Alastair Somerville

Apr 17, 2016

3 min read

Giving a **** about Accessibility

I’ve just read Sarah Lewthwaite and David Sloan’s new paper Exploring pedagogical culture for accessibility education in Computer Science (it’s free — no academic paywall). I’ll calling Exploring… in the rest of this post.

First page of Exploring…

It’s an interesting read as it approaches one of the core issues in Accessibility from a different angle, pedagogy. It is useful to read as it recognizes that the discussion is at a very early stage and with very little existing research or discussion.

It’s valuable to read as it provides another facet and form to a fundamental question in accessible design and practice:

Why does it seem no one give a **** about Accessibility?

It’s a question frequently asked by people affected directly by disability in physical and digital places and by professionals working on accessible products and services.

It’s a question made manifest in inaccessible places and websites.

It’s a question made necessary when project budgets and timelines disregard or minimize accessible solutions.

Exploring… investigates the problem that Accessibility is too many things to too many people. It is an issue of specific software skills, of Human Computer Interface (HCI) and of understanding culture.

For teaching, that is for pedagogy, this mixture of education and empathy is hard. Yet that mirrors the problems in commercial design: is Accessibility applied as a set of skills to meet definable product needs or as a professional form of practice for social and cultural reasons.

This is generally unlike other areas of design. Skills for product delivery do not crossover with the politics of identity. They may run in parallel to each other but not crisis cross.

Accessibility skates and spins from discussions of, for example, ARIA on websites to arguments about respect and language.

Marketing is full of stories of persona experiences but accessibility is full of lived experiences of real people. The gap between technical skills and personal experiences is almost non-existent.

Thus, to teach, or to learn, about accessibility is to mix knowledge of systems and methods with understanding human experience and complexity. The social meaning of the solutions is intertwined with the technical.

So what do you do? To talk of the technical without the human leads to arguments over what is made. To talk of the human without the technical leads to arguments over what is not made.

You cannot make without skills. You should not make without knowledge.

Pedagogy may be a good place to try and think about this.

Diagram of pedagogy for accessibility

The diagram above is one I drew after reading Exploring…

It is about whether approaching the teaching from a human or social theory direction rather that a technical or skill specific direction may be better.

I realise now that is not right. The error is in the easy Western bias to dichotomy rather than context.

The important thing to see is how HCI remains constant as the other 2 elements shift. It’s the practice of HCI that offers an anchor point around which human-facing or screen-facing education works. HCI triangulates and contextualises accessibility.

The pedagogy is framed through HCI and the praxis moves and shifts between the social knowledge and the digital skills.

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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