Jonathan Hassell at the BBC – who I worked closely with on a project for blind learners – has an interesting idea about accessibility which I think deserves wider hearing. It sits – sometimes uncomfortably, for me at least – alongside an often-peddled notion that “designing something to be accessible will mean that it’s more usable for everybody”. This is true up to a point – yes, we all have our own preferences, learning styles and limitations, and if mine happens to be the need to see something in a larger font and that’s supported by the software, all well and good. But there are limits to this, and people and organisations seem scared to admit it. I suspect this is mostly because it would make them admit the compromises they’ve had to make in designing their offerings – and in a highly sensitive area, this can attract the wrong sort of attention.
Accessibility is vital and should be “designed in” – included, even – from the beginning of a project. But designing accessible products is an art as much as a rigorous process and science. You can’t just tick a bunch of boxes – pragmatic and specific decisions, and often compromises, have to be made about what you can afford and what’s reasonable for a specific project. Sometimes, websites or CD-ROMs have to have less than perfect accessibility to deliver a really great experience for the majority of users, or to fit within the commercial constraints of the initiative. Equally, some projects need to be the reverse – specifically designed for certain disabilities or needs of a minority, and providing a more limited experience for the rest of us. This latter point is what I understand Jonathan to mean by “beyond inclusion”. The best projects, of course, admit all of this up front and have the budget to allow for the creation of separate experiences or versions for particular disabilities where they just can’t be catered for by the “main” version – but such budgets are few and far between.
There was nothing like seeing the face of a six-year old blind learner experiencing a product which was designed precisely for her needs. She could unpack all of the layers of sound we had provided in our resource in ways which, as a sighted person with less attuned hearing, I simply couldn’t. If we’re aiming for excellence in our electronic learning materials, we should acknowledge that sometimes accessibility in its widest sense will be limited – for the minority or the majority.
Jonathan’s holding an event about this at BAFTA on June 30th, if you’re interested.