Accessibility and Functional Technology for People with Disability

Accessibility and Functional Technology for People with Disability

In 1995, the SMS1 was introduced into Australia, and could be used with varying degrees of functionality by those with GSM2 phones. While initially the intention of SMS may have been little more than to alert users of an available voicemail, it quickly gained popularity as an alternate communication system. This accelerated in 2000 when cross-carrier SMS was introduced, allowing users on one mobile phone network to send and receive SMSs with users on other carriers.

In a paper written for the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education3 the authors noted4:

The National Advocacy Service manager at the Australian Association of the Deaf, Brett Casey, is recorded as saying that “although only around 3% of people attending the Association’s 1999 annual general meeting had mobile phones, more than 90% had the phones” at the 2000 Annual General Meeting.

When we consider technology as it applies to people with disability, we can consider it in two key aspects, functionality and intent.

When considering functionality, it can be classified as positive, neutral, or negative, viz.:

  • Positive functionality increases accessibility to a person with a disability
  • Neutral functionality does not alter existing accessibility to a person with a disability
  • Negative functionality decreases accessibility to a person with a disability

The intent helps us understand whether or not the functional state (regardless of positive, neutral or negative) has been done either deliberately, or accidentally. (One immediate challenge of course is that technology which is functionally positive for a person with one type of disability may be functionally negative for a person with a different disability.)

Designing for people with disability has been gathering increasing focus in the IT industry, particularly in relation to consumer devices. A prime example of intentionally positive functional design for accessibility in consumer devices, for instance, is Apple’s VoiceOver technology, available in iOS devices such as iPhone and iPad. VoiceOver provides an interface so that even though the blind and those with visual impairments can gain access to the functionality of the devices in question. From Apple’s page on VoiceOver5:

VoiceOver is a gesture-based screen reader that lets you enjoy using iPhone even if you don’t see the screen. With VoiceOver enabled, just triple-click the Home button to access it wherever you are in iOS. Hear a description of everything happening on your screen, from battery level to who’s calling to which app your finger is on. You can also adjust the speaking rate and pitch to suit you.

VoiceOver includes a significant number of other functions to provide positive functional accessibility for those with any level of vision impairment. VoiceOver is more than just a mechanism for electronically speaking text that appears on screen; it provides a mechanism for people to interact with a highly visual device even with partial or full visual impairment by reading out all elements being displayed, and adjusting the way the interface works (e.g., a single touch is used to select, and announce a selection, without actually activating it).

While no system is without fault, VoiceOver represents significant deliberate positive functionality for people with disability. Likewise, it might well be argued that SMS, at least in its early days, represented an example of significant accidental positive functionality for people with disability.

Accessibility, the UI6 term for providing positive functionality in user interfaces has developed considerably since options such as “high contrast” and “reverse colours” introduced in early colour versions of operating systems such as Microsoft Windows and Mac OS. Articles and design guides are freely available for software developers to avoid common mistakes and focus on key areas of accessibility. Colour blindness, in addition to other forms of visual impairment, is regularly covered in many such guides, such as7:

Don’t use color as the only visual means of conveying information.

This helps users who are unable to, or have difficulty with, distinguishing one color from another. This includes people who are color blind (1 in 12 men, 1 in 200 women), have low vision (1 in 30 people), or are blind (1 in 188 people).

Concept art of accessibility in design

Accessibility guides cover more than assistance for people with visual impairment, of course – they also include consideration for people with motor disability, the deaf, and so on. In fact, accessibility as a concept is part of web recommendations from the W3C8 under their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines9. Such accessibility standards may even act as reference material for adhering to legislation relating to disabilities. For instance, from the Australian Government website10:

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, Australian Government agencies are required to ensure information and services are provided in a non-discriminatory accessible manner.

Australia.gov.au has been designed to meet the Australian Government standard established in respect of this requirement.

Australia.gov.au is currently compliant to Level A of the Web content accessibility guidelines version 2.0 – external site (WCAG 2.0) standard. It is being upgraded to Double A compliance over time. In some cases, content will be accessible to Level Triple A.

While accessibility attempts, as much as possible, to design systems for universal access, there are alternate considerations in modern technology where the focus is on a very specific group of people with disability. One such example of deliberate positive functionality comes in the form of the Dot Smartwatch, a braille Smartwatch billed by its makers as the “first tactile smartwatch”. The watch is an ‘active braille’ system, meaning it can alter the braille display on the fly, allowing the device to function as a watch, a text transcriber, etc., as shown in the demo video produced by Dot:

(While technology such as VoiceOver would allow the time, or alerts to be spoken aloud for the user, it requires headphones in order to be a private experience. Braille, effectively requiring touch, allows compatible activities to be conducted privately whilst in public, without headphones.)

An example of technology which is perhaps best described as accidentally functionally negative – i.e., designed counter to accessibility considerations – is the Commonwealth Bank of Australia Albert touchscreen EFTPOS system. Effectively a tablet with added EFTPOS functionality, the Albert provides no keypad for the blind and people with visual impairment. Since a standard EFTPOS and credit card requirement in Australia requires a PIN to be entered for purchases greater than $100, this can result in people with disability being unable to pay for a purchase without finding an ATM, or, per Graeme Innes, quoted in Blind groups push for CBA to find solution to ‘inaccessible’ touchscreen EFTPOS terminals11:

“Some blind people have been asked by staff when they couldn’t complete the transaction to tell the staff member the pin number — That’s a huge security concern and it’s probably also breaching their contract with their bank if they were to tell them.”

(While the Albert device apparently includes an accessibility option, this is not guaranteed to be known about by all staff in all locations using the EFTPOS devices, and apparently necessitates listening to a lengthy tutorial that itself may be difficult to listen to in a crowded venue.)

Should businesses feel ethically obliged to build accessibility into their products? Is there a moral imperative in ensuring technology and systems are deliberately designed to be functionally positive for people with disability? In Positive Computing: Technology for Wellbeing and Human Potential, the authors note12:

We believe we are seeing the beginning of an important shift in the focus of modern technologies in which multidisciplinary efforts to support human flourishing are helping to shape thinking around how we design for digital experience … it’s time to consciously and systematically consider wellbeing measures in the design and evaluation of technology.

The wellbeing approach espoused by Calvo and Peters could readily be considered to be an ethical approach, since the goal is to improve “human flourishing” and positive emotions. (Indeed, later in the book utilitarianism and hedonism are directly compared in the context of creative positive emotions and increasing wellbeing.)

In An Introduction to the Key Issues Relating to Accessible User Interfaces, the authors write13:

Universal Accessibility is supported by the convincement that all the human beings have the same rights. In practical terms this means that they should be able to access to the same services and to enjoy the same opportunities. Technological designs that unnecessarily establish barriers to universal use effectively exclude users with physical, sensory or cognitive restrictions.

(It is further noted in the paper that inclusive technology approaches has advantages beyond ethical considerations, since “accessible products are directed to a broader population of potential consumers”14.)

If we consider concepts such as equal access and same rights as being ethical ideals that we ought to strive for, approaching the design of new products, the modification of existing products and user interfaces generally with a mind towards accessibility and at least functional neutrality, or better, functional positivity would seem to be an ethically sound approach to modern technology.

While there are practical limits imposed by any particular level of technological advancement, advancements such as SMS and VoiceOver present clear examples that as technology evolves, so too does our capacity to provide accessibility and functional positivity for users, without negatively impacting the user experience for people without a disability. Further, it could equally be argued that products such as a braille smartwatch, whilst exclusively targeted at people who are visually impaired or blind, do not represent functional negativity towards users without a disability as they will invariably have a plethora of other functional technology available to them.

In addition to striving towards providing accessibility and functional positivity/neutrality for people with disability, an evolving, extensible framework that enables accessibility might also be ethically appropriate. Such a framework might allow products which cannot, from a budgetary perspective be made accessible as a first order activity be instead rendered accessible by third party applications or services. This might for instance be an appropriate consideration in REST APIs, if approached mutually by generic product manufacturers or vendors and specialised vendors producing accessibility products (e.g., screen dictation software, input/output interfaces for people with a motor disability, etc.) While vendors and manufacturers may not be able to dedicate resources to make their products completely accessible to people with any disability, by exposing all the interface options and functionality through a standardised API, such products may be made readily accessible through third party applications or third party software if the need arises.

Ultimately, if we accept equal access as an ethical approach to human society, accessibility and related activities ought to remain a key software and hardware development wherever possible.

Footnotes

  1. Short Message Service
  2. Global System for Mobile Communications
  3. Volume 9, Number 3, Oxford University Press 2004
  4. Everyone Here Speaks TXT: Deaf People Using SMS in Australia and the Rest of the World, Mary R. Power (Bond University, Queensland) and Des Power (Griffith University, Queensland)
  5. Vision Accessibility, Apple
  6. User Interface
  7. 7 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about Accessibility, Jesse Hausler, April 16 2015
  8. World Wide Web Consortium
  9. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, W3C Recommendation, 11 December 2008
  10. Accessibility, Australia.gov.au
  11. Blind groups push for CBA to find solution to ‘inaccessible’ touchscreen EFTPOS terminals, Nance Haxton, 28 July 2017 for ABC News Australia
  12. Positive Computing: Technology for Wellbeing and Human Potential, Rafael A. Calvo and Dorian Peters, 2014, The MIT Press, 978-0-262-02815-8
  13. An Introduction to the Key Issues Relating to Accessible User Interfaces, V1.0, Iosif Klironomos and Julio Abascal, CARDIAC Project,
  14. Ibid.
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