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.