This article was originally published on the Wolfblogs edition of Fabulous IT, March 19 2009.
I was recently asked about my “philosophy for providing a campus IT infrastructure that is accessible”. Accessibility is a topic that I feel very passionately about. It is one of the great opportunities of our time, to improve our world for everyone by making it equatable for as many people as possible. My long standing belief is that the principles applied to design with accessibility in mind do not have benefit limited to only a few. It has the effect of both normalizing usability and also improving it.
Much to my chagrin, the timing of my response was rushed and reading back over it I was not entirely happy with it. I wanted to share a revised version with some effort to further the clarity and flow of my vision:
Statement of Commitment to Accessibility
Providing equal access to academic and administrative information is a challenge I encountered early in my career as an IT professional. The first accessibility solutions I implemented for the College of Engineering during the late 90’s as a student employee were unwieldy to maintain. We were working with static content, a poor understanding of accessibility requirements, and conflicting needs. The pages had to “look good”, but this was difficult if not impossible to accomplish in the years before cross browser CSS support.
The solution at the time, given all of the forces in play, was to create separate plain text versions for the more graphically oriented pages. As one might expect, the alternate versions were haphazardly updated and linked in. The pages that required no alternate version were basically accessible, but the level of usability was rarely comparable for users reliant on assistive technology. The lesson I took away at the time was that accessibility was hard. While I appreciated the ethical imperative, it felt like a monumental effort for the limited benefit we were able to render.
In the years that followed the technological and social land scape changed drastically. What I grew to realize through success and failure is that accessibility itself had never been the hard part. It was other, now questionably valuable, requirements that made accessible web site design difficult. Early approaches had the wrong foundation, both in application of technology and the prioritization of values.
Addressing accessibility proficiently while staying on the cutting edge of technology requires specialized knowledge and highly motivated exploration. It also requires a commitment to placing organizational values before affinity to specific technologies. In more broadly understood areas, accessible design can be distilled down to reproducible techniques which are more easily communicated. Our community has done well in adapting to the challenge of providing more equal access through effective outreach on the part of specialized, motivated, and engaging individuals. With the right level of engagement, those willing to learn a method that works are then enabled to apply it creatively. As experienced creative individuals become motivated, specialized exploration leads to innovation.
The biggest challenge I have observed with the active pursuit of innovation is that it is expensive and harbors risk. The practice of gaging the scale of innovation is a particularly useful concept advocated by several authors of Agile development process books. This is a practice interface designer and author Robert Hoekman (Designing the Obvious, 2007) calls “elevation”. The goal is to innovate in modest amounts and on a sound foundation to manage the level of risk while still creating competitive advantage.
In my transition to the NCSU Libraries I found a community that was achieving accessibility in a broader spectrum than my previous experience with accessible, primarily static web sites. I had basic exposure to various assistive technologies in the College of Engineering, but the point of service in the Library was much more direct, and diverse. The realization induced by this new proximity is the potential of assistive technologies ranging from broad application to individual application. There are a wide variety of accessibility needs and an appropriate, sometimes highly specialized, technology for each. Just as making early web projects accessible was a challenge, so too were pioneering assistive technologies for each unique need.
Accessibility techniques for the web have the luxury of enhancing the access for a broad audience. In contrast, there are many other assistive technologies each more valuable in day to day application to specific individuals. As web based technology becomes more sophisticated and the physical limitations to computing make it more omnipresent, there is a growing potential to provide high quality, equal access, at significantly lower cost.
The web is potentially the most cost effective medium for barrier-free access. Pages that are accessible serve a broad range of visitors: people with a myriad of browsers, display devices, means of interacting, and modes of perception. This high capacity for diversity is further enhanced by the rapid adoption of the web for social activity and communication. Other assistive technologies are still critical for thorough coverage, but the proliferation of web activity creates an opportunity to serve a wide variety of needs through a single medium. This enables higher quality while reducing the need for separate accommodation and thus reducing cost.
My philosophy for providing a campus IT infrastructure that is accessible hinges on providing services that increase equitable access while reducing the need to handle special needs as a costly exception. As much as possible, I try to treat accessibility as a special case of usability. Universal design considerations extend the potential for benefit from accessibility improvements to everyone. This is observable in real life. Well designed and convenient accessible ramps often receive high levels of traffic from individuals otherwise capable of using stairs. When the accessible ramps are long and awkwardly placed as an afterthought, this synergy is much less common.
There are cases where rapprochement between technology innovation and accessibility consideration is difficult, primarily because it involves fresh or particularly complex challenges. These are areas where the cost of innovation has to be carefully weighed. Every effort made to bridge usability and accessibility, the pursuit of more universal design, reduces the complexity and the cost. Picking the most ripe challenges and delivering value regularly builds momentum and community support towards this goal.