Unasking the right Questions

Dan Jellinek died at the weekend, suddenly, of a cerebral haemorrhage. His family will be suffering terribly and it is hard to imagine what they are going through.

I’d known him for many years — I have an email from 1999 that begins ‘it was good fun yesterday, nice beer, nice chips, although my head and stomach tell me this morning that I should have had more chips and less beer’ and we worked together on many projects and conferences and ideas and things designed to make life better. I’ll miss him.

One thing Dan did was to encourage all of us to think harder and better about the problems we faced as the network became more and more important. In 2009 I gave a talk at e-accessibility, one of the more important events he created, and in conversation with him developed my ideas from a vague rant against the idea of ‘accessibility’ into something that I think still stands. So here it is — to thank him for all the great work, the challenges and the refinements and the belief that we could engage for good. Thankyou, Dan.

This comes from http://www.headstar.com/eab/issues/2009/may2009.txt

Editor’s Note: The following is an edited transcript of Bill Thompson’s keynote speech to E-Access ’09, Headstar’s annual conference on access to technology by people with disabilities.

Accessibility has always been an issue for information and
communications technologies, but for most of the 60 or so years we’ve
had stored-program digital computers, it was a secondary

Getting physical access to early computers like EDSAC and ATLAS
involved being in the right room in the right city at the right time,
whether or not you were a wheelchair user or had poor vision.

When the number of people with easy and affordable access to the new
technologies of desktop computers, network access and online
publishing tools was relatively small, accessibility for those who
needed special provision could be handled using one-off solutions,
often built by those concerned since they were technical themselves.

Over the years this has led us to design systems for the majority and
then adapt them to work for those who are somehow different, and we
keep thinking about ‘accessibility’ and ‘usability’ as separate, almost
orthogonal aspects of design. Unfortunately, this remains the dominant
model, and it has now become a barrier to future progress because it
encourages designers to think about creating tools and services for the
‘normal’ population before considering accessibility.

We need to change this approach, and to move away from solving the
‘problem’ of accessibility to a view of design in which it stops meriting
separate consideration.

We need to stop giving designers the opportunity to talk about
‘accessibility’, and instead collapse the distinction that is causing us so
much trouble.

Instead of thinking about ‘access’ at one end and ‘usability’ at another,
we should attempt to recast our debate in terms of what technology
does for all of us, not just those whose have ‘special’ requirements.

After all, technology is there to mediate between us and the world, and
all technology is about changing, enhancing or correcting our bare
capabilities to allow new things to be possible, transforming the
otherwise inaccessible and unperceivable into sense data, or subjecting
the physical world to the influence of enhanced motor skills.

How many of you can see the moons of Jupiter with your naked eye, or
run at

The additive power of technology is as true of the telescope and the car
as it is of the internet. Technologies sit between us and the world and
allow us to perceive it more intimately, measure it more precisely,
influence it with greater precision and scope, and reach out to others
without concern for distance or — in many cases — language.

They do that for us all, irrespective of our capabilities. But different
technologies offer different affordances, depending on where we
encounter them and — most importantly — our own capabilities. We can
only use a telescope to see the craters of the moon if we have adequate
vision, though of course interpreting the data from a radio telescope
does not necessarily require this.

We have too often been content to build technologies which only serve
to enhance the capabilities of the ‘modally-abled’, those whose
physical and cognitive abilities cluster around the modal value for
modern humans. We clearly disregard those whose abilities are much
lower than the norm, but also tend to forget those who may be better -
they tend to cope, of course, and do not usually ask for special

So how should we frame our debate if we move beyond what I think is
a dangerous attempt to retain the distinction between ‘usability’ and
‘accessibility’? I think it is time to explore the idea of ‘affordance’, as
it could offer us a way forward.

Bill Gaver, Professor of Design at Goldsmiths College, has an
interesting take on this. In a 1996 paper, he wrote: “Affordances go
beyond value-free physical descriptions of the environment by
expressing environmental attributes relative to humans. For example,
the physical measure of height, which has no inherent meaning, can be
recast in terms of the affordance of accessibility, which does. Because
accessibility emerges from the relation between elevation and people’s
physical characteristics, it is an objective fact about a situation.”

The idea of accessibility — here used to mean whether a shelf or
window can be reached — as something which emerges from a
relationship between a technology and a user is one we might build on
in our attempt to reconcile the usability-driven design approach and
our concern over whether people can use specific technologies.

The key is the interaction between the technology and what it offers
and the ability of the user actually to make use of that offer, as it
allows us to sketch out a model of augmented capability that covers all
of us, not just those who might be classified as ‘disabled’ in some way.

If we start to frame the issues facing users whose capabilities deviate
from the norm in terms of affordances rather than simply of
accessibility, this might free us from the ‘modal totalitarianism’ that
infects so much design, whether in products like screens and keyboards
or on-screen in websites, widgets and services.

Affordances matter equally to the ‘abled’ as to the ‘disabled’, and so
the same design methods can be used, and outcomes can be evaluated
in a much broader way. This allows us to start to move away from the
current model, in which we have ‘assistive’ technologies to overcome
‘deficits’ that make some users ‘abnormal’, to one in which we all have
skills and abilities that vary along a large number of axes.

This is going to be very important in the near future, as those of us who
first encountered digital technologies when we were young and able-
bodied, begin to age. I wear glasses to read from the screen, and I
know that my high-frequency hearing has been damaged by years of
gigs and loud music in headphones.

I can feel my cognitive abilities going, and can see a world where I will
be, as Shakespeare might have put it, sans eyes, sans teeth, sans
keyboard, and in the near future I will need assistive technologies even

If we think differently about design and consider issues of accessibility
in terms of affordances, then we may move closer to another goal -
that of exposing and understanding the impacts of the negative
‘externalities’ of unusable sites and services.

To an economist, externalities are effects on parties that are not
directly involved in a transaction, such as the impact of a polluting
factory on the health of non-employees in the surrounding area. The
costs of the transaction do not therefore reflect its full costs or
once these externalities are taken into account. Externalities can be
positive, such as the network effect that comes from more and more
people using an online service, or negative.

By and large, businesses will try to bring more of the positive
externalities in-house — we might see battles over copyright as an
attempt by rights-holders to internalise all the benefits of creative reuse
- but keep negative externalities away, and off their balance sheet.

A more integrated approach to design, however, one that classes all
users as equal and equally deserving of service, could make it harder
for those who disregard the needs of the non-modal population to treat
the costs as an externality to be met by extra funding, charitable
engagement or personal expenditure on assistive technology. And by
bringing the costs back to those who have given us this world of
dysfunctional technology, we might persuade even the accountants and
management consultants who have for so long disregarded the needs of
anyone outside the mainstream, that there are sound financial reasons
for becoming more inclusive.

We would not even need to tax them to achieve this (though this would
be one approach): we could nudge them to do the right thing by
offering benefits and tax breaks for those whose choices are more in
line with this point of view, perhaps limiting access to government
support services, guaranteed bank loans and the other benefits that
businesses are currently calling for, to those who will offer tools, sites
and services that can be used by all taxpayers and not just those with
20/20 vision and high levels of manual dexterity.

The transition from the current approach, which we could call modal
oligarchy, to one of design for all, will not be easy. Those of us within
one standard deviation of the mean may worry that elegant tools and
desirable products that ‘just work’ will no longer be available, that
innovation will be limited and that we will have to work harder to get
what we want from websites.

But no user interface is intuitive, no keyboard obvious, no website
‘natural’. Just as learning language rewires the human brain, so
learning how to use network computers requires us to link old skills in
new ways. We’ve taken the easy path so far, but I would speculate that
interfaces designed for all will not only be more usable by mainstream
adopters, they will be more powerful.

And they will unleash a wave of creativity not only from those of us
who are already well served but from the millions upon millions who
are currently excluded.

If we believe in the transforming power of these new technologies, if
we want the network revolution to succeed, and if we desire the best
and brightest to join us in this brave new world, then we need to ensure
that the barriers to access are removed at all levels. That means
campaigning to bring down all of the digital divides, not just the one
between rich and poor but between the majority of users for whom
most technology is designed and those of us whose capabilities lie
more than one standard deviation from the mode.

The conversations taking place at this conference, e-Access ’09, are
part of that process, but I think it is time to push for something more. I
think that this should be the last e-access conference. Next year I hope
to see you all here for e-affordance 2010.

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