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Musings on accessibility and usability – my TCUK12 keynote

I had the pleasure and the honor of giving the closing keynote at the recent TCUK conference in Newcastle for the ISTC. I called it “Adaptability: The True Key to Accessibility and Usability?”. This is a short write up to accompany the slides that I have posted from my presentation. For several months, I scribbled notes and dictated ideas into my iPhone. I went to Wikimedia for Creative Commons images (I recommend that). When it came time to do the presentation, I let the photos lead the way and spoke from my heart. I felt I was in the flow, so I really don’t remember all the details of what I said! This is a from-memory text to accompany the text photos for my slides (link at the end of this blog post). It may also be slightly altered from what I said last week. There will be audio at some point. Then we’ll know the truth!

An apology

I apologize for not posting a text version at the same time that I posted the slides. I feel I must practice what I preach and provide all versions at once. No one should have to wait their turn. I partially blame SlideShare. I’m frustrated at their not showing notes in the transcripts. They only pluck out text from the slides and not from the notes where you can have much more substance. Not everyone downloads slides, and that means not everyone can see the notes. I omitted notes from this set, which meant I had more work in preparing this transcript. Not smart. I wish SlideShare would fix this issue.

This is my transcript

Whenever technical communicators gather in a restaurant, menu editing ensues. The night before TCUK12 began was no exception. The menu offered Roast Guinea F o u l. Of course, we were all amused. We technical communicators cannot help editing every single word we see. It’s in our nature. We see writing mistakes everywhere. I feel the same way about accessibility and usability. I see accessibility and usability issues everywhere.

Across the street from where I live, there is, to me, the most annoying walkway. There are decorative cement strips laid across an asphalt base. These strips are raised, so there are curb cuts in some places. I feel there is little smooth transition between the asphalt and the cement, so there are plenty of places to trip for anyone who is not walking carefully or who uses a cane or walker. I am surprised this was approved by the Danish disability society. At least, I was told they approved it. In the winter, it is even worse. The snowplow is not accurate, as shown in my fourth slide, where the plow crossed part of the curb cut and part of the raised cement. The path is not smooth for a wheelchair, a walker, or a baby carriage. This galls me. And it is just one example of how I see accessibility and usability issues in my environment. I want to talk about that and encourage you to do the same.

I am truly standing on the shoulders of giants as I speak to you today. I thought the photo of the Giant’s Causeway illustrated that nicely. I have learned so much about accessibility from people on Twitter in the four years I have been there.

In fact, I have learned that disability is a universal human experience. That is what it says in the WHO quote. If we are all disabled at one point or another in our lives, why don’t we make our world – the physical and the virtual – accessible? I found a series of slides to illustrate how this can be done.

I found a picture of a picnic table where the table extends beyond the length of the benches. This is perfect for a family outing where one person uses a wheelchair. The wheelchair can fit against the table quite nicely so the person using the wheelchair can sit close to the table like everyone else.

The picture of a wheelchair with inflated tires illustrates how someone with a disability can also come out and romp in the snow with friends.

Engineering for Change from MIT has designed a wheelchair that is better suited to places with a rough terrain, such as rural areas.

I love this picture of a young boy doing his homework just like any other young child does today. The chemistry book on his desk indicates the material can be demanding. This boy is able to do his homework because he has a refreshable Braille display so that he can perceive what is on his computer and prepare the required homework. He is realizing his potential regardless of the quality of his eyesight.

The Yahoo! accessibility laboratory displays assistive technology. A monitor shows very large text which is a necessity for some people with certain levels of low vision. A large red button can be used to send commands to the computer by someone who does not have the motor skills to manipulate a mouse.

The photo of @Jennison, a well-known person in the accessibility community on Twitter, shows him listening to something on his laptop. However, the laptop is partially closed. How can that be? He is blind and is using a screen reader. He is listening to the screen reader commands through his earphones. I think this could be a smart trick in a meeting where you can “read” an article with a screen reader when the meeting gets too dull! I think Jennison looks like he is ready to smile, so he is probably up to some similar trick!

All of the slides have shown examples of inclusion where technology has been used as an enabler. It is possible to design from the beginning so that the experience is well done in every way. It should never be slapped on as an afterthought as this ramp seems to be. Someone has ripped up part of some steps and poured cement for a ramp. I think it looks dangerous and would not want to be pushed up the ramp. Sure, it looks accessible, but I don’t trust it.

How would you feel if you did not have access and were excluded from whatever you wanted to do? It’s like coming to payphones in pre-mobile days and finding the telephone ripped off. The device is completely useless. That is what lack of accessibility can mean.

That is when I bring out this favorite quote from Lisa Herrod. “When universal design processes fail to include, consult with, and listen to the people we are actually designing for, we also fail to design effectively.” Design is something we all do – designers, technical communicators, developers. All of us.

That seems to be what happened with the original It was simply not accessible. However, one person voluntarily set out to make an accessible Twitter client. This person, Dennis Lembrée, created And guess what? A tool that is accessible for people who are blind turns out to be usable by everyone. I find the site is far less cluttered and more pleasant to use. The site is totally keyboard accessible, which is something I pointed out in my workshop on Tuesday. It does not require a mouse. Oh, for anyone who dislikes and the endless page, note that EasyChirp has the newer and older page controls. Give it a try even though you are not blind.

Another person who set out to fix something that was broken is Dana Chisnell. She spearheaded a Kickstarter project for making ballot instructions understandable by all. I think is a fantastic project, and I encourage you to visit the field guides site. One lovely example from the field guide illustrates the point “write short sentences”. You see a block of text as the Before, followed by a short sentence that is the After. Cutting away the excess words!

W3C. WAI. WCAG. UAAG. ATAG. There are lots of guidelines out there to teach you and guide you in making accessible material. Some of it can be overwhelming. WCAG 2.0 is supposed to be the equivalent of 800 printed pages! Because it can be overwhelming to some, it may never be read by those who actually need it.

That is why some people in the UK have worked on the British Standard BS8878 to provide guidelines, or a framework that is easier to comprehend and implement. Professor Jonathan Hassell, one of the lead authors behind BS8878, gave a workshop on Tuesday that illustrated how it could be applied in a workplace.

When more people start incorporating accessibility into their work, great things can happen. A picture of a smiling high school graduate turns out to be the beginning of an illustrious career for a multiple award-winning technical communicator who became blind and deaf around the age of twelve. Thanks to the technology made available at her workplace in the space and defense industry, she produced deliverables just like any other technical communicator (the award-winning kind, that is!)

Most people here should know about Dame Evelyn Glennie, who recently performed during the Olympics opening ceremony. By insisting that she could learn music despite her deafness and gaining a place in a music school, she opened the doors for anyone to come and learn, regardless of any disability.

A young deaf man receiving his doctorate was able to appreciate the ceremony in his honor because a sign language interpreter was present. All of these people were gaining access to knowledge thanks to technology and awareness of the need for inclusion.

And this is not all for serious, hard work. A poetry performance has one person reading poetry into the microphone while another person interprets the poem using sign. For me, sign becomes art and is a thing of beauty.

And that brings me to a lovely quote from Lao Tzu that I heard at an AccessU presentation by Molly Holzschlag this past May. “The reason why the universe is eternal is that it does not live for itself; it gives life to others as it transforms.” This is about the web. It is a vehicle. It gives life to the possibility of communication.

So how do we engage people in making the world a more inclusive place? I like these Attitude Adjusters from Australia. These are cards similar to many cards used for brainstorming that can be used for teaching and implementing accessibility.

Because all this makes a difference.

I wanted a starfish photo at this point, and I went looking for pretty starfish photos. I fell for this photo of a starfish on its back and covered in sand. It looks awful, but the note made it the ideal candidate. You see, the AccessAbility SIG of STC has a tale about a starfish. A man walks along a beach strewn with starfish and meets a little girl who is picking them up and throwing them back in the ocean. “What are you doing?”, the man asks. “I’m saving the starfish,” the little girl replies. “With so many, your efforts cannot make a difference”, said the man. “It makes a difference to that one”, said the little girl as she threw another starfish back into the sea. And the description of this photo said that the photographer threw this dead-looking starfish back in the sea where it soon revived…

Making a difference – but what does it cost? I show a diagram of the cost of adding accessibility from Day 1 of planning a project or adding it after the product is completed. The cost is nil at the beginning and very high at the end. Whitney Quesenbery has the numbers. 1 unit (say, 1 dollar) in the definition stage and 60 to 100 units (say, 100 dollars) after release!

So… we need to get out there and make things accessible. I had to share a photo of a tireless advocate for accessibility who is no longer with us, William Loughborough. But oh to be like him, agitating about accessibility well into his eighties and all the way up to his death. What a role model.

We need to get out there and stop the absurdity. Lisa Herrod’s photo got a big laugh. How can anyone post a notice at the bottom of the stairs stating that those with accessibility needs can get help at the top of the stairs. It’s absurd.

Karl Groves has a great quote about how to tackle this job. Focus on the quality. “So long as a web-based system is inaccessible, it suffers from quality problems and we should focus on quality.” The focus on quality may be an easier-to-understand approach to some.

You see, some balk at the terminology. Some don’t even know what it is. This is where I get to use my favorite term, cognitive scaffolding, and show a photo of scaffolding! It’s about mentoring and education. We who are somewhat in the know, need to continuously develop our skills. Then, we must turn around and mentor others – spreading the knowledge and raising awareness. We can learn from each other. I learned the real story about cognitive scaffolding from a tip from Linda Urban, a popular past presenter at TCUK. She recommended the technical report from January 1987 called Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Craft of Reading, Writing, and Mathematics (opens a PDF). Now I recommend it.

Perhaps another difficulty is that we learn at different levels and have different needs. The concept of this talk is very inspired by a 2009 paper called “From Web Accessibility to Web Adaptability”. [A tl;dr summary of the Web Adaptability paper can be found on Brian Kelly’s blog.] This is also an inspiring read of how we can make accessibility for the web become a reality so that we can provide so many more opportunities for everyone to participate in the Web. I think we can work together to adapt nicely like the chameleon – with all of us blending together maintaining our uniqueness and yet making one beautiful picture.

The slides

You can view the slides here or on SlideShare.


  1. Joaquim Baptista
    Joaquim Baptista 13 October 2012

    Your recommendation of Linda’s recommendation of the January 1987 report just happens to be priceless for me. Thanks!

  2. Karen Mardahl
    Karen Mardahl 13 October 2012

    Super! I’m pleased to hear that was useful. I think the ideas are quite interesting – and sensible.

  3. Kai
    Kai 27 October 2012

    Thanks, Karen, for the reminder of a passionate and inspiring session.

    Your example of a poetry performance in spoken and sign language reminds me of my favorite accessibility story. During their later years, the Grateful Dead had, with much help from their soundman Dan Healy, a DeafZone at their shows, complete with sign interpreters as well as ballons, paper cups, streamers and whatever would catch the music and make it feelable.

    And the signers didn’t just do the lyrics – which is hard enough with a jamband that has dozens of songs in their live repertoire and no fixed setlist -, they interpreted the jams as well. See

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