What would you answer if I asked you whether blind people should have access to the internet? I’m obviously guessing here, but chances are you’d say something like “everyone deserves access to the internet.” In fact, it’s likely that such sentiment extends to every other disability and technology out there.
Common sense and decency lead us to think that everyone should have the possibility to do the same things. It’s the right thing to do. However, when it comes to the time to walk the walk, most people don’t give accessibility a second thought. What’s more – a lot of people don’t even give it a thought in the first place.
Which is unfortunate, especially when it comes to technology. Why? You could say that not worrying about tech accessibility is like ignoring the needs of 15% of the world’s population that experience some form of disability. Out of empathy alone, we should all be fighting for the most accessible technology we can get in the name of those individuals.
Yet, people that don’t have a disability and don’t know anyone with one often show some sort of automatic empathy. They are in favor of tech being as accessible as it can be, but they feel so far from it all that they often don’t pay attention to whether accessibility is a reality or not.
I get it. A lot of us may fall for that. However, adopting that perspective is plain wrong. Accessibility should be everyone’s concern. Here’s why.
Features for Every User
Why should you put something as a priority when it doesn’t have an impact on you? That might be the question a lot of people might ask when it comes to accessibility. If you don’t have a disability, there’s no reason to be a vocal advocate about it. You can recognize the need for it and even support it – but that’s all.
I’m not judging here but if you recognize that line of thinking as similar to yours, I’ll invite you to answer another question. Do you use YouTube captions? How about the dark mode included in a lot of apps? And Siri? It’s probable that you answered yes to one or more of those questions. And if you did, I’ve got news for you—you’re benefiting from accessibility features.
Even when they were initially developed to address specific disabilities (helping people with hearing loss, visual impairment, or physical disabilities), the technologies I’ve mentioned became a feature for everyone after some rework. It kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Developers design accessibility features to be as simple and easy-to-use as possible. Since all users look for more comfort and ease of use—why not make them available for everyone?
That’s precisely what happened with the technologies above – and what will surely happen with more technologies to come. How’s that possible? It’s simple. Since accessibility features need to be different from the regular users, designers and developers have to come up with creative ways of fulfilling a need. Thinking outside the box leads to efficient solutions that a lot of times look appealing to the wide public as well.
While that process should be enough reason for you to actively root for development teams to focus on accessibility features, there’s another powerful argument for it.
Disabilities Will Get You
Look, I know that such a subtitle might feel unnerving but hear me out. It’s not that you’ll end up paralyzed or blind but you have high chances of developing a disability in the coming years. You know how? By aging. As people grow older, they start losing their vision and hearing, and their cognitive abilities start to wind down. So maybe you don’t need assistance with anything today but you might need it tomorrow.
That’s not all. Considering how stress, anxiety, work fatigue, alcohol, and drugs can impair you (even momentarily), accessibility features gain a lot of importance. Looking at the screen all day might make your vision suffer, the pressure coming from a job deadline can make your comprehension go down, alcohol can impair your mobility, and so on.
There’s one more layer to add to the accessibility onion: tech-savviness. You read that right. You surely have someone in your life that needs assistance when it comes to all things tech. Maybe they call you to set up their smart TVs, configure their thermostats, fix the Wi-Fi, or even something as menial as logging into Facebook. You might not think of these things as consequences of disabilities but, in a way, they are.
You might joke about your father being clueless when using Whatsapp but chances are they did the same when seeing their father setting up their cable TV. Those people functioned perfectly before but since the world has become increasingly digital, they don’t know how to conduct themselves anymore.
You might think that considering that a disability is frivolous but considering that most things will eventually be digital (with the Internet of Things et al), those without tech-savviness will be left out from a huge chunk of everyday life and will need assistance.
You can even fit in there all the people that can’t afford those technologies, so they end up lagging behind when it comes to developing those tech capabilities. Such a gap can surely be noticed in education, shopping, and even in most works that are increasingly reliant on digital tools.
Accessibility as a Core Concern
In such a context, accessibility means providing everyone with the possibility of using technology. As such, you, me, and everyone else needs to start taking as the serious concern it actually is. Because we are very far from having accessibility for all.
As of now, there are a lot of things that need to be reworked to serve all the people that feel left out. Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple are putting a lot of effort into making their own platforms and products as accessible as they can possibly be. However, leaving full responsibility in private hands may not be as successful as you might think.
That’s because companies might not have enough resources, time, or motivation to find the best accessibility solution for their products. In that way, we have to come up with a unified solution that takes “regular” interfaces and adapts them for users with disabilities in a customized way.
Morphic, an operating system extension that’s about to hit the market, is a great example of it. With this tool, you can personalize your computer according to what you need, be it changing a font or making certain features more easily accessible. It’s like putting on glasses – a solution that bases its workings on a universal premise but that is adapted to your specific needs.
While those kinds of solutions can bring accessibility to a lot of modern technologies, we still need a debate about making accessibility design an essential part of tech development. Given that the tech gadgets that will come in the future will vastly differ from what we know today, we can’t afford to launch them as they are and figure out how to include people with disabilities (whatever they may be) later on.
If we, for instance, don’t take into account things like how someone with a speech disability will interact with a voice assistant, we’re already failing. That sentiment extends to any tech in pilot stages, from virtual reality devices to bionic implants to who-knows-what that’s cooking in the lab of a startup.
We should start seeing accessibility in technology for what it truly is: a benefit for all society. It’s an inclusive approach and a democratizing focus, sure. But it’s also a tool for growth in all senses of the word. It can give all of us a new sense of comfort, aid us in the future, and lead us to a new way of interacting with the world in incredibly sophisticated ways without leaving anyone out. Who can’t empathize with that?