Friday, May 16, 2014

50 Shades of Universal Design

One of the things I love about going to Knowbility's annual John Slatin AccessU conference is that I always learn something new that I never expected. I'll never forget my first conference when my instructor asked the class the rhetorical question, "So none of you use tables for your layouts anymore, right?"

In reality, I wasn't the only one who wasn't doing it right. And while not knowing was a little embarrassing, I realized that we are all having to learn and adapt to changes in technology that we don't realize exist.

Technology changes constantly. There was a time when wheelchairs, screen readers, and eyeball tracking cameras didn't exist. As each technological device comes into the world, we must learn not only how to use it but how to use it correctly.

The AccessU workshop that stood out for me this year was the first one that ever had us walk outside our classrooms (in the rain) and actually ponder universal design from a physical point of view: Adopting a Universal Design Approach for Accessible User Experience, presented by David Sloan.

After all, our website is our digital, or virtual, "storefront." When our students come onto campus, they are on our physical "storefront," and both "storefronts" are required by law to be accessible. (See Section II: Overview of Requirements on the ADA Title III Highlights page of the Americans with Disabilities Act website)

Let's go back to one of our favorite inventions that we often relate to accessibility: the ramp. We all know that people in wheelchairs use ramps to enter buildings or access parts of a campus that may be on multiple levels of terrain. The ramp is an accommodation for a disability that would otherwise become a barrier for wheelchair users as they would have no way to access the buildings. Based on ADA, barriers to access for disabled people are now known as discrimination. They are an infringement on the civil rights of disabled people.

St. Edwards University is aware of this potential barrier, and throughout their campus, they have provided the accommodation of a ramp. Solves all the problems, right?

Well, not so much:
  1. Where is the ramp located in relation to the building? Where is it located in relation to the normal means of entering the building? Is there an undue burden made for wheelchair users? 
  2. Is the ramp easily accessible on its own? Does it allow a wheelchair to safely turn on the landing platforms getting on or off the ramp? Is it too steep? Are there barriers to prevent a wheelchair from falling off the ramp?
(For the technical standards architects must review, see 405 Ramps in Chapter 4: Accessible Routes of the ADA standards website.)

A universal design should give all users an equitable experience. This equitable experience includes treating able and disabled people equally, without segregating or stigmatizing any group. It also includes protecting them, ensuring their safety, security, and privacy in equal ways.

These are examples of how wheelchair users can become segregated or stigmatized or have their safety compromised:
  • The door with the staircase is on the nicely decorated front of the building while the ramp is on the opposite side of the building where all the trash bins are located.
  • The ramp is only accessible to a wheelchair after you traverse a complicated sidewalk path going around the building.
  • A sign next to the ramp says, "Wheelchair Users Must Use this Ramp."
Would you feel you were being treated equally if you had to go around the back in order to access the building? Or how about having to wheel your chair an extremely long distance to get to the building? Would you feel comfortable about going behind the building, especially where all the smelly trash bins are located? What about signs that tell you who can use various products? Remind you of any civil rights moments in history? These experiences are obviously not equal.

What does this all mean from a digital standpoint? Our websites? Our emails? Our social media? Our telephones and other information technology and communications devices?

As we continue to traverse both physical and virtual design, we find that the same standards apply. I'm not actually referring to the requirement to follow ramp standards on social media, since there are no ramps there. I'm referring to providing accessibility from a universal design approach as David Sloan presented.

Instead of wheelchairs, paralyzed people use various assistive technology (AT) including that eyeball tracking camera I mentioned earlier that helps them move their mouse cursor around on the screen. Others have control over at least one hand that can push buttons on a keyboard but not a mouse because their muscles are not so coordinated.

Instead of walking sticks, blind people use various AT including screen readers to tell them what is on their screen. Others (maybe the same people depending on the loud activity around them or the need for silence) use refreshable Braille displays.

Put yourself in their shoes. You might be providing an accommodation, but are you doing it appropriately, in a way that provides an equitable experience? Here are some examples of what NOT to do:
  • DO NOT use YouTube's automated captioning services.
    DO provide your own specific transcript.


    You have provided the accommodation of closed captions for the deaf, however, most of the time YouTube's automated captions are nowhere near accurate for what the people in the videos are saying, especially if the people talking have strong dialects.
  • DO NOT declare an image as decorative when it actually provides important information.
    DO provide alternative text for your images.


    It's very easy to become overwhelmed by the idea that we need to describe an image when we can see it ourselves, but close your eyes and think about the information you want everyone to get out of your webpage. If it is an event, do the blind users know when the event starts if the only time information available is located directly on the image? Go step by step through your information that is provided for visual users, and determine what, if anything, is missing for your blind users.
  • DO NOT provide alternative text above or below an image.
    DO embed alternative text directly on an image.

    "The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect," said Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web.
    When Tim Berners-Lee (not Al Gore) designed the World Wide Web, he created semantic code that was meant to provide all users with equitable access to content. One of the most abused pieces of code is the alt attribute on an image tag which is where you describe the alternative text of an image. Whether you are composing an email or posting a blog, there is always an option to view an image's properties, and find a menu item somewhere that allows you to describe the alternative text for that image.

    What does putting the text above or below the image do? It calls out, or segregates, the blind users. It is annoying for visual users because it is redundant information. It also continues to make the image inaccessible. After all, what is the point of the image now that the text is available outside of it? Was the image important for the tone of the message? If the tone was important for the message, the visual user has an unfair advantage over the blind user in receiving this message. The blind user cannot enjoy an equitable experience from the image because no information was made available to them that described it.
As always, I hope to share more of my experiences from these conferences as we continue to learn about new technologies and new techniques for working with them. Very soon, we will be providing some Lessons @ Lunch in the Library to provide techniques for making emails and social media more accessible. I learned a lot from the disabled users of these products, so I hope to see you soon and share the info!

-Karole