Technology today, despite how rapidly it advances, remains inaccessible to millions of people with disabilities. This begets a critical question: In a society constantly impacted by technological developments, how can digital designers ensure advancements are also more inclusive?
Last week, Perkins School for the Blind, in tandem with User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA) Boston, hosted a talk on campus to explore that question. Attended by more than 80 digital design professionals, the event highlighted not only the moral imperative behind creating accessible technology, but also the broader benefits and opportunity of doing so present to both society and businesses.
“The beginning of the innovation process isn’t about technology,” said Perkins President and CEO Dave Power. “It’s about uncovering the unmet needs of the people you serve.”
The discussion was thereafter led by Gary Aussant, director of digital accessibility with Perkins Access consulting services, which walks diverse companies through the entire process of designing for digital accessibility. During his presentation, Aussant illustrated the reality of inaccessibility, explaining how technological barriers often bar people with disabilities from utilizing digital services. Worse still, he pointed to survey findings suggesting 60 percent of people who rely on assistive technology believe things aren’t getting better or are getting worse.
“That’s really alarming,” he said. “We have to design for the greater good.”
That opportunity is what the rest of the talk focused on.
Aussant said most companies “design for the majority” to their own detriment, as this strategy stifles innovation. Smart organizations, he said, design for outlier populations and embrace accessibility in the earliest design phases because it’s simply good for business and innovation.
Aussant noted designing for people with disabilities can result in the creation of products with additional, unforeseen value. As an example, he made reference to the physical world, where curb cuts – entry ramps smoothed into sidewalks – were mandated in the early 1990s so people in wheelchairs could safely cross the street.
“Think about the benefits those had for other people – parents with strollers, people on bicycles or skateboards, homeless people with shopping carts,” he said. “There are a lot of benefits from this simple thing, which was really designed for people in wheelchairs.”
He added not all disabilities are permanent and even people without any physical impairment would still benefit from accessible technology. As an example, he cited multi-taskers, trying to use an app while carrying a bag of groceries or holding a child.
“If you extend it there, you can really see the benefits of designing universally,” he said.
Indeed, Perkins Access itself has grown in recent years as an increasing number of organizations see those benefits and seek consultation to design in accordance with the latest accessibility standards.
The night, however, wasn’t just about the headlining talk. Before and after the discussion, which included a lively question and answer session, attendees networked inside the Grousbeck Center for Students and Technology, learned about Perkins’ mission and shared their own thoughts with one another. Though it was a diverse crowd, they all shared one fundamental belief, as succinctly put forth by Power: “We have to make the world more accessible.”