Global Accessibility Awareness Day and why it matters

Today, May 21, is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Almost every cause has an awareness day, week or month these days. At times the sheer number of awareness “moments” may feel overwhelming, but if you look at the amount of media attention a cause is able to get on an awareness moment versus the rest of the year such moments can be quite effective in terms of raising awareness.

Why is this day different?

For us as a company, Global Accessibility Awareness Day is quite special. Other awareness days that we participate in focus on a specific group of people that have a shared diagnosis or are using a specific technology such as Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Today, is not about a specific group of people, today is about each and every one of us.

Back in 2011, when Joe Devon called for an Global Accessibility Awareness Day in a blog post, he wanted web developers across the globe to raise awareness and know-how on making sites accessible. Today, the Global Accessibility Awareness Day site states that the purpose of the day is to get people talking, thinking and learning about digital (web, software, mobile, etc.) accessibility and users with different disabilities. That is already a broader scope, but I would like to broaden it even further. I think this day really should be about access for everyone to all technology.

Designing for everyone

Ideally, people with a variety of abilities should be able to access the same mainstream technology wherever possible. Companies such as Apple work hard to make their devices and software accessible irrespective of whether the user may have hearing difficulties, vision problems, fine-motor challenges, or, for that matter, small or large hands, thick or thin fingers, or whether they are left or right handed, young or old. They want their products to be usable by the widest possible range of people. They don’t design a special iPad for children with autism, or a different watch for left handed people. Yet, they invest a lot of effort in making sure that Apple Watch works well for left and right handed people and that iPads have features that work well for kids with autism without sacrificing their utility for, for example, blind users. They aim for universal design. Ease of use, simplicity, and refinement all contribute to making the products better for everyone.

Our responsibility as software developers

We as software developers should be conscious of the fact that our products might be used by people who face challenges we have not even thought of or heard about. In fact, because our software runs on platforms designed for universal access, we should expect this to happen. We need to be aware that if we do not support the accessibility features provided by the platform we are building it for, this will break down the user’s experience and expectations. We don’t want our software to be the cause of disappointment or frustration. Especially not as adding support for accessibility labels to our user interface elements or, for example, making sure we play well with larger text, is generally not a huge amount of work. Thinking about accessibility also tends to lead to better design, because if we make our app easier to use or more customizable for people with disabilities, it will typically be a more pleasant experience for all users. What’s more, we will get older too one day and may be needing those large text sizes or other “accessibility” features. In that sense when we take accessibility into account we really are designing for everyone!

Leading by example

We try to practice what we preach. We work hard to ensure that all of our iOS and Mac apps work with Apple's built-in accessibility technologies such as VoiceOver and Switch Control and we test with a variety of accessibility settings. That does not mean we always get it right straight away. Often it is a work in progress as we add new features or new versions of iOS or OS X come out. But we keep working on it. We typically also offer a range of customization options so that users can tailor the apps to their fine-motor, vision and other needs.

Extending the platform

Where possible we try to extend platform functionality to help make the platform more accessible or provide greater customization options or more efficiency for certain user groups. For example, our recently introduced Keeble keyboard for iPad offers a wide range of customization options that support users with a range of challenges. Our new Wrise word-processor for Mac is not designed as an accessibility tool, but as an easy to use word processor that offers a range of supportive features, from Text to Speech, to zoom and word prediction. It is a text authoring tool with features that any student can benefit from.

We do not want software designed for people with disabilities to look and feel like “a piece of disability-ware” as my friend Joe Barnick would say. But we also do not want mainstream software to ignore accessibility. We need software that is designed for universal use!

David Niemeijer, Founder and CEO of AssistiveWare

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