Why Accessibility Is the Future of Tech

By John Brownlee | Modus Medium, September 4, 2019

Designing solutions for people with disabilities offers a peephole into the future.

“It’s just the right thing to do.”

Very few people think that those of us who are blind should be exiled from the web altogether, or that people with hearing loss shouldn’t have iPhones. That’s as it should be. But all too often, the importance of accessibility — the catch-all term for designing technology that people with disabilities can use — is framed in terms of charity alone. And that’s a shame because it makes accessibility seem grudging and boring, when the reality is that it’s the most exciting school of design on the planet.

Accessibility is a crystal ball through which we can view the all-encompassing future of tech.

Let’s put it this way: Every time you talk to Siri, or let YouTube caption a video for you, or search for a picture of your dog in Google Photos by typing in “puppy,” you’re using an accessibility feature in everything but name. Every time you switch your iPhone to night mode, dictate an email while you’re driving a car, or ride a hover board, you’re also taking advantage of a technology that was first designed to help people with disabilities.

Accessibility isn’t just the “right” thing to do; it’s also critical right now to the day-to-day computing of every person on Earth. But even that understates the reality, which is that accessibility is probably the most important and exciting frontier in design right now. Far from being something that designers pursue grudgingly, it should be viewed as what it is: a crystal ball through which we can view the all-encompassing future of tech.

Here are three reasons why accessibility should excite everyone:

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: You might think that you’re not living with a disability so accessibility shouldn’t matter to you. But you are living with a disability, you just don’t know it yet.

According to the CDC, one in every four Americans is living with a disability, which maths out to over two billion people globally. But that only accounts for people who currently qualify as disabled. An additional one in eight Americans (or around a billion people) will be disabled for five years or more in their working lifetimes. Add in the disabilities that come from aging — such as vision and hearing loss, or cognitive disabilities like dementia — and what soon becomes clear is that on a long enough timeline, accessibility will be important to everyone.

There’s also a good chance that you’re suffering from a cognitive disability right now. Fatigue, stress, anxiety, and alcohol and drug use all impact our cognitive abilities in profound ways. So does age: According to Nielsen, the average person’s ability to use websites effectively declines by 0.8% every year after the age of 25. That means you are roughly 1% less capable of interacting with a digital interface now than you were on your last birthday. No wonder online retailers chase the under-30 demographic: They can be as much as 35% more likely to complete a purchase online than people over age 55. That makes designing solutions to overcome that gap a billion-dollar problem all on its own.

On a long enough timeline, accessibility becomes important to everyone.

Add all of these facts up and accessibility design ceases to become a niche problem. Instead, it becomes an existential design problem worth untold trillions of dollars: “How do you design around the constantly-shifting abilities of billions of people across their lifetimes?”

Most people think of accessibility as little more than an unused sub-menu in their iPhone settings. But this isn’t really the proper way to think of it. Instead, we should think of accessibility as a hacker’s space for dreaming up the cutting-edge technology of tomorrow. Much of that technology might be unpolished and by necessity scaled back. But if you learn to look at accessibility with a lens of promise from the moment of execution, you can start to see what UI and UX will look like 20 years from now.

Let’s walk backward through the evolution of perhaps the most well-known voice assistant, Siri. First announced by Steve Jobs alongside the iPhone 4S in 2011, Siri was, in reality, an Apple-spun variation on the DARPA-funded CALO project, which aimed to marry artificial intelligence with speech recognition. This project started back in 2003 but the ability to talk to our computers and have them respond in a natural human voices goes back at least to the ’80s, when early accessibility researchers tried to open up the text and graphical UIs of early computers to the blind.

Many of the earliest use cases of neural networks also follow this pattern. Before Google Photos used AI to allow you to search for pictures of your dog, researchers were training AI to help blind people “see” what was in photos or videos. Now these parallel development paths have intersected in mixed reality projects like the Microsoft HoloLens, which uses computer vision and machine learning to help blind people understand what is happening around them, and even navigate buildings.

How do you design around the constantly shifting abilities of billions of people across their lifetimes?

Need another example? Let’s talk Hoverboards; not the ones from Back to the Future 2 but the self-balancing scooters of the same name which first debuted around 2013. Of course, the Hoverboard’s most obvious predecessor is the Segway PT, invented by Dean Kamen back in 2001. And what project did Dean roll his Segway technology out of? The iBOT, a motorized wheelchair invented by the University of Plymouth in 1990, which allowed people with mobility impairments to go up stairs, navigate curbs, and even stand fully erect.

The seeds from which great innovations happen are often kludges, hacked together by people with unusual problems to solve. Pay attention to these unusual problems and you’ve got a peephole into the innovations that will take the world by storm 20 years down the line.

Ask 20 people about the most important skill a designer needs and you’ll get 20 different answers. Some think it’s all a matter of great taste; others, an intuitive feel for materials or processes; still others, an obsession with detail. All of these answers are valid but they merely atomize the one core skill every designer must have to be successful.

That skill is empathy. Because what is design if it is not the practice of giving empathy a form? Design is putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and solving their problems. And from that perspective, accessibility is the greatest expression of design because it is the most empathetic. It calls upon designers to apply their skills toward improving the lives of the largest and most dynamic demographic on the planet.

No two disabilities are alike, and yet every person on the planet will eventually be disabled. How do you design for that problem? How do you anticipate those needs? It’s questions like this that should get everyone who cares about design excited. Because they hint at what accessibility really is: a futuristic universe of design as diverse and multifaceted as humanity itself. No one who truly cares about design should ignore accessibility. Designing with empathy for fringe-use scenarios, as accessibility is sometimes described, isn’t just “the right thing to do” as a designer. It’s the future of design, full stop.

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