Christian Heilmann

Needs of the disabled spark inventions – why not in web design?

Wednesday, November 8th, 2006 at 2:22 pm

I just created a presentation for a Tech Talk later on with the topic “Accessibility and You, a non-tech approach to web accessibility” and during the collection of material I realized that a lot of real world inventions were based on the needs of disabled people and are now benefitting everybody.

  • Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell invented the loudspeaker and subsequently the telephone to help Edison overcome his hearing problems, now we all use loudspeakers (sometimes to turn us into someone who is hard-of-hearing)
  • Subtitling and captioning of movies and TV programmes helps deaf users, but also those who are not firm in a foreign language and still want to see the movies as they were intended (I learned a lot by watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus with subtitles)
  • Talking VCRs and universally accessible doors make it a lot easier for both people with disabilities and those without to use them.
  • The University of Manchester is working on some software to make mobile web surfing a lot easier by automatically stripping unnecessary content from web sites. The algorithms and logic of the software is based on research with blind users and screen readers.
  • IBM is working on an alert service for deaf people to get informed when there is a public announcement on stations and airports. When there is an announcement their mobile phones get a message or vibrate, which is something that any visitor could profit from (how many times did you have a delayed flight, went for a coffee and had to neck it because you felt uneasy about not seeing the notice board?)
  • The curb cut, those dips in sidewalks created for people using wheelchairs makes it easier for people with prams, cyclists and others, too.
  • OCR scanning was invented to allow a blind person to hear a text that was previously printed and became a massive success in data entry processes.

These are just some examples, and I’ll be happy to add more (comment please) were a disability became the spark that started a new invention.

However, when you look at any web design list or forum these days, all you hear is “I need to add skip links” or “I need to make this accessible” or “how can I make this work with screen readers?”. Where is the spark there? How come not many people see accessibility as a chance to improve a current product or use it as a test phase to give the product a trial by fire before considering it worthy of publication?

During a summit last month in Germany Markus Erle talked about accessibility testing as an incubator to make products more stable, mature and ready for the real world and not as a means to create a habitat for handicapped users.

This inclusive approach is not new, in fact Wendy Chisholm’s article Innovative Design Inspired by Accessibility on Digital Web covered it already in 2005, but I don’t see it being followed or getting as much time in the limelight as the old “so what do we have to do to accommodate disabled users”?

Thanks to Tomas Caspers and Mike Davies

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