Is it accessibility or is the problem the disabled user?

There is a big challenge that is becoming bigger and bigger with increasing digitalisation: There are persons who cannot cope even with relatively accessible solutions.

Article Content

Distinguish accessibility challenges from personal challenges

In my trainings I always have a slide somewhere where the question is how to distinguish accessibility challenges from personal challenges. I receive countless enquiries about this, which can be divided into two categories:

  • Personal preferences
  • Limited experience with digital technologies

These challenges are increasing, as stated above, because many processes are essentially digital only. Do you remember the last time you filled out a bank transfer? Bought a ticket at a counter? Ordered a pizza by phone? Opened a street map? Looked up a number in a printed phone book or the printed Yellow Pages? At least not me, and probably in the foreseeable future this will be as exotic as the lady from the office who was supposed to transfer telephone calls manually. For us, it's a hassle, but it's doable.

On the other hand, I have quite a few persons in front of me who have never done these things in their lives - and some of them are much younger than I am. I have blind persons who I have to guide very laboriously through Zoom, a programme whose basic functions I consider completely unproblematic. I have persons who do not do online banking because they do not want to or cannot.

Accessibility is not always Usability for Disabled

Now it is correct that many applications are compliant in terms of accessibility, but still disastrous to use. Many experienced blind persons would agree.

But the truth is that there is an unavoidable degree of complexity. You can't make a transfer to someone else's account without entering an IBAN, order items without a recipient's address, or buy tickets without specifying where to go and where to arrive. An additional, but unfortunately necessary task are the security queries. They can certainly be designed more comfortably, but that they have to be there.

Of course, all this, poor usability despite formal accessibility and the security mechanisms can be chalked up as additional barriers, but that does not solve the problem.

The Failures and Bugs of assistive Technology

Another factor here, however, seems to be the poor stability of the various components. My programmes crash several times a day and I am relatively sure that it is due to the interaction between client and assistive technology. My past with Zoomtext and Fusion also goes back tens of years, but at that time I had similar experiences, which are still confirmed by some persons with whom I have contact. What the manufacturers of assistive technologies are selling is sometimes really buggy junk.

In the end, however, it is also due to the lack of training of the persons concerned - both in terms of computer use and in dealing with assistive technologies. They spend 3000 € for a Jaws licence, but save the 200 € for the training. persons need to know at least the basics and that doesn't seem to be the case for many of them.

Sure, we can dream that software quality will increase immensely in the next few years. But that's probably not going to happen. Even the revolution in assistive technology that I'm somewhat hoping for won't happen in the foreseeable future because we can't convince enough persons to work on it. I imagine, for example, software that assists disabled persons in using complex user interfaces.

Cut of the modern World

Unfortunately, these persons are not only cut off from more or less dispensable goodies. It is more convenient to do one's banking from home, but that is not the point. The point is that the work of the present and the future in the office sector is primarily work with complex software tools. Formatting a document in Word, writing a few formulas in Excel, that's no longer enough. Rather, we have countless browser-based tools that cannot be bypassed and that cannot be taken over by an assistant because they are part of our work. This means that employers cannot employ persons who cannot use these programmes because problems at this level cannot be solved with a few Jaws scripts.

To answer the opening question: We need to address both areas, the one behind the screen and the one in front of it. But this also means that the responsibility does not always lie with the software producers, but also with those who lack experience. That is the first step to empowering them to use computers easier.

Read more