In our last post, we have highlighted the important role assistive technology plays in empowering people with disabilities to live independently and participate in all areas of society. Just recently, Apple released an amazing video with lots of examples on how assistive technology we all know (and use) is consequently integrated to support the lives of people with disabilities. We get a glimpse of how environments can be designed to support and provide accessibility.
Accessibility is livability
All of us are differently abled. Still, there are universal necessities: the quality of being reached and being able to enter, of being easy to use and obtain, of being easily understood and appreciated. Originally, accessibility mainly referred to a barrier-free design of buildings and other, rather static measures. Today, accessibility is all about fulfilling the needs and wants of all people to provide quality, safety and livability.
"Everybody should be able to decide freely when to eat what, when to go to bed and how to live. People with disabilities have the same right to live in a nice apartment as people without disability."Raul Krauthausen, author and disability rights activist
Krauthausen makes it very clear: whilst society and individuals generally strive to fulfill the needs of people with disabilities, their right to self-determination is often bluntly ignored – even with the best intentions. Requiring support and assistance for independent living does not equal to assuming dominion over every aspect of a specially abled person’s life. It is everybody’s responsibility to cater to the needs of people with disabilities: at an individual’s very own terms. Communication, negotiation and respect are the keys to inclusion. True empowerment lies in the freedom to make life choices and follow through with them. It is our responsibility as a society and as individuals to facilitate this empowerment.
How do we achieve accessibility?
A wide range of measures comes to mind: structural measures include, for example, tactile floor indicators with grooves and knobs as a guidance system for non-seeing and otherwise visually impaired people. Software like screen readers provides accessibility by converting information displayed on the screen into speech output and Braille, or special magnification programs. A combination of structural measures and hardware aids is, for example, an inductive hearing system in which a microphone signal – for example of a speaker in a lecture hall – can be forwarded to the hearing aids of the people in the room. We have wheelchair ramps included in most public buildings. A wheelchair itself is an assistive technology providing enhanced accessibility. Not less - and not more.
"One week ago, someone talked about me as "the wheelchair". I am not just my medical device. I am not just "the wheelchair" or “the disabled”! I am a human, a person, a woman, a sister, a friend, a daughter and so much more... Everyone is unique and being different should be normal. Don't forget that!"Saskia Melches, disability rights activist
In public spaces, state laws prescribe a supportive infrastructure that facilitates accessibility. Still, all of us know what it is like to be stuck at a sidewalk curb, not being able to cross the street because cars are blocking our way where they are not supposed to be parking. All of us know what it means to face broken elevators and escalators or to find ourselves at a long staircase with no way around it. We are all aware of what it means not to be able to open a door because we may lack the necessary means to do so - because we carry something, for example, or we do not have command over our hands due to illness or other physical conditions. A few examples already suffice to illustrate that, whilst we all have different resources to deal with the lack of accessibility, it still concerns each of us. Essentially, this also means that we all can profit from enhanced accessibility.
Accessibility includes accessibility of online content
Of course, the first hurdle to access online content is owning a connected device and being able to operate it accordingly. This given, accessibility on the internet means that people with disabilities can use an online offer as easily and independently as possible. For accessible web design, basic technical aspects such as different web browser versions, operating systems or screen sizes of devices must be considered. In addition, the content of a website should be findable and usable for everybody.
Barrier-free web design must also consider that people with disabilities could be unable to see or hear the content poorly or not at all - or may otherwise be cognitively and/or motorically impaired. Easy language (often also called plain language) is one possibility to facilitate accessibility. Technical aids may be necessary to use a website. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has created a standard: the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide orientation on the various requirements for barrier-free websites. The WCAG are continuously updated and currently in their third iteration phase.
Accessible web design is a necessity, but still not as widely implemented as it should be – often due to a lack of awareness and/or effort. But the real magic happens when both elements come together: barrier-free design of the environment and accessible web design. Google just recently showed a great example of how to connect the respective advantages. They rolled out more AR and accessibility-focused features in Google Maps.
Let’s shape the future together!
We can conclude that efforts and (especially technical) progress are already there. Still, for many of us who struggle with accessibility issues, necessary measures are taking way too long to implement due to the lack of awareness for people’s needs. There is a lot of room for significant improvements. Environments of any kind must be shaped to include all people as soon as possible. Let's make a difference - together!
Written by Dana Meichsner