10 Aprile 2008

ACCESSIBILITY. An interview with Vicki Hanson (IBM)

Vicki Hanson (IBM) received this week at CHI 2008 the Social Impact Award,  for her 30-years work concerning people with disabilities (for example, deaf children, dyslexic kids, and more recently older adults). I’ve interviewed her after she received the prize:

What is meant by “accessibility” today?
“There are two main kinds of accessibility research: one concerns assistive technology and specific devices (e.g. to drive a wheelchair), the other accessible computing, that is allowing people with disabilities to access computers.
Accessibility concerns a lot of users: 1 out of 5 people will suffer from some disabilities during their life, especially as they grow older. And technology is in general a barrier for older adults, because of well documented cognitive declines that make it more difficult to learn. Some have even to leave their jobs because they cannot keep pace with technology.
Or take visual impairment: if you consider low vision, visual impairment is much larger than blindness."

What portion of the Web or computer applications is accessible to users with disabilities?
“Good question. Big companies work a lot to make their applications accessible, it’s the law in most countries and big companies want to comply. Smaller companies are more unlikely to do it.
For the Web, surveys done showed shockingly low numbers. But it depends a lot on what you include in your survey. If you include government sites or large companies sites you could get better numbers. If you focus on social networking sites, you will get worse results.
Developers are often not trained and do not know what to do to make their sites accessible, and individuals put anything on the Web and they might not even be aware of the problem and that their pages should be checked for compliance with accessibility guidelines.
E-commerce and medical information on the Web are two typical examples of services and information that disabled users would like to access and they often feel to be kept out by these stores and sites.”

What could be easily and immediately done?
“Follow W3C accessibility guidelines and use the developer tools recommended by W3C that could help to check your page as you are writing it. However, be also aware that automatic tools have limitations, for example, if you associate dummy text to pictures on a web page, a page checker will give you a high compliance score even if your text is completely unuseful to a blind user who listens to it on her screen reader.”

What does need to be investigated?
“Cognitive disabilities or intellectual disabilities have received less attention. Devices should be thought for these situations, for example a device that reminds you of the daily chores even simple ones like brushing your teeth. With cognitive disabilities, people are so variable that it is difficult to know what to do. You cannot identify a solution that is good for everybody in that users’ group.
For other disabilities, it could be simpler to come up with solutions: for example, there are many kinds of low vision, but you can have just one feature (e.g. color) on the interface that can be adjusted by each individual user to her needs.”

© 2008, Il Sole 24 Ore. Web report from CHI 2008.