Accessibility meetups and my master

I went to a few meetups about accessibility recently. They were about quite a few different subjects, which shows that accessibility is a complex field of design, and not a bug list for developers. There were talks about designing for people on the autistic spectrum, for Deaf people, for deaf people, for blind people and people with poor eyesight, for people who suffered a stroke, and more. I asked most of the speakers if they have an idea why so much stuff is inaccessible.

Why is stuff inaccessible?

Everybody mentioned the so called target audience myth. The target audience of my application doesn’t have any accessibility issues. Once you understand that assumptions are the mother of all fuckups, you know that this is not really an argument. It might be an argument if designing an accessible app would be expensive, or if the result would always be ugly. But this is not the case. Well designed apps that are built with a wide variety of users in mind are — shock! — nice to use for a wide variety of users. Some of the larger operating systems are excellent examples of this.

Everybody mentioned education. Design schools don’t teach accessibility. And if you don’t learn it, you don’t know it’s an issue. I have plugged accessibility into my courses. I teach about colour blindness and people with low vision when we talk about colour contrast. I expect the interfaces my students create to work with the keyboard only. Among others. But that’s just one or two courses out of the many.

A student of mine who visited one of these meetups told me that he had never heard of accessibility during the three years of his study. During my master I’ll try to develop a few accessibility modules that can be plugged into different design courses.

Contradictory preferences

This is not easy. Accessibility is not a simple set of rules you can check off. Sometimes the needs of different people are contradictory. For instance: people with bad eye sight may benefit from high contrast. But for some people on the autistic spectrum high contrast physically hurts their eyes. Can you even solve these things?

One of the visitors to one of the meetups talked about smart defaults to try to solve issues like this one. In this case, he said, it’s often easier to lower the contrast of a design with high contrast, than to enhance the contrast of something with low contrast.

Examples like this one, and the fact that so many designs are still inaccessible, confirm my idea that there’s still a lot of work to be done in (digital) interface design education.