This blog post was written by Alex Li, Senior Accessibility Policy and Standards Strategist at Microsoft – Alex works with national and international standards organizations to improve the level of Accessibility for people with disabilities.
Throughout my career I have often been asked the question, “Is product X accessible?” by people new to the field as well as experts in accessibility. At first consideration, the concept of a product being either “Accessible” or “inaccessible” seems reasonable; however, the complexities of technology, paired with the unique combination of abilities we all possess, make the concept of a product being “Accessible” less black and white.
There are many different types of disabilities, each requiring unique solutions. Because of this, any given product or service will perform differently depending on the needs of the individual. This makes assessing a product or service far more involved than simply running through a yes or no checklist. Such a binary approach fails to consider the complexity that comes with the gamut of disabilities, each with different performance requirements.
In my work, the term Accessible is often used to describe whether something meets a defined technical standard. However, there is no single Accessibility standard that covers every type of disability. Should a product fail to meet an Accessibility standard, the designation does not necessarily differentiate between a failure of a core feature, a little used feature, or with all features. Conversely, using a binary approach to define a product as Accessible or not also fails to indicate where a product or service might actually exceed the requirements and recommendations.
Imagine being a parent and only being able to see a single pass/fail grade for your child’s entire school year. Wouldn’t it make it difficult to understand and help improve her individual performance in mathematics, literature, science, etc. if all of those details were reduced into a single mark? Evaluating student performance is impossible without more detail. Similarly, when we merely ask whether a product is Accessible or not we are not getting the full picture.
The more meaningful discussion for our industry is to discuss how products and services are Accessible, and for whom, rather than whether they are accessible. This framework provides a much richer context from which we can better understand and prioritize the improvements that are needed to meet the needs of people of all ages and abilities.