Universal Access: Not Just for the Disabled

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 12 January 2005

Paying attention to one group’s disabilities enhances usability for everyone else.

“It’s wonderful! I can finally tell when my phone is about to die,” Joanne Becker exclaimed ecstatically as her cell dutifully – and audibly – announced its battery level, making her an instant convert to the Mobile Speak accessibility program. Sure, as the software’s product manager, Becker might be biased. Then again, she is also completely blind, making it difficult to contain her joy at finally being able to use features in her cell phone that most of us take for granted, like seeing the signal level, reading the caller ID, or scrolling through menus.

Although we rarely stop to consider it, much of the information presented on our mobile devices relies on a specific sense for correct interpretation. Most modern handsets beep, blink or vibrate energetically to attract our attention. But after that, it’s every sense for himself. Most phone interfaces are essentially unusable by those impaired in any way, and, as a result, pretty difficult for the rest of us as well. By making these devices more universally accessible, we might end up making them more usable, as well.

Market forces and economics dictate that manufacturers place a higher priority on features such as size, battery life and aesthetic appeal than on less sexy concerns such as accessibility, simplicity and usability. Although most companies pay lip service to usability, the race to offer next-generation features such as cameras, MP3 players and PDA software has focused many more man-hours on embedding components, redesigning circuit boards and reinventing buttons than on developing experiences that emphasize facility over novelty.

Thanks to product life cycles that rival the mayfly’s, manufacturers often test in the wild, releasing clumsy interfaces upon hapless consumers, hoping to address inevitable problems with software upgrade later on. The first version of Nokia’s Series 60 UI, for example, buried the popular clock application deep within a submenu that required a considerable amount of clicks, joystick twiddling and determination to unearth. Likewise, Motorola’s Timeport phones informed users they had missed a call, but provided no clear method of finding out any additional information, like who it was from.

Although manufacturers have no choice but to tailor their phones to the able-bodied, sighted, and hearing majority of their customers, the simple exercise of thinking through some of the issues involved in developing hardware and software for those with disabilities will reap rewards far beyond a niche product line and some goodwill PR. It’s an approach called “universal accessibility,” and it means prioritizing accessibility when making design decisions. Every knob, feature, and function is developed from the perspective of making it usable by the widest number of people. Making doors six inches wider, for example, allows wheelchairs to pass through them. Turns out, it also allows residents of wheelchair-accessible apartments to purchase grand pianos.

Of course, the speed with which the Internet was built made the value of universal accessibility more apparent. As Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee so eloquently put it, “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” This is no simple task in an interactive medium. Accommodating one disability often disqualifies another. But by the same token, sometimes developing a feature for the disabled, such as optical character recognition or voice-synthesized text, can turn into a great feature for everyone. Voice commands on cell phones made phone books accessible not only to the blind, but to the driving.

Even more mundane assistive technologies, such allowing users to tab through links as they browse Web sites and applications, has made the same sites much more accessible to WAP and mobile phone users. By the same logic, designing wireless interfaces with maximum usability for a maximum of users will make them more broadly accessible down the road. How accessible? The imagination is the only limit.

We may be a few years short of realizing Ray Kurzweil’s cybernetic vision of “noninvasive nonbiological intelligent nanobots…extending our cognitive capacity” and allowing our neurons to interact directly with our machines. But companies such as Cyberkinetics and Neural Signals have had success implanting electrodes directly into the brain, allowing people with serious disabilities to exert control over the world using just their thoughts. Researchers admit that this is rather invasive, and requires a lot of training - so those with devastating disabilities are certainly more motivated to do it. But it’s also the first step in a universal brain interface, accessible to us all.

On a less invasive and potentially more immediate level, the BrainPort, developed by Wicab, uses a strip of electrodes on the tip of the tongue to deliver a full range of sensory data to the brain. Just as Braille substitutes tactile dots for letters, the BrainPort substitutes one set of cues for another, except it does so directly to the brain, allowing for the translation of more abstract information.

Wicab’s promotional material reveals a lot about the way such technologies tend to evolve: “Proven applications include normal balance control for disabled vestibular patients, vision for the blind, and a whole new dimension in video games.” Tackling inner ear disease brings us a better Super Mario.

Moreover, while direct-to-brain interfaces have the potential to make communications technologies more accessible to people with a broad range of disabilities, they only reinforce the need for us to incorporate universal accessibility strategies sooner than later. After all, you wouldn’t want to tab mentally through 20 menus while holding down Menu-Left Arrow just to check your SMS messages while you’re seeing with your tongue.