Seated at an electronic voting kiosk, Paul Parravano tried to cast a write-in vote for a candidate not listed on the ballot. There was just one problem. Blind since childhood, Parravano was relying on audio directions to navigate the screen before him, instructions he said weren’t descriptive enough for him to follow.
“I listened to them twice,” said Parravano, who serves as co-director of the Office of Government Relations at MIT, “and I was unable to use the write-in functionality at all.”
Fortunately, this wasn’t a hiccup in the real democratic process. Instead, Parravano was one of more than 40 people – including those who are sighted, blind or have other disabilities – taking part in a four-day mock election at Perkins School for the Blind. The election was designed to catch accessibility design flaws in digital voting systems before they’re deployed in the field.
Inside the Grousbeck Center for Students & Technology, voters used a variety of methods to mark their ballots, including touch screens, keypads and a sip-and-puff mechanism, a straw-like device used by individuals with upper body paralysis that sends signals using air pressure. Participants with different degrees of visual impairment also made use of various screen display settings, which included larger text size and different color and contrast options.
“The only way to truly understand the barriers users with disabilities encounter while interacting with digital products is to include them in this kind of user testing,” said Gary Aussant, Director of Digital Accessibility at Perkins Access, the organization’s accessibility consulting arm. “It’s also a great learning experience for our clients, providing a way for them to empathize with the challenges many face on a daily basis using various forms of digital technology.”
In this case, the client was Clear Ballot, a leading election technology innovation firm that has been testing its products with Perkins Access since 2016. The process has worked out well for the company, which lacks the expertise to conduct accessibility testing on its own, said Ed Smith, Clear Ballot’s Vice President of Product Development
“We have the devices, we can get them somewhere for the study,” said Smith. “But Perkins understands the etiquette of working with disabled people, they have connections to the disabled communities, a great campus, great facilities. A lot of the things that would be difficult to impart to researchers, we don’t have to sweat that at all.”
For the mock election, Perkins provided the facility, recruited users and brought in more than 24 trained volunteers to conduct question and answer sessions with participants about their experiences with the kiosks.
Perkins Access experts then provided Clear Ballot with a written report detailing their findings, which the company can use to create a more accessible product and keep in compliance with federal regulations.
For people like Parravano, this type of collaboration represents a necessary step toward creating more accessible elections – where casting a write-in vote is as easy for those with disabilities as it is for those without.
“Voting is a basic right and responsibility and I value it a lot,” he said. “You have to do this kind of testing because I think accessibility is still a big issue.”
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