Accessibility. Is Universal Design Viable?

There is little doubt that the IoT is already improving the lives of millions of people with disabilities around the world. Innovations range from the mobile apps that allow a blind and deaf person to communicate with someone via various mediums to Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS), sensor pill bottles and assistance bots that enable someone who is physically handicapped to stay at home and retain their independence.

The White House Chief Data Scientist, DJ Patil, at the Amazon Services: ReInvent conference encouraged all businesses to adopt two main principles -responsibility and universal benefit. He is of the opinion that each technologist and business person has an opportunity to determine that the app or device created benefits everyone*. This notion of universality and a responsibility to improve lives will mark this age of technological evolution as remarkable. The concept of universality, is usually just applied to the efficiencies in technology. Now, the industry is being challenged to expand the application of universality to inclusivity.

The future appears encouraging, with countries like Australia having organisations such as the W3 working on creating international universal accessibility standards. The current standard  does not include the IoT as yet, although this is under review. It has had international feedback from industry leaders, major tech corporates, governments and education providers.  The standard is comprehensive in its detail, but it is only that- a standard. As such, no businesses or app developer is under any obligation to adopt it. Indeed, this is one of the fundamental issues in accessible universality- getting governments, education providers and businesses to include universal accessibility into their requirements, let alone adopt one standard. Current opinion* is that for universality to work it needs to operate like a system, with standardised requirements for business and government. The European Commission has recently published it’s Accessibility Act .* It is certainly promising in its scope and offers potentially 80 million people with disabilities a promising future.

One are that has been identified as a roadblock for universal accessibility is in the business sector. Businesses who purchase products from third-party IT suppliers are not requesting accessibility initially or if they are requesting it, then following through on it at each stage in the buying process. In a recent study conducted in Britain by the Business Disability Forum (BDF)*, it was revealed that only twenty-five percent of businesses were reviewing contracts with clients to ensure accessibility. The report went further to state that those that did include accessibility in a formal arrangement with a supplier, will most likely not see it again at any stage of procurement thereafter. As a result, the lack of visibility means that the requirements of those disabled staff or those customers may be overlooked due to other purchasing criteria. There is also an assumption made that when requesting accessibility from an IT supplier that it includes accessibility for all people with disabilities, whereas this may well not be the case.

Many  current apps and devices may just focus on one or two particular accessible features that will help a person with a specific physical or intellectual disability. Whilst this in itself  is highly commendable for those affected, the opportunity exists to make the device or app accessible to everyone. There are also some limitations placed on programmers and developers in that they may not have the skill set necessary to implement the required functionality.

Is it then viable to expect a business or start-up to create an app or device that is accessible to everyone? Yes. Here is a summary of what W3* currently suggests:

  • Provide text alternatives that can be changed into other forms including sound and braille as required.
  • Supply options for time based media.
  • Visually make it easier for users to see and hear content including ensuring that the foreground and background are visually seperated.
  • Ensure there is enough time for all content to be divested.
  • Design content in a manner that will not induce seizures.
  • Provide simple and intutitive navigation systems.
  • Use language that is comprehensible and common in vernacular.
  • Try to use predictable and intuitive commands.
  • Make mistakes simple to correct.
  • Ensure data is integrative and compatible so that systems storing and managing data can talk with each other and data can be collated and studied.

Universality is gaining momentum in app and device design for all things IoT. In order for it to be the life changer that it can certainly be, there will need to be a request for it from businesses to third party suppliers, an adoption of a universal standard such as the one W3 has created and continued improvements in legislation. From a developer’s perspective, it’s about factoring in how an app or device can be accessible to everyone and how the data generated can then be fed into multiple systems for future study and enhancement of people with disabilities if relevant. The IoT has the potential to enrich, connect and potentially improve the health and wellbeing of millions of people with disabilities. What an opportunity we have to do something about that.