walk through the type of difficulties people encounter.
I’ve found that we can create an accessible website without trade-offs. You see often people think if I make my website accessible I’m going to have to make the experience worse for my typical users. And that could be true if you don’t understand why or how we’re doing this. But if you truly understand the difficulties and the type of technologies were using to overcome them, then it’s possible to create an accessible site, accessible product that has no trade-offs at all.
In fact chances are we’re going to make things better for everyone because when we design for the extremes everyone benefits. When we think of the type of challenges people are dealing with I find it useful to consider disabilities in categories.
The first one being permanent disabilities. We tend to think about the permanent disabilities first. Someone who’s blind since birth and may never see at all in their lifetime. Or someone who can’t hear at all and may never hear. But in fact the vast majority of difficulties and challenges are more subtle and temporary.
Temporary disabilities include everything from maybe you’ve just been to the eye doctor and there’s drops in your eyes, or maybe you’ve got the flu, or maybe you’re pregnant, or maybe you’re drunk. These are all things the come and go.
You may have a post-traumatic stress disorder where at times of day you don’t have your typical cognitive faculties. And we need to consider the whole breadth of disability when we’re designing the truly accessible product.
We also have acquired disability as we age our eye sight tends to go. We tend to have more mobility challenges as we get older as well, you know.
The typical life expectancy of a man in the Middle Ages in Europe was perhaps 36 years old. And yet all of us plan to live much longer than that. And so there’s acquired challenges that are important as well.
And then finally we have societal challenges as well. We have things that shouldn’t be a disability at all perhaps like being left-handed. This also can be a challenge in some parts of the world.
Now when we think of the different types of impairments people are challenged with, it’s useful to simply think about the different human senses. And I’m going to march through the human senses and look at the challenges in each area in the order that they tend to be the biggest challenge for us on the web.
The most common type of difficulty we tend to dwell on is the visual challenge: people having problems seeing. And it makes sense because for most of us the largest bandwidth pipe for information coming into the human brain is the eye. And whether someone has an extreme situation where they can’t see at all or perhaps they see fine but they don’t see certain frequencies of light so certain colours are left out for them. Perhaps they have a constraint on their vision.
We have a whole host of assistive technologies — which I’ll get into more deeply later — which helps balance off this challenge of not being able to see.
The second group of challenges most prevalent when we’re designing products online are dexterity or mobility challenges. And again this can be of a range from the extreme of perhaps someone is a quadriplegic who has no use of their limbs from the neck down. Or could be as subtle as someone who has complete use of all of their limbs but it hurts to move in certain ways and so they prefer not to.
And so from those two extremes we have a continuum of mobility challenges and we have a great range of assistive technologies that help us mitigate for mobility challenges.
The third group of assistive technologies range around hearing difficulties and again there’s a range. Some people just got a little too close to the left speaker at a Genesis concert younger in life and don’t hear so well in one ear than the other. Others maybe don’t hear at all. Some people can’t hear certain frequencies and in fact we find in the acquired category as we get older there are certain frequencies which simply drop off completely. Again we have technologies which overcome this.
Now your web product, your website may have a lot of sound or may have not at all. But if you have audio content, we do have a variety of techniques to help overcome the challenge that some people either all the time or some other time can’t hear.
The fourth group are language and speech difficulties. And that’s quite a range of challenges here. It could be simply someone didn’t learn how to speak the language of your site early in life. And you know we humans were designed to acquire language at the age of three or four, so if someone acquired let’s say English or French later in life it’s never going to be as natural as if they learned it as an infant. As well some people are just wired differently.
For some people language comes in a different way. For some they experience language in a typical way but the way comes out, the way they express themselves is very different. And so we have quite a range of technologies which can also help mitigate for language and speech problems.
Kind of a sibling to this are cognitive and learning challenges. And there’s quite a range here as well: everything from an extreme dyslexia from simply subtle challenges of being able to remember certain facts.
One of the really big challenges we have with cognitive difficulties is that they can be quite subtle and not present apparently. For instance, if someone has a severe visual challenge they may arrive with a service dog or a white cane. It’ll be apparent to you fairly quickly that they don’t see or they don’t see that well. However with cognitive challenges usually there aren’t readily apparent, in fact the person who has the cognitive challenge may not even know themselves that they have them.
You know we do work at Carleton University and we find that the students we help with disabilities… over eighty percent of the kids we’re helping out are those with cognitive challenges.
So again we have a variety of technologies that can help overcome learning disabilities. In fact, I’m convinced we all have dyslexia to a certain degree and attention deficit disorder to a certain degree. And we do something to kids in our society, which is rather tricky, you know. Consider this. If you meet a tiger in the wild and …you know this is a tiger …and if I rotate it’s still a tiger …and this is a tiger …and this is a tiger. That’s the reality of living in the forest. And yet we teach our children an alphabet where if you take a letter a lower case ‘b’ and you rotate it, it becomes something completely different: a ‘d’. And then you flip it downward it becomes a lower case ‘p’ you flip it again it’s a lower-case ‘q’. This type of symbol — it’s brilliant — but you know we we’re running on fifty thousand year-old hardware and yet the idea of written language is only perhaps 6 or 7 thousand years old.
We all struggle then with symbols that change their meaning. Just those that struggle enough with it that it falls outside the norm we have a label for that. The last group have difficulties are ones we invent, as if we don’t have enough already in our society.
Some parts of the planet are still very harsh on people who try to write with their left hand as children rather than with their right. And we stigmatize some disabilities. We make it difficult to be honest with each other about the challenges we have. And it really depends. And we’re getting better and better at this.
You know, a lot of people I know wear glasses. And you don’t tend to think glasses as an assistive technology. But I’m sure the first time someone wandered out into the streets in seventeenth-century Europe with lenses strapped to their face, people must have pointed and said that guy’s crazy. And yet today we feel completely comfortable letting others know that we don’t see so well. And yet for other disabilities we’re not quite there. And this is part of the challenge.
As a society we’re quickly evolving to be more caring and more accepting of our differences and when we accept our differences and recognize them only then are we able to do the best job we can of communicating with everyone and leaving no one behind.
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>>NARRATOR: Appointed a high-level advisor to the UN, David Berman has traveled to over 50 countries, inspiring professionals on how we can design a better civilization. Rated number one in North America as a speaker on accessibility he’s presented at the largest design conferences on four continents. David has audited websites of 40 countries for the World Wide Web Foundation. His book “Do Good Design” is published in five languages. Links to resources mentioned can be found at: www.davidberman.com/accessibility#resources
(Text on screen: Produced by David Berman Communications
Ben Armitage; Jennifer Beharry; Veronica Feihl; Simone Flanaghan, Cynthia Hoffos; Steven Kimball; Maciek Kozlowski; Khadija Safri; Justin Stratton.
Copyright 2014 David Berman Communications.
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