Discover more from The Accessibility Apprentice
The horrifying doom of the neglected
How the world is getting better and worse at addressing everyone's needs over time, and why more technology is not the right solution.
This is another personal issue of “The Accessibility Apprentice”, my accessibility–centred newsletter. If you like my content, share it with your colleagues, friends, and connections, and master accessibility together.
Wheels and ladders
I grew up in a small city, covered in snow for the better part of the year, close enough to the capital to get the latest rumours on time, far enough from the civilisation to ever enjoy its latest achievements.
Human-centred thinking had never been our town’s best feature. In fact, very little concern for humans was given by anyone involved in planning, construction, or operations. Singapore, where bus drivers personally unlock ramps for seniors in electric wheelchairs, makes it easy to forget that considerations for people’s mobility are not always embedded in every city’s DNA.
As if it wasn’t tough enough, life would make up new challenges for the town’s residents, doomed to overcome a never-ending plethora of obstacles.
My perpetually intoxicated old neighbour sat outdoors in his wheelchair, dreaming, perhaps, of the days when he could climb to and from his lonely flat on the fourth storey as he pleased. He would ask local kids to get him snacks from the shop, and we would run up the porch to the space filled to the brim with breads and biscuits. A realm concealed from the likes of my neighbour, guarded by a flight of stairs.
I was roaming the busy streets of Indonesia the other day and came across a young dad pushing his son’s wheelchair up the street. I like to think my neighbour, who had, most definitely, never left our town, would have loved to take a stroll, too.
Raise your hands
Although my town barely had any lifts, those I came across had panels placed so high, riding a lift resembled hitch-hiking: you went nowhere unless you came across a grown-up, the only creature tall enough to press the button.
Light switches in my flat were mounted way above my head, and I would have to stand on a chair to flip them. Somehow, it wasn’t obvious to whoever called the shots that people came in all shapes and sizes.
A Tale of Two Devices
Prior to leaving my country for good, I had purchased two devices for my grandmother, an energetic but hopelessly analogue lady, who was still in mild shock from the introduction of colour television.
The first device was a massive Android tablet. After 6 months of rigorous training, my granny managed to master the art of unlocking it, finding my photo, and tapping it to call me up on Skype. Until this very day, every interface update makes her heart skip a beat. I dread the moment when Skype is rendered obsolete, and Microsoft forces its users to switch to Teams. To the likes of my grandmother, this day will mark the end of civilisation’s connectivity era.
The second device was a feature phone with massive buttons, a tiny screen, and two SIM slots. Forged in the depths of the Cracks of Doom, this phone was lightweight, easy to use, durable, and required practically no training. It makes my granny feel technologically advanced without having to dial me every time all desktop icons change colour after an update. The only way this phone would ever change colour is if she drops it in a vat of paint.
We take it all wrong
A 2003 paper titled “Accessibility of Internet websites through time” sums up that
…increasing complexity, oftentimes caused by adding new technology to a Web page, inadvertently contributes to increasing barriers to accessibility for persons with disabilities.
In other words, websites were already becoming more complex and less accessible 20 years ago. Our tremendous technological achievements came at a cost of sacrificing standards in the name of growth. Small, quiet, unprotected groups stood no chance at earning our attention.
The real world had transformed just as rapidly in the past two decades. Old cities expand and outgrow themselves, and new standards are slowly but steadily becoming the norm: from spacious lifts with wide button panels to barrier-free pavements, low-floor trams, and accessible toilets.
We have come a long way from 1990, when a young Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins led a protest advocating for the civil rights of people with disabilities at the steps of the US Congress.
The digital world is throwing more technology at problems created by technology. Accessibility overlays were a diabolical manifestation of a dream of effortless compliance, and despite its obvious snake–oily nature, companies are still buying into the promise. Even worse, there have been talks of AI, a new kid on the block, having a potential to resolve all accessibility issues once and for all.
Our industry’s perseverance would have been admirable, if the consequences were not so dire.
Turn on the light
In the real world, light switches are installed conveniently low. They are visible, tactile, and accessible for kids, adults in wheelchairs, and people with visual impairments alike. We make sure they fit the interior of the room and the building’s aura.
Imagine if, instead, we opted to keep the original switch 1.5m above the floor for average able-bodied adults and install multiple separate switches below for everyone else. Some newly mounted switches will not be connected at all, others will turn on the AC or call the neighbours instead. We will pick them at random, with no regard for style and taste.
The world I grew up in treated symptoms instead of curing illnesses and generated remedies as solutions. It wouldn’t notice if a lonely old man in a wheelchair, a wee kid with short arms, and an old woman with a technical literacy of a medieval princess disappeared.
The digital world today resembles it a lot. It slaps plasters here and there, if at all, hoping to stumble upon a magic pill. It evolves as fast as it can, rushing towards the bright future where the problems are resolved, but with every issue it tries to tackle, it ends up creating ten more.
More technology is not the answer to the accessibility challenges. Throwing it at the problem is akin to putting more wood on the fire.