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Overcoming Environmental Barriers

Whitney Quesenbery

Whitney Quesenbery is a past-president of UPA, and director of the UPA Usability in Civic Life Project. She has served on two US federal advisory committees writing usability and accessibility requirements for voting systems, and recommendations to update Section 508.

On May 3, 2008, something extraordinary happened: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities went into effect. The goals of the Convention are lofty: it insists that all persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms and sets out 8 guiding principles and obligations to meet them.

At the Joint International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and G3ict Forum 2008 on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Challenges and Opportunities for Information Computing Technology (ICT) Standards at ITU in Geneva, I chaired a panel on "Human interfaces: design for accessible ICTs." This is my introduction to the session:

The preamble of the Convention says that disability results from the interaction with environmental barriers. Those of us who work in information and computing technology (ICT) create part of that environment.

ICT has been a powerful force in enabling full participation, and an equally powerful force in creating new barriers. Sometimes it seems that we must repeat this cycle of creating and overcoming barriers with each new technology. One of our goals should be to break this cycle, and start to imagine new products and new technologies for all.

The human interface, the design of ICT as part of the human environment, is a place where accessibility intersects with usability and user centered design. It is not enough to think about designing for "many" or even "most" of the people who will use a product; we need to think about all users. It is not enough to assume that people with disabilities will "adapt" products; we need to think about designing for universal use.

We understand human abilities on a continuum, and that any individual may occupy different places on that continuum at different times as their environment and abilities change: a person with a disability may be a "power user", while someone who is simply uncomfortable with a technology, or in an environment that creates barriers may only stumble through its use.

Removing the absolute barriers to access is a critical step, but it does not guarantee that the product will now be usable to people with disabilities. I mean "usable" in the full definition of usability (from the ISO standard): that the people for whom a product is intended can use it an effective, efficient and satisfying way.

As an example from my work on US voting systems, when voters who use the accessible audio interface take up to 45 minutes to vote (an activity that is often legally limited to 5 minutes), this is an excellent example of access provided without usability.

Access without usability has removed only one barrier: It takes access plus usability to provide usable accessibility.

As Clayton Lewis once said, "usability" (and I add, accessibility) "is not something to smear on the surface like peanut butter." It must be designed in from the beginning.

The speakers on the panel were:

  • Bill Curtis-Davidson, IBM - "Designing for universal accessibility" How organizations can incorporate universal design to integrate accessibility services and technologies into mainstream solutions
  • Tom Stewart, ISO TC 159/ SC 4 - "ISO work on Ergonomics for accessible ICTs" The work of ISO to bring all together ergonomics, usability, accessibility and human centred design processes into one family of standards
  • Stephen Furner, ETSI TC Human Factors - "ETSI Human Factors activities in the European context (Putting users at the centre of technology)"
    The work of ETSI HF to create standards on the means to accommodate the needs of the disabled and the growing numbers of older users
  • Gregg Vanderheiden, University of Wisconsin-Madison Trace Center, Chair, INCITS/V2, ISO/IEC, JTC 1/SC35 - "Making Access Attainable for the Other 25 - 75% of Users with Disabilities" Projects to make assistive technology more universally available, through the use of repurposed mainstream technologies

For more information:

Joint ITU and G3ict Forum program and presentations

United Nations Enable - the text of the Convention and the latest developments.

Map of countries that have signed or ratified the convention as of 30 April 2008


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