December 14, 2010

Thinking through Accessibility

It’s a question I hear frequently – not every day, but often enough that it sticks with me: Why do drive-through ATMs have Braille keyboards?

[Collage - A drive-through ATM and a Braille keyboard]

Most Drive-through ATMS feature Braille keyboards

The people who ask this question are generally decent folk; they are hardly what I would consider insensitive, and they truly care about the concepts of respect and inclusion. They ask the question, not out of ridicule, but rather of real curiosity and confusion. The notion of a Braille keyboard at a drive-through location seems some-how incongruous and missing a real point – it just doesn’t make sense to them.

The answer of course is surprisingly simple – the blind user can sit behind the driver in the car and thus do their banking independently, without having to exit the car, go to the bank-counter and have the clerk assist them with their financial needs. Just as for sighted users, it is quick, easy and time-saving.

But the fact that the question continues to be asked underscores a subtle problem: for many people who do not interact with the blind on a regular basis find it difficult to ‘put themselves in the blind user’s shoes’ – to understand the smaller day-to-day accommodations and needs that they just take for granted.

I bring this up today as I am preparing to work on a Change Proposal to the emerging HTML5 Specification. One ‘bug‘, raised by a blind user and re-enforced by other blind participants in the process (as well as many accessibility specialists) concerns the image used for a place-holder when a video is embedded into a web page.

A number of engineers argue that “What is shown on that image to sighted users is what they expect from the video” and thus a textual replacement for the video should equal a textual replacement for the image. I suggest that this response is similar to the initial response that prompts the question “why do drive-through ATMs have Braille keyboards?” – both arise from the perspective of failing to understand that the ‘blind experience’, while very similar to others, is sometimes different in small, nuanced ways. What sighted people ‘expect’ and what blind users ‘expect’ may often not be the same: sighted users expect that to take advantage of a Braille keyboard at a drive-through ATM you must be the driver of the vehicle (which makes no sense to them), whereas blind users expect that whenever they encounter an ATM they are afforded the opportunity to use that machine, whether it is at a walk-up location, or whether they are in the back-seat of a friend’s car.

As I work on my Change Proposal, and submit it to the Working Group at the W3C, it is my hope that those who currently do not understand why this issue is important stop and pause for just a second, and think the problem all the way through: it might not at first make sense that the video and the place-holding image should each require a textual replacement, but then again, for many it does not makes sense at first to put Braille keyboards at drive-through ATMs – but when you stop and think about the question, after a while the answer is obvious.

  1. #1 by Iza Bartosiewicz on December 15, 2010 - 12:05 am

    Hi John,

    Well put! It’s particularly disheartening to read comments from some web developers that web is a visual medium, therefore people with vision impairment should stop ‘demanding’ access to it and ‘spoiling the fun’ for the rest of us.

    I’ve also seen too many websites (developed with the best intentions), where ‘accessibility features’ were clearly based on assumptions of how people with disabilities use the web, what they need, can or cannot do. While it is natural to make assumptions about things we haven’t experienced first hand, all professionals in the UX field should know better than to be guided by them.

  2. #2 by Cheryl on December 16, 2010 - 10:43 am

    Please consider also that the older population may not be physically disabled but there are some very definite things that can make using sites easier and more fun. When icons are bigger, when printing is brighter than the background color and for those of us who are not used to technology, having extremely clear and simple directions help. Remember you are designing something for your mother!

  3. #3 by Cliff Tyllick on January 12, 2011 - 5:16 pm

    John, I’m glad to see that you answered this question the same way I would. In fact, when I first heard it, I responded, “Would you give your ATM card and PIN to a cab driver? Would you expect a blind passenger to do so?”

    I was told that’s actually the wrong answer — that the “right” answer is “universal design.”

    You see, if walk-up ATMs must have Braille keyboards, it’s cheaper to put Braille keyboards on all ATMs — drive-up, boat-up, or even fly-up. ;-)

    I do like our answer better. But the other answer illustrates a point I’ve often found to be true: That achieving universal accessibility often turns out to be no more expensive — and sometimes is cheaper — than the way things were going to be done anyway.

    Retrofitting for any reason is always expensive. So (he preaches to the choir) do it the right way to begin with. Because if there isn’t time to do it right, how will you ever find time to do it over?

  4. #4 by ubermichael on September 13, 2011 - 1:41 pm

    Thanks for posting this John. I was discussing why local parking meters have braille buttons, and remembered reading this when you first posted it. We discussed the possibility of a passenger paying for the parking, and now a few people are rethinking accessibility.

  5. #5 by Edmonton SEO on February 7, 2012 - 12:35 pm

    John, it seems to me that this should have gone far further into the realm of accessibility towards blind users in that while this helps with some videos, more often than not images are stil the main culprit. Too many designers simply do not think of accessability when creating their 'picture perfect' design.

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