5.3 Creating an Accessible Digital Future


  • Accessibility and inclusivity have come a long way in the technology space, but more still needs to be done, write two computing experts.
  • Screen readers are a key component of accessible tech but not all websites are accessible still.
  • Including people with disabilities in the design process gives an increased understanding of the issues faced and how to resolve them.

Unless you’re blind or know someone who is, you might not know that blind people use the same smartphones as sighted people. In fact, many blind people use touch-screen smartphones every day. The secret is that smartphones have a screen reader, a tool that allows blind people to use a mix of gestures and taps, along with vibrations or audio feedback, to use their apps.

Screen readers work on desktop computers as well as mobile devices. You can usually find the screen reader in settings under accessibility. On iPhones the screen reader is VoiceOver. It provides a verbal description of what’s on the screen, including buttons to click and other actions available to the user. A well-designed website or app user interface makes the information on the website or app accessible to the screen reader, which makes it accessible to blind users. However, a badly designed website or application will be rendered invisible to a screen reader.

It’s not just a matter of fairness and inclusion. Accessible technology is generally better for everyone. An app or website that causes problems for a screen reader is likely to be more difficult than an accessible app or website for anyone to use because it will take more time or effort.

Observing people is good; their participation is better

At first, user interface designers found that the best way to create accessible technology was to study how people with different disabilities used touch screens. For example, early researchers reported that blind users sometimes found locating small icons and specific numbers on the on-screen keypad difficult and time-consuming.

To solve this, accessibility researchers used the whole touch screen as an input and navigation control, like a game console controller. Instead of having to touch a particular part of the screen, users can tap anywhere in response to audio prompts. These insights would have been impossible to come by without including blind people in the evaluation and design of touch screens.

User interface design best practices have long included users in the design process. Including users with disabilities results in more accessible technology. Yet many technologies are still not accessible out of the box to users with disabilities.

One way to make apps and websites more accessible is to have people with disabilities designing the technologies. But the design process itself is not very accessible to those very people. Few tools in the user interface designer toolbox are themselves accessible. It’s a Catch-22.

A better future is accessible

Accessibility is an issue that touches everyone. Providing access to technology is legally required in most cases. In the past, organizations that failed to provide adequate access have faced lawsuits.

But accessibility is also a hallmark of good technology. Many technologies that people take for granted today came about when innovators designed for users with disabilities, including optical character recognition, which allows computers to read printed text.

Building accessibility into the design process is crucial. And while it is useful for designers to be aware of how users with disabilities interact with technologies, the most powerful insights may come from those with disabilities themselves. No matter how much empathy designers glean from researching user behaviour and preferences, it can’t replace the benefits of having a piece of technology built by people who use it.