Firstly I’d like to thank Donna for inviting me to write this article for BFC. I am both honored and grateful for the opportunity and as such I would like to offer a bit of background first in order to lay a foundation for the oxymoron that became the title of this article.
My name is Aaron Di Blasi and I am the owner and Lead Project Manager for Mind Vault Solutions, Ltd., a digital marketing agency out of Cleveland, Ohio. Donna Jodhan is the President and Founder of the Barrier Free Canada Organization, among many other duties and titles.
Donna and I were first introduced to each other by a mutual friend named Larry L. Lewis, Jr., founder of Flying Blind, LLC, back in late 2012. At the time Larry had been with Mind Vault himself since early 2007. It is important to note here, for the purposes of this article at least, that Larry is completely blind. And so is Donna. I, Aaron Di Blasi, am completely sighted.
Larry and I trained together in martial arts for several years before he made the decision to found Flying Blind, LLC. When he finally decided to take the leap in 2007 he asked me if our firm would like to handle the launch, and, well, here we are 13 years later. Still working together.
The point as it relates to this article is that we (Mind Vault) had to overcome some very SERIOUS flaws in what we thought we knew about accessibility and technology in order to properly serve a blind client, who himself was founding an organization intended to serve the blind, in the year 2007.
Even back then we thought we understood accessibility. I mean after all we can see, right? So we had to understand accessibility. I’m not sure anything could have been further from the truth.
Larry continued to point out accessibility failures across the spectrum that we had never even considered. And why should we? We only ever had to imagine these scenarios. We never actually had to RELY on them. Well he did. And so did those that his new business model now served. And so we evolved our thinking. Rapidly. And began to develop solutions in tandem with Larry that actually served real world accessibility needs.
We therefore had a fair amount of exposure to this type of thought restructuring between 2007 and 2012 when Donna was connected with Mind Vault for the first time. I’m afraid I can’t remember exactly what project it was that Donna and I worked on initially, but I do know that whatever it was, it rapidly evolved into another. And another. And the reason for this, I believe, was that Donna was experiencing some of the very same issues, now in 2012, that we had been tackling with Flying Blind, LLC since 2007. And yet, at the same time, Donna also had some very unique needs of her own that required a much more visually creative approach than anything that we had done for Larry in the past.
Accessibly Creative Design
While Donna’s needs were every bit as technical, as I’ve mentioned above, she and I, specifically, developed a bond very early on around the more creative side of the design process, as it relates to accessibility. Which in itself might seem like an oxymoron since this is the very same side of the design process that is most often overlooked (pun intended) when talking about accessibility. Moreover, the discussion around aesthetic design where accessibility is concerned ends with the presence of a sufficiently descriptive ALT tag. Which is not to say that a sufficiently descriptive ALT tag is not important, because it is, but Donna wanted to take this idea further. She wanted very specific images to go with her posts and other marketing initiatives and it was up to us to locate and/or create them. And then? Describe them. But not in the normally bland and machine-like way that so many images are “ALT tagged” today, but in a way that would add “real meaning and context” to each photo on the page. And so we came up with a method for adding “aesthetically relevant ALT tag descriptions” that we believed would be as pleasing for blind visitors to read as the images that they represented would be for sighted visitors to see. This was an incredible breakthrough for me, personally, as a designer, for in all the time that I’d spent designing graphics throughout my career never had I imagined that I would one day be designing those very same concepts using only words. And yet here we were.
The Question At Heart
Which brings us, at long last, to the question at heart. How do we teach the sighted to see accessibility? Especially when they believe that they can already see it? I’ve asked myself time and again what might have changed my mind back in 2007, but nothing did, except for seeing things break. Over and over again. Even when we thought that we’d fixed them. Seeing blind users left out in the cold. In many cases, deliberately. Simply because the audience that they represented to a particular entity was not deemed “large enough” for that entity to take action. I began to see a new picture entirely. One that I hope to share some glimpse of today with anyone reading this that is sighted and truly cares about accessibility.
How The Sighted See Accessibility
In many sighted developer circles accessibility is laid, like a sheet, under the blanket of SEO, or Search Engine Optimization. Since many (but not all) accessibility best practices are also good for SEO, the justification tends to go something like this, “Of course we want to be accessible, because accessibility is good for SEO and good SEO promotes a better bottom line.” Now we all know that everything and anything that takes place in a build / budget discussion is always shaped around ROI in some fashion, which is as it should be, but this was so much bigger than that. Within these discussions accessibility was, quite literally, invisible. Or, stated another way, every single person in the room was completely blind to what accessibility really was. They all saw general accessibility as a small set of best practices that amounted to “common sense coding” and which were already easily satisfied by SEO best practices. An assertion that any blind tech reading this will tell you is utterly ridiculous.
How The Blind Want The Sighted To See Accessibility
I believe the very best way to explain what well designed accessibility really means to the blind community is through an analogy that bridges their desires with those of the sighted community. So let us consider for a moment the analogy of good design versus bad design from a visual, sighted perspective. We in the sighted community can tell good design from bad design on sight. Or at least we’d like to think we can. 😉 In all sincerity I would say that the vast majority of sighted people who have at least some amount of design experience will still get this right about 90% of the time. 90% of the time. And that’s with only “some” amount of design experience. Now. Let’s flip that around.
Blind users have nothing but adaptive technology experience. They are not afforded the luxury of making a judgment based on just “some” amount of past design experience. So as you might imagine they too can tell good design from bad design on contact with a system every bit as quickly as a sighted person can spot poor design visually. So what does bad accessibility design look like? From a sighted perspective? Consider some of those adjectives and phrases that are used to describe bad visual designs. Inelegant. Clunky. Lack of consistency. Obsolete in concept. Not enough effort invested. Not enough experience on the part of the designer. Each and every one of these same critiques can be applied to poorly built systems designed solely to meet only the most minimum amount of technical adherence necessary in order to be considered “accessible.”
Some Final Thoughts
A closing example. Rotary phones still work, and as such could therefore still be considered “accessible” for making phone calls, but I’m not sure that anyone would dare call them examples of good design any longer. How then can we achieve Apple iPhone-like accessibility experiences across the spectrum? (Thank you Apple, for doing such a remarkable job of setting that standard.)
First we have to understand what it takes to build out well designed accessibility, much as Apple has done by consistently iterating on feedback provided by the adaptive technology community. And then we have to build them. And that’s happening. Every single day. By people just like you and I. And it is my sincerest hope that after reading this you too will take a closer look at what well designed accessibility looks like to you, and to your business or organization. Because to blind users accessibility has never been a compliance standard or a best practice. It has always been and always will be their entire experience.
Photo ALT: Accessible environment design concept. A colorful illustration depicts a man in a wheelchair starting up a ramp that has been built over stairs by a female construction worker who sits on a pile of building blocks in the foreground wearing a yellow hard hat and reading a blueprint.
Aaron Di Blasi, PMP
Project Management Professional
Web: https://mvsltd.com 🌐