Thread Subject: Re: Definition of accessibility
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From: Jim Tobias
Date: Thu, Nov 09 2006 9:05 PM
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From: Gregg Vanderheiden [mailto: = EMAIL ADDRESS REMOVED = ]
Sent: Thursday, November 09, 2006 2:57 PM
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Subject: [teitac-subparta] Definition of accessibility
The question has come up as to whether we should try to define
This comes up in many committees I have worked on.
The conclusion the other groups came up with was.
One really can't make products that are accessible.
One can make things accessible to a person in a situation.
One can't make things accessible to a person in all situations.
One can't make things accessible to all people.
So our guidelines are "minimum accessibility guidelines"
They include some things that make products more accessible but not
So we shouldn't try to define products as being accessible.
The second reason to not define it is that at some point in the discussion
you end up saying "usable". This immediately triggers a discussion of
accessibility vs usability and things go south pretty fast from there.
Finally, unless we use the word "accessible" in one of the provisions in
some normative way - it doesn't need to be defined.
Just some thoughts.
Avoiding the difficulty of formulating a sound definition is cowardice in
the face of the enemy! Careful, Gregg, or they'll take away your license
to practice in academia! ;-)
I think it's important to do a better job about this definition, for two
reasons. First, it's important to show others what we've done if in fact we
fail to define it. It saves our posterity further wasted effort. If we
give up, we should give up loudly and in public! Second, we may succeed in
making a good definition, and in doing so clarify some matters that are
really practical, and not just theoretical. If it's any consolation, we
have similarly poor, multiple definitions of "disability", especially in the
context of technological accessibility.
So to begin, defining "accessibility" is not the same as identifying a
product as "accessible". The former is a theoretical construct; the latter
is a label. I agree that we can't label a product as accessible, because
products are nothing without their users and their user's purposes,
histories, situations, expectations, etc. Really -- products are lifeless,
meaningless crap without users. Truly accepting this principle is
remarkably difficult for those of us who want to keep addressing clear
technical problems, and in doing so keep ignoring the difficult, opaque,
human realities that are the only real barriers to success. I would be glad
to debate this in detail with anyone, but I don't think anyone really doubts
it. It's just that making progress on that front seems impossibly complex,
compared with writing kewl kode.
One way we could proceed is to identify a human purpose behind the encounter
with a product: "I want to set this timer to record a show so I can view it
later." We could then list all the steps the user would have to perform in
order to set the timer. These might include lifting and holding a remote
control, pointing it at the recorder, pressing certain buttons in a certain
order, etc. Each of these tasks imposes a certain requirement, skill level,
etc. We may be able to say that if any of those functional requirements is
too high for a given user, it is inaccessible to that user. This much is
clear, and seems correct: there is no disability outside of the user's
interaction with the product.
But can we say anything about the characteristic of the product without
referring to a specific user? Yes, if we're interested in understanding the
total social effect of "accessibility". We could get all demographic, and
say "the button-pushing step imposes a functional requirement for finger
dexterity that 11% of the potential population of users cannot meet". We
could put the whole sequence of steps up against all the dimensions of human
functioning and everything that is known about the distribution of human
abilities. We could make very cool visualizations of this, showing the
intersections of various human performance curves with the functional
requirements of the steps of operating the product.
We could certainly use it to compare products, and compare redundant paths
within each product's usage space. What if you could set the timer without
using the remote? Or if you could set it from a web interface? I think
developing such a tool could be a very useful enterprise. It would collect
and congeal various practical principles we already know about as rules of
thumb, such as "redundancy" and "adapt an interface from an environment of
high success into an environment of low success".
There are probably many such approaches that deserve study. It might be
easier to define inaccessibility than accessibility, for example....
One way of looking at "accessibility" is as a "raw material". What we
really care about is not "accessibility", it's "access". That is, our goal
is successful use by individuals with disabilities, a measurable outcome of
some sort: productivity, educational attainment, etc. At some point in the
process of implementing a technology by or for a person with a disability,
raw "accessibility" is converted into "access". Perhaps "accessibility" is
a measure of the efficiency of the conversion, or how automatic it is,
requiring no further intervention.
However, caring about "access" puts us in the position of permitting
individual accommodations or other interventions, rather than the
automatically successful use that is the supposed experience of non-disabled
users. Some of us may think that's not the right strategy to use, as it
reverts to a discredited model of disability that focuses on the person's
"inherent inability" rather than the interaction between the person and the
designed environment, and thus absolves the product's flawed design from
accountability. Nevertheless, I think that the relationship between
"accessibility" and "access" is a key part of understanding what TEITAC is
engaged in as an attempt to resolve the incompatibilities of certain
technological practicalities with a sense of the universal civil right of
I hope others will participate in this dialogue.
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