These are the assignments the teams received.

Design something for Larissa

Larissa is a computer science student at the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam. Larissa is blind. Last year she followed the UX minor at the Communication, Multimedia and Design department at the same university. This is where I met her.

Besides being a student she is actively involved in trying to make the university more accessible for people with a disability. She promised not to leave our university before all buildings and all systems are accessible. She has ambitions!

Larissa grew up on a farm on Texel, and island in the north of The Netherlands. Whenever possible she returns to the farm.

She uses a screenreader to listen to the things going on on her computer and her phone. She uses a braille rule as well. This turns text on screen into braille.

She has a guide dog.

All systems I have to use at university — but outside as well — are unusable. Schedules, our digital courses, the systems that logs our progress, they’re all completely unusable. I can tell my screenreader to read all links on a page. This feature is not very useful when all links are read out as “read more”. Grade lists are incredibly complex, so for me there’s no way to keep track of what’s going on.

At the moment a few quick fixes are hacked together to try and solve some of the worst issues. This is no sustainable solution.

Many things that should be digital are still not digital yet. Assignments on paper for instance. Paper books.

One of the biggest problems I have is finding the way in places I don’t know yet. This is hard for everyone of course, but I really have to clue what’s around me. I regularly have to go to school buildings I haven’t been to before. I have no idea how to get to the exact room I have to go to. The inconsistent room numbers don’t help. How do I get to a first appointment on my own? How can I learn the route?

Lessons are not made for blind people. Most material is unusable: slides without notes, without alternative text for images, documents are badly structured, unstructured PDFs, bad design.

Some of the digital handbooks we get use forms generated with Microsoft Word that don’t work well. Graphs or other wonderful information design without alternative representations.

At computer science I have to work with IDEs that are completely inaccessible.

Assignments like sketching, collecting images, using visual editing programs, making clickable prototypes, all these things I can not do.

Often assignment are impossible for me: working together, switching groups. All very hard to do for me. For one assignment recently we had to observe people who walk from the train station to the bus.

Basically: teachers don’t know there are people with disabilities. As long as teachers don’t know this, and as long all material and all buildings remain inaccessible, fewer people with disabilities will come and study.

The buildings of our university are inaccessible. Toilets for people with disabilities are placed in hard to reach, far away corners of the building. Elevators do speak, but they often lie, and their buttons are positioned in random places. Cafetarias are inaccessible, new coffee machines with touch screens, printers with touch screens — I always have to use the print shop which is more expensive, and has a long waiting time.

But first times are the hardest. Meeting classmates for the first time is exciting for everyone, but I really have no idea what’s going on around me, what everybody is doing.

Design something for Arnold

Arnold used to be a professor in New Greek language and history at the University of Amsterdam. He’s retired over ten years ago.

He still works on his research daily. He publishes articles, books, and he gives guest lectures — fewer in recent years.

In the last decade his hearing abilities are steadily declining.

He reads a lot.

He has a pretty busy social life, mostly thanks to his spouse Totoula. Personally he prefers the lifestyle of a hermit. He can mostly be found in his home office in the attic.

He spends every summer with the family in Greece. There’s a continuous stream of friends and family passing by the house. To escape the fuss he works in the garden, reads a book in the hammock, or works on his research under an olive tree.

Every week he visits his granddaughter in Amsterdam. He regularly visits his two other granddaughters who live in Luxembourgh.

He works on a Macbook

He has a mobile phone, a nokia.

He prefers using a landline.

Instead of sounding a ringtone his landline flashes a bright light

He uses a hearing aid with some extra extensions, like a pointing mic for specific situations.

People have to look at me when the talk to me. If people talk to me from aside or from the back I can’t hear them

My right ear is even worse than the left. I always have to choose the right spot to sit. The more mute voices to the left.

I have to make sure that people don’t talk at the same time.

My hearing aid can’t suppress the environmental sounds enough. Loud voices and background music make a conversation with a small group of people impossible.

I have a hard time following people who speak Dutch with a dialect, of people who speak Flemish. All the time I’m behind trying to identify the sound of words.

I can follow an ongoing conversation in a group that’s not too big for quite a while. At least, if there’s not too much distraction. Sudden changes in subject confuse me. It would help is new subjects were clearly named, or repeated.

Conversations can’t be too long. I loose my concentration after a while.

I start to loose my interest in certain subjects. I start daydreaming.

In general I am able to follow talks at conferences if I have a good spot relative to the speaker (provided they don’t have too soft a voice). I immediately loose track during the discussiona after the talk.

My extension for my hearing aid makes it able for me to follow people the discussion in a meeting. As soon as people talk too fast, or if they talk at the same time I can’t understand them.

I have a very hard time understanding children, both in Dutch and in Greek. Young Greek people, both female and male are very hard to understand as well. Not sure if it’s the tempo? The pitch maybe?

I have no problems whatsoever using the computer. I can hear everything when I use the landline at home with a speakerphone. The only thing is that I can’t recognise individual voices, which is a problem with Greek people who don’t speak their name when answering the phone.

My mobile phone is very hard to use. Ambient sounds overrule soft voices. I always ask people to confirm with a text message. I mostly use my mobile phone to tell Totoula which time my train arrives.

Totoula, my wife, has a different experience. To her I’m some sort of a Professor Calculus. I give wrong answers. I’m very much on guard in unfamiliar situations. But at home or with friends I don’t care too much if I’m answering a completely different question.

My understanding of spoken conversations is 60% hearing and 40% guessing based on context.

Design something for Marijn

I met Marijn online, on IRC, more than 15 years ago. Only after quite a while did I find out he is severely physically disabled. It takes him an immense amount of effort to have a little control over his muscles. Talking is very hard. Typing is very hard.

He has a heavy, advanced electrical wheelchair.

Mentally there’s nothing wrong with Marijn. On the contrary. He’s a brilliant programmer.

Het CTO of a large tech company. He helped build it up. He was able to join the company because they knew him. Before that he applied for a job once, but was rejected.

Two days in the week he works from the office in Amsterdam, the rest of the week he works from home. He travels by train. He does own a car, yet he doesn’t always have a chauffeur.

I used to meet him every now and then at concerts of stoner rock bands like Monster Magnet. You could find him right up front, in his heavy wheelchair, in the middle of the mosh pit.

He doesn’t go out that much anymore since he has two young kids.

I wanted to study at the technical university in Twente, in the Netherlands. They had no idea at all what to do with me. I could finally attend the technical university in Eindhoven.

After a few years I quit. There are to many things part of the program that cost me too much time yet are of not much use for me personally: writing a paper of a few pages will cost me a few weeks, and it’s completely useless for me. While thinking it up is easy.

A very small part of programming is typing code. By far the biggest part is thinking of how to do it. I’m much better at that than many others. Most people just start typing. How do you test that at a university?

Small things are bizarrely hard. A while ago the internet at home stopped working. The helpdesk asked me to pull the plug out of the wall socket and put it back in after 30 seconds. This took me half an hour.

I can create custom built solutions for small repetitive tasks myself. For instance I created a button that opens the door when I’m really close to it. I do accidentally press on it every now and then.

I can make things because I know how these things work. Other people with comparable handicaps will have to spend fortunes for these kinds of very specific thingies.

The train. It’s almost too obvious to complain about that. I just want to take a train whenever I feel like it. Yet in The Netherlands I have to announce the exact date and time in advance. So weird that this is still how it works!

Everybody has no clue of what you are able to do, or who you are. I understand that. Most people don’t have regular contact with severely disabled people.

But maybe it’s possible that people look at people with disabilities differently? Kids have a much more relaxed attitude. They ask a few questions, and when you answered them it’s done.

Grown ups don’t ask these questions. Or only after a long time. It does help when they’re drunk.

Design something for Hidde

Hidde is a frontend developer. He works on project basis for large organisations where he build the graphical user interface of websites and web applications. One of the reasons why he loves his profession is because it’s possible to create interfaces on the web that are usable by people with disabilities. This requires a team effort though. Accessible design is not something a front-end developers should add at the end of the product development line. It’s a design effort. More often than not he sees that accessibility is not on the agenda of the companies he works for.

He needs management support.

Somehow sustainability is well placed on the corporate agenda. Many companies have a list of stamps on parade that show — or at least give the impression — that their products and services are environmentally friendly. An enormous, innovative industry grew around this issue. Somehow a subject that’s not obviously profitable did become top priority for many.

Accessibility is not high on the agenda of (senior) management. Many art directors don’t know it exists. Management thinks it’s expensive. Some creatives it results in boring designs. How can we change these attitudes? How can we get accessibility, both physical and digital, high on the agenda to make it as obvious as something like sustainability.

Accessibility used to be, at best, an afterthought. In the final fase of production we used to get a bug list with accessibility issues. These were meant to be solved technically by a developer. In a hurry. With Duct tape.

I gave a few presentations for the team I currently work with and this put accessibility onto our agenda. Our product owner is on it as well. And accessibility is explicitly mentioned when we look for new recruits. It’s on out definition of done.

But how do we make sure this stays? How do we make this part of our corporate culture? What if the current product owner finds another job? What is I move to my next job? Chances are that attention weakens. How do we keep accessibility top of mind in a changing organisation?

Accessibility costs money. At the moment at least. There’s a lot we have to discover. Many things about accessibility are still unknown so we need quite some research. But what are the benefits? How do you sell accessibility within an organisation that’s judged on short term results?

Accessibility is considered to be unsexy by more visually focused designers. Can this be changed? Fashion could play a role. An example: at the moment extremely low contrasts are in vogue, grey letters on a grey background. Unreadable for many people. Is it possible to create an unchanging aversion for these kinds of things? An aversion that lasts longer than a few years?

The impact of accessible design is not immediately obvious or measurable. It can even be completely invisible. Or unknown. Many people don’t even know it exists. What’s the problem? Our sites looks beautiful, doesn’t it?

Managers like to work with things like KPIs or NPS scores. Is there a way to fit accessibility into these kinds of tools?

What about legislation? Can this help even if it’s a negative stimulus? There’s a UN human rights treaty which states that people with disabilities have equal rights. This will result in new legislation.

We don’t hear enough from people with disabilities themselves. Of course these two situations can not be compared, but we often get loads of complaints and compliments when we change part of the site. Yet we never hear anything from people with disabilities. Is the group too small? To diverse?