Accessibility and technology

HTML code on a black screen.
(Image credit: Pixabay)

The computer is one of the most versatile instruments ever invented. Its functionality is limited only by our capacity to program and our ability to imagine possibilities. Despite this, it has proven to be notoriously hard to deliver, reliably, applications that adapt well to the broad range of accommodations needed to enable access for people with disabilities. Disabilities come in seemingly infinite variation.

About the author

Vinton G. Cerf, VP & Chief Internet Evangelist at Google Cloud.

We should not be surprised at this, since the human body is complex. Some disabilities are temporary (e.g. a broken wrist) and some are chronic and persistent (e.g. deafness, blindness, motor and cognitive impairments). No matter the case, people often need various types of tools to make computer-based applications usable and accessible.

Accessibility issues

I have a progressive neural hearing loss, so I am very dependent on binaural hearing aids to function on a daily basis. My wife has two cochlear implants - a technology that still leaves me astonished that it works. I am reliant on captioning for television, recorded videos and video conference calls. More generally, my disability has made me conscious of the value of technical responses to assist people with disabilities.

We know a lot about various kinds of interventions to improve accessibility. Magnification of images and text, maximization of contrast and font style, “screen readers” to describe orally what is on a computer screen, text-to-speech transcription for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, head-mounts for pointing when arms and hands are not reliable, the list goes on. Some of these features are built into computer, pad and mobile operating systems and can be activated to provide the needed accommodation. It is not always easy to know how to do this easily. Perhaps, more importantly, the designers of computer-based applications may not have experience or intuition in the use of accommodation tools to make design decisions that achieve the desired usability level.

Unless the programmer (or advisor) is an experienced user of screen readers, he or she may not know how to make a web page maximally accessible with available screen readers. Users may not know about configuration options that would make a device more readily useful. Even when we write detailed specifications for color combinations, contrast, font sizes, accommodation for magnification (e.g. does the web page still render in a useful way when magnified?), it may not be the case that a programmer will have the experience and skill to transform recommendations and standards into accessibly-crafted applications.

Website tools

It is here that tools for the crafting of accessible web pages with templates and examples of use might make a difference. Just as the creation of web pages was once done by manually writing HTML-encoded web pages and is now often done with convenient tools for composition and layout, one wishes that there were composition tools that naturally produce accessible web pages. There exist testing tools, guidelines, and web-page composition editors but they often provide only limited guidance or assistance. Programmers seeking to produce accessible applications need to have a lot of experience using mechanisms, standards and accommodation tools to achieve the desired result.

Without a doubt there are some tools aimed at solving this problem but more are needed. We need more training and worked examples of good solutions that would improve tool makers’ ability to help programmers produce accessible digital objects and services. Investing in understanding what makes an application accessible is another area for serious research. Computer professionals need to spend time with people who rely on assistive software and hardware to gain deeper intuition about accessible/usable design. 

Serious research is needed to develop a deeper understanding of perception and how steps can be taken to design for accessibility. Standards are needed to allow users to express their configuration requirements so that various operating systems can easily support accessible applications. Application programming interfaces and libraries are needed to support configuration for accessibility. Training for accessible design should be a requirement for programmers intending to create applications for users with disabilities.

Almost there with accessibility

I believe that many of the ingredients we need are already present, including a few people with extraordinary backgrounds and experience in designing for accessibility. We need to distill this knowledge and incorporate it into reality available applications intended to help programmers produce accessibility by design. While by no means trivial, there is considerable experience in the computer science and engineering communities, but the tools needed to achieve reliable accessibility continue to be elusive. None of these ideas are new. They just need to be applied with increased determination and with codified practices.

These are exciting times for some accessibility capabilities. Speech to text, text to speech, speech recognition and understanding, language translation, speech re-rendering for improved acuity, optical character recognition (e.g. to translate menus), machine learning tools to improve interaction with voice, video and text for people with disabilities are all examples of technology developed in aid of accessibility. We can expect more to follow.

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Vinton G. Cerf, VP & Chief Internet Evangelist at Google Cloud.