So what is this accessibility thing?

Once upon a time I met a friend who asked me about my (then) new programmer’s job. Being a programmer himself and knowing that – in the corporate world – “I’m a programmer” can mean pretty much anything from programming micro-controllers to graphics design, he dared to inquire what it was I was actually doing. I said I was in the accessibility team and that we were working on an accessibility framework for a software platform. To this my friend responded by asking “So, what is this Accessibility thing? Is it a tool you use?”. I was so dumbfounded by the question that I barely managed to think of any decent answer and finally just went with the old “Accessibility is about suiting software to the needs of people with disabilities”. The friend then gave me a kind “Oh, I see.” and left me feeling slightly perplexed for the rest of the evening.

Only after a few conversations of the sort did I realize that – to put it frankly – many if not most programmers have either never heard of accessibility or have only a vague idea of what lies beneath the name. This includes very good programmers. Even very good and very experienced programmers who I definitely admire just don’t grasp the concept. Well, you can’t have it all, I guess.

That was the first time I thought it might be worth spending a little time now and then to write a blog on this mysterious thing called accessibility. Sure, you could just go on and read the W3C’s Accessibility Guidelines, but all the recommendations out there aren’t very accessible (sic!) to those who don’t already know quite a bit about accessibility.

Actually, all the accessibility standards and legislation (there are quite a few, but that’s a topic for a different time) give the impression that just making sure the fonts in your app are of a specific size will ensure your products usability for the disabled users you’ve never seen and suspect they don’t even really exist. Setting accessibility targets like “reach 80% compliance with the X accessibility standard” and then eagerly crossing off items on a checklist (a common site in the corporate world) doesn’t help much either, I’m afraid. Believe it or not, accessibility is more than setting up a few extra preferences for your UI.

So what is accessibility? Unsurprisingly, it’s not all that easy to find a comprehensive definition. Legislators usually define the concept of “assistive technologies” and assume that accessibility is something to be achieved by using them. For the proper, formal and unexciting definitions see the glossary appendix to WCAG 2.0 or the definition paragraph of Section 508.

Personally, I prefer to think of accessibility as an inclusive mindset which should naturally emanate to product design. And I don’t just mean software design. I mean software, hardware, services, everyday items, public spaces – you name it.

Surprised? Well, that’s what this blog is going to be about: an insider’s perspective on accessibility and disability, you’ve never seen before.

Stay tuned.

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