Alexa, Tell Me How to Design for an Accessible World

Alexa, Tell Me How to Design for an Accessible World

How Designing an Accessible World Creates an Innovative Society

A few months ago, LEGO announced they were unveiling a new line of colorful bricks specifically designed to help the visually impaired and blind learn the Braille alphabet. Philippe Chazal, treasurer of the European Blind Union, stated there is a staggeringly low number (roughly 10%) of visually impaired and blind people who know how to read traditional Braille. The goal of these LEGOs is to teach children the Braille alphabet in a fun and engaging way, as studies have shown that the visually impaired who know how to read Braille are often more engaged members of society and have better employment opportunities.

A simple yet stunning innovation for a common toy that has been around for decades raises the question: “Why didn’t I think of that?” Since a vast majority of the population is seemingly able-bodied, it is all too common for the creators of products, websites, books, and more to treat designing for people with disabilities as an afterthought. Take the LEGOs previously mentioned for example; originally marketed as an interactive toy for children, but later reinvented as a learning tool for the blind.

But what if we as designers and innovators reversed that thought process and began designing with accessibility for all in mind? How innovative would we be as a society if we began to think about how everyone, able-bodied and disabled alike, had to engage with what we produced? We might be led to believe that designing with disabilities in mind will lead to boring or uncreative solutions, when in actuality, it’s just the opposite. Accessibility is a cornerstone of innovation and creativity.

Say, for instance, you get done shopping, your cart is full, and you’re making your way to the car in the parking lot. You go down the curb ramp, unload, and sit in your car facing the store. Next, you see a mom of three using that same ramp for her stroller. Then a biker rides up to the bike rack. Everyone utilized that ramp in one way or another, but that ramp was specifically created for someone in a wheelchair to access the store. This is what is called the “Curb-Cut Effect.” It illustrates how things that are designed and created for vulnerable groups of people, such as the disabled, often end up benefiting everyone in the long run. This very same idea can be applied to some of the advanced technologies we use today and are in the process of creating.

In a 2015 Ted Talk, Chieko Asakawa, a blind Japanese computer scientist, tells the audience the story of how she went from being an independent 14-year-old to completely blind and dependent on those around her. In the mid-1980s, Asakawa began developing the technology for a digital Braille editor and digital Braille dictionary. Because this technology was developed, it led to further developments, which many people unknowingly use when they read a digital book on their tablet or computer. She says, “And this is not the first time this happened, because history shows us accessibility ignites innovation.”

Chieko Asakawa

Asakawa also later developed the Home Page Reader in 1997. This technology rendered web content and outputted it to a synthesized computer voice. This groundbreaking technology allowed the blind community to navigate the Internet, simplified the interface, and gave them opportunities to experience the world around them through a computer. But the benefits of Asakawa’s development don’t stop there. Because she created this technology, we can have Siri read a text message back to us, listen to a cookbook recipe in the kitchen, and have Alexa tell us what time it is. These are all tasks we as a society have grown accustomed to being hands-free in our everyday lives, and we often forget that it originally developed for our convenience. This was designed so a disabled person can be more integrated into society, but because it was needed, we can further enjoy all of its applications today.

Even today, we are still finding ways to innovate our technology to improve accessibility for those who are disabled and, in turn, finding new ways to widely utilize it in our daily lives. Currently, a Swedish company called Tobii is developing eye-tracking technology that allows quadriplegic people to control a computer with only their eyes. According to Tobii, the eye tracker technology sends out infrared light that is reflected by the human eye. Then a camera detects these reflections and uses a series of filters and algorithms to determine where to place the cursor on the screen. This wildly innovative technology opens up a whole new world of possibilities in using computers and television, making it more readily accessible and allowing quadriplegic people to become more independent.

While eye-tracking technology allows disabled people to use computers, the data and research of its implementation have a number of benefits for the overall internet community.  For our industry, it can be used as a means of market research. Because of the instinctual and unbiased nature of eye-tracking technology, researchers can better understand consumer and user behavior on a website. It shows them what elements naturally attract the most attention and what areas were ignored, essentially recording the entire user experience in a more precise manner. This type of research can be used to create a better website and app layouts, functionalities, and improve overall user experiences and interaction, making websites more effective, intuitive, and enjoyable all around. It can also show design flaws and methods of use that may have been overlooked in creative development. And it won’t just stop there. This technology can continue to be developed and adapted into our society in a number of ways that haven’t even been explored and eventually may become a vital part of day-to-day life.

There are many more innovative parts of our society that have come from meeting the need of a disabled member. Think about how you may use subtitles while watching a show in a noisy environment, how you may enjoy a soft-grip handle on your potato peeler, or even how legible and eye-catching a large wall graphic is. These are all day-to-day developments that were created because a disabled person saw a need in their life for it. If we began to design our world with accessibility for all members at the forefront of our creative process, we can easily create a world around us that benefits everyone and is not only inclusive but innovative.