All Technology is Assistive: Why Product Designers Need to Embrace Accessibility

When IBM Chief Accessibility Officer Frances West sat down at a recent screening of "Gone Girl," she immediately realized that something was wrong. 


In the opening credits, there were "names flying in from different parts of the screen," she told an MIT lecture audience on Monday. "I was dizzy already when the movie started. It might look good from the designer's perspective," but because of the visual confusion, she said she couldn't read the words onscreen. "I didn't get the information."

Her hypothesis: whoever had designed the credits, possibly a younger artist, hadn't considered that a significant portion of the film-going public would be unable to follow the fast-moving visuals due to eye conditions related to age or other medical issues. Her experience evoked something she'd been fighting against for years in the tech world: the tendency for designers and developers to assume that the "normal" customer is a person with no accessibility issues.

Such a customer is hardly the norm—in fact, he doesn't really exist. We all go through life stages of relative dependence and independence, and even in our most ruggedly self-sufficient moments we rely on technology that could be considered assistive.

"All technology is assistive technology," writes artist and design researcher Sara Hendren in a fantastic new Medium post. "Honestly — what technology are you using that’s not assistive? Your smartphone? Your eyeglasses? Headphones? And those three examples alone are assisting you in multiple registers: They’re enabling or augmenting a sensory experience, say, or providing navigational information. But they’re also allowing you to decide whether to be available for approach in public, or not; to check out or in on a conversation or meeting in a bunch of subtle ways; to identify, by your choice of brand or look, with one culture group and not another."

Put another way, all technology exists to serve needs, to enhance the natural assets of the human body and mind. But for some reason, the genre of needs served by "assistive technologies" is set apart. Assistive technologies are often designed to hide the need they solve, for instance. Consider: although hearing aids accomplish much the same feat as earbuds—blasting audio into your ears—one is typically made of flesh-toned plastic, while the other comes in every color of the rainbow. "Yes — of course — some users want discreet tools!" Hendren writes. "But others roundly reject the notion that all bodies should conform to some standardized or performative ideal."

West recommends developers adopt a new, broader definition of normal. In terms of their users' accessibility needs, are designers creating "technology for the 100 percent, or the one percent?" she wondered.

But how does one design for everyone, not merely those lucky enough to be fully able-bodied? West suggests that inclusive design must start at the ground level. "Accessibility is a foundational principle," West said, "not something you can add in after you write your program, after you build your device."

To that I'll add: Accessibility is not something you sacrifice innovation to achieve. Rather, as I'll explain, designing for accessibility, when done right, should provoke innovation.

Building for accessibility from the start comes with hidden benefits: it encourages designers to break free of old, constrictive metaphors, leading to technological breakthroughs that might not otherwise take place. Hendren describes one of these in her piece: a hyper-sensitive tongue-controlled interface that, by leaving behind the old metaphor of the hand-operated joystick, may lead to a new generation of ways to interact with computers and mechanical devices—ramifications that go far beyond the original market of quadriplegics that it was originally developed for. (Another "assistive" technology she describes, used originally to make wooden splints for soldiers, later made possible widespread developments in furniture design and manufacture.)

Developers in the old-age space, where "tech accessibility" is all-too-often synonymous with big buttons, the full spectrum of beige, and reduced functionality, stand to benefit enormously by treating accessibility as an innovation launchpad, not a set of restrictions. To draw on an overused example, consider the smartphone: innovations that might once have belonged in the realm of "accessibility," such as the ability to easily zoom in on text, are now core parts of any smartphone's functionality, used by everyone. Such an approach has benefited society in a way that design cop-outs such as oversimplified three-button phones never could. All technology is assistive.

One way to encourage product designers to break free of old conventions (by which I mean both "normal-means-able" and "accessible-means-unimaginative") is to get at them while they're young. "I am disappointed that we don't have accessibility required in the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] curriculum," West said. I share her sentiment. By teaching with an early focus on accessibility and encouraging tomorrow's engineers to anticipate a fuller breadth of users, the technology that will eventually result will be more innovative than it otherwise would be. We'll enjoy it at all ages and stages, but especially when we grow older and require more empathetic design. Because we all grow old—if we're lucky. And one way we can make old age better is to encourage the development of technology that is groundbreaking for everybody.

MIT AgeLab's Luke Yoquinto contributed to this article.

Image: Shutterstock/Kannanimages

Befriend your ideological opposite. It’s fun.

Step inside the unlikely friendship of a former ACLU president and an ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were unlikely friends. They debated each other at events all over the world, and because of that developed a deep and rewarding friendship – despite their immense differences.
  • Scalia, a famous conservative, was invited to circles that were not his "home territory", such as the ACLU, to debate his views. Here, Strossen expresses her gratitude and respect for his commitment to the exchange of ideas.
  • "It's really sad that people seem to think that if you disagree with somebody on some issues you can't be mutually respectful, you can't enjoy each other's company, you can't learn from each other and grow in yourself," says Strossen.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

3 ways to find a meaningful job, or find purpose in the job you already have

Learn how to redesign your job for maximum reward.

Videos
  • Broaching the question "What is my purpose?" is daunting – it's a grandiose idea, but research can make it a little more approachable if work is where you find your meaning. It turns out you can redesign your job to have maximum purpose.
  • There are 3 ways people find meaning at work, what Aaron Hurst calls the three elevations of impact. About a third of the population finds meaning at an individual level, from seeing the direct impact of their work on other people. Another third of people find their purpose at an organizational level. And the last third of people find meaning at a social level.
  • "What's interesting about these three elevations of impact is they enable us to find meaning in any job if we approach it the right way. And it shows how accessible purpose can be when we take responsibility for it in our work," says Hurst.
Keep reading Show less

Physicist advances a radical theory of gravity

Erik Verlinde has been compared to Einstein for completely rethinking the nature of gravity.

Photo by Willeke Duijvekam
Surprising Science
  • The Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde's hypothesis describes gravity as an "emergent" force not fundamental.
  • The scientist thinks his ideas describe the universe better than existing models, without resorting to "dark matter".
  • While some question his previous papers, Verlinde is reworking his ideas as a full-fledged theory.
Keep reading Show less

UPS has been discreetly using self-driving trucks to deliver cargo

TuSimple, an autonomous trucking company, has also engaged in test programs with the United States Postal Service and Amazon.


PAUL RATJE / Contributor
Technology & Innovation
  • This week, UPS announced that it's working with autonomous trucking startup TuSimple on a pilot project to deliver cargo in Arizona using self-driving trucks.
  • UPS has also acquired a minority stake in TuSimple.
  • TuSimple hopes its trucks will be fully autonomous — without a human driver — by late 2020, though regulatory questions remain.
Keep reading Show less