365 Days of Random

Random musings about nothing at all

Accessibility

I am sure that to a lot of you this topic may seem to come out of left field. But it’s something (in my work life) that I am very passionate about. I have been focused on the accessibility of our products for the last 3 years and have learned so much. It’s knowledge that I love to share with others who are just starting to think about the impact this has on software development. No, by accessibility I don’t mean ACCESS to the product, system, page, etc. Well… I guess to some extent that is what it’s about. What I am talking about is the ability for users with disabilities (visual, motor, hearing or cognitive impairments) to use and interact with technology – hardware, software, web sites, phones, anything really.

I am sure you’re wondering why this has come up as today’s topic. Well, it’s because it was the last thing I was focused on at work today. And that’s because I was expounding on the value of accessibility to a candidate I was interviewing. I had asked him about his knowledge and understanding of accessibility and his answer and subsequent questions lead me down a road of expressing just why it’s become such a big deal for me. Our candidate admitted (like so many do these days) to some decent ‘conceptual’ knowledge of accessibility but very little knowledge of practical application. He’d never really built systems or sites that needed to be all that accessible. His further comments and questions were around his personal struggle to see where people’s passion for accessibility comes from. He has a friend that is very very interested and passionate about the subject. But he (our candidate) cannot figure out why – he doesn’t have a disability and he doesn’t have anyone in his life that has a disability or impairment. For Zach (our candidate) he got the ‘concepts’ but lacked the ‘why it matters’ feeling.

My response was that passion for this subject hits you like a freight train the first time you have a real hones to god personal experience with it. And by that I don’t mean some form of disability befalls you. What I am referring to is an opportunity to be touched by someone who DOES have some form of disability and yet is just as capable of accessing and using technology as you are. The problem isn’t in the fact that they have a disability, it’s in the fact that the TECHNOLOGY doesn’t consider this disability or challenge when they are developing it. They think solely about the person that can SEE the screen, HEAR the text and MOVE the mouse. There are a million different degrees of disability and all face different challenges when using technology. There is absolutely no reason at all why the technology should be something that is a barrier or road block to knowledge or success. During this conversation I shared my personal tipping point around accessibility. It changed the way I think and feel about building software. I challenge everyone out there who builds software, hardware or any form of technology to seek out opportunities to meet and interact with people classified as having ‘disabilities’. I guarantee it will change your perspective.

Here is my story. Last year I attending the annual meeting for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). I attended this meeting because my company was accepting an award for work we’d done in developing accessible technology. Throughout the day I listened to many Blind speakers share stories of their experiences. There were two in particular that stuck with me and made a huge impact. One was a 70ish year old gentleman who’d been blind his entire life and was an auto-mechanic. He had actually been a safety inspector for Ford and GM for years and he had built cars from nothing his entire life. He had learned to tell apart the parts by the way the felt and sounded. The second was a 30 something guy who was in his last year of residency at Medical School. He was studying to become a Psychiatrist but, as you know, to do this you have to undergo EVERYTHING that medical school entails. Surgery, Gross Anatomy, Diagnosis techniques, hospital rotations, the whole bit. This guy had done it all – he learned to identify muscles, tendons, tissue, nerves and bones by how they felt. He could diagnose a patient by listening to the sounds their body made and the way they moved. All his other senses where heightened to the point where not having his sight didn’t matter – he SAW everything that mattered. Listening to these two speakers, and seeing the students the NFB was awarding scholarships to that night and learning what they wanted to study was one of the most awe inspiring experiences I’ve ever had. It blew me away.

We talk about ‘accessibility’ being a categorization for people with disabilities – that’s a very polite way of saying it of course – but if we’re honest about it – many times people with ‘disabilities’ are no more or less capable of accomplishing anything than those of us without a disability. Frankly, I’d wager that a good percentage of them have had to step up in ways we never had and are better for it. A term I heard that day in Dallas (at the NFB meeting) has stuck with me ever since. These folks are not disabled, they are DIFFERENTLY-abled.

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March 4, 2011 Posted by | Accessibility, User Experience | , , , , | Leave a comment