Code4LibBC: Shifting Perspectives: From Disability Accommodation to Universal Design

For this presentation, I decided to speak more broadly on accessibility (rather than focus specifically on web accessibility), partly because it’s so short (5-10 minute lightning talk) and partly due to the fact that despite it being a “Code4Lib” regional, we wanted to promote cross collaboration across all skill and knowledge levels. I still used a technology example, but had physical space related examples as well.

Morning everyone [insert other standard introductory information about myself]

What is a Disability?

Let’s start with this question: what is a disability? That might be difficult to define, so how about we answer this first: what are the different types of disabilities that people can name? > And maybe this (stormtrooper) image will help.

By identifying the different types of disabilities, we have an idea of what a disability is. Now…

How Do We Know if Someone Has a Disability?

Ideas? Many of the physical and more severe levels of a disability might be visible, such as when you see someone using a

  • wheelchair,
  • hearing aid or signing, or
  • cane or guide dog.

What Can’t We See?

Obviously, one of the biggest problems is that we can’t always see if someone has a disability. This is particularly true of what we design in our virtual spaces, since we cannot see what setup they’re using (image: TV room), or who might be trying to use our virtual services (image: lizard with phone). This leads us to the question:

How Do We Develop for People with Disabilities?

I’m referring to any tool, program, or service. When developing or revising something, we need to take into account people with disabilities. We seem to generally do this by following a development process: where frequently, it happens like this: develop the tool, add or adjust things to work with assistive technology, then launch. Then again, the launch may actually happen before taking assistive technology into consideration.

If we take websites as an example, we might develop a website, and afterwards, check that it works with screen readers, then fix things as necessary. Of course, screen readers are not the only assistive technology used with websites. That means after developing the website, we need to check it against other assistive technology. We could make a list, but in order to do that, we need to understand what assistive technology is out there.


What is Assistive Technology?

an umbrella term that includes […] devices for people with disabilities […] by enabling people to perform tasks that they were formerly unable to accomplish, or had great difficulty accomplishing, by providing enhancements to, or changing methods of interacting with, the technology needed to accomplish such tasks. –Wikipedia

Basically, it’s a piece of technology that helps a person accomplish a task.

What Assistive Technology Do We Need to Test With?

Okay, so let’s go back to our website. We need to test it using a screen reader, oh but what about the zoom function a lot of people use? What about the people who can’t use a mouse very well, so only use a keyboard or touch screen?

Quick question: how many people here use a touch screen on a daily basis? That includes any tablets or phones.

In fact, if we go back to our basic definition that assistive technology is a piece of technology that helps a person do something, then…

All Technology is Assistive Technology

– Sara Hendren

Please stop and think about this for a moment, about how it applies to your work and your organization. This is also a request that if the development process I presented is how things are done on your team, please stop and think about how you might change things.

We all use various technology to accomplish tasks, so if we’re designing anything web-based, we need to be developing not for certain types of people, but for any potential situation and access through any potential technology (image: mobile devices).

The Solution?

“Move away from the approach of building separately for disabled users, and concern yourself with creating clean, beautiful, usable, and accessible websites.“
– Debra A. Riley-Huff (2012). Web Accessibility and Universal Design. Library Technology Reports, 48(7), 29-35.

Riley-Huff was specifically referring to websites, but her point is that we should be changing our methodology by using…

Universal Design

Universal design means designing for the greatest extent of people regardless of their age, ability or status. The term was originally coined by the architect, Ronald Mace, so the principles (image: original 7 principles) tend to be based on physical space.

One of the classic examples is the wheelchair ramp (image), but can you think of other people who might need to use this? The list might include seniors with mobility walkers, parents with strollers, and moving carts. A lot of places label it an “access ramp” or just “ramp” instead of a “wheelchair ramp”, reflecting the greater, more universal use.

Take Away

The point is that we should be thinking about our entire audience from the beginning. We’re not serving the “average user”, there is no such thing. Instead, let’s design for all.

Side Note: Design for all is actually a separate term (referring to a design philosophy focused on making services, tools, etc. usable without the need for adaptation), but covers the same idea.

I know that this seems like a lofty goal, but I hope that this presentation gave you a sense of how you, me, all of us can start shifting our perspective from accommodating for people with disabilities to designing  for everyone whether it be related to the web, technology in general, programs, services, or spaces.

Author: Cynthia

Technologist, Librarian, Metadata and Technical Services expert, Educator, Mentor, Web Developer, UXer, Accessibility Advocate, Documentarian

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