Making a piece of software accessible to people with a broad range of disabilities is hard, says Vint Cerf, widely recognized as one of the “Fathers of the Internet.”
For someone with visual impairments, they may need magnification, color contrast, or a voice presentation of the interface.
While someone who has a motor disability may need to use a keyboard or an eye-tracking device.
In his The Future of Accessibility keynote address at the axe-con two-day conference, Cerf discussed how accommodations for people with disabilities benefit everyone, why people with disabilities need to be part of the design process, and the importance of empathy.
Here are my notes from his talk.
The Future of Accessibility
- Every time a person with a disability is assisted in some way, you may be positively affecting another six billion people. How? Because the rest of the world interacts with people with disabilities.
- People with disabilities need to be part of the design process. As programmers and designers, we need to listen to them, understand what works, and what doesn’t work.
- Designers need to understand the range of disabilities. Someone with a hearing impairment may be helped with hearing aids. While another person may not be able to hear at all. Both need different accommodations.
- One user interface isn’t likely to be able to address all possible combinations and accommodations required for people with disabilities
- Example of thoughtful design: reduce complexity. Limit the number of choices a user can act on. Having 16 options in a phone automatic response system is overwhelming and confusing to users.
- To create accessible software, consider design principles, design tools, software libraries with well-tested methods.
- One crucial step: create persistent user interfaces. One of the most common user complaints is a changing user interface.
- Cerf was drawn to the Internet partly because email made it easier for him to interact with others. No need to schedule a phone call, figure out time zones when you’re talking with someone on the other side of the world, or struggle with hearing.
- Many programmers aren’t familiar with how to make their software accessible. Why? Because they don’t have experience programming with accessibility.
- Cerf shared the moving story of his wife Sigrid, who received a cochlear implant in her 50’s. Sigrid had spent years lip-reading. After her successful implant surgery, she listened to 500 recorded books on tape so she could learn words she hasn’t heard. Sigrid continued to rediscover sound by attending lectures and listening to classical music.
- Ethical programming is important. Include disability as part of ethical responsibility.
- When asked about how to get buy-in from management for accessibility, Cerf discussed the benefits of introducing accommodations which may grow your user base. Especially if your potential users need that accommodation. In addition, at some point everyone will experience disability. While the disability may be temporary, they will appreciate the accommodation.
- Ultimately, creating accessible products and services is the right thing to do
- Computers are flexible devices. We have no excuse for not adapting computers to accommodate people who need them. Also, it might be a marketing opportunity.
- Empathy is powerful and important for leadership. Lack of empathy affects your ability to lead. Cerf recommended Leading Matters by John Hennessey, specifically the first chapter.
- Asked what he would tell his younger self if he could go back in time, given today’s state of the Internet and digital accessibility, Cerf replied: make a moral commitment in the design process to accommodate people with disabilities.