We know what you’re thinking: Why should I read an article about the fundamentals of accessibility? Well, if you already know the percentage of computer users who have disabilities, can name at least ten different categories of assistive technologies, and can describe the key concepts involved in designing an accessible application, then you can probably skip to the next article. However, if you’re unsure what accessible technology is, then take a few minutes and keep reading. You’ll learn about the main concepts around accessible technology, the people they help, and things you can do to help them interact smoothly and successfully with each other.
What We Mean When We Talk about Accessibility
Accessible technology is a piece of software or hardware that makes it easier for someone to see, hear, and use a technology product, such as a computer or a mobile device. It can be an assistive technology (AT) product, a specially designed piece of software or hardware that accommodates someone’s disability (or multiple disabilities) and enables them to interact with a computer. These products are developed to work with a computer's operating system and software. For example, a blind computer user may use assistive technology called a screen reader to navigate an application’s interface and a computer user with ALS may use a word prediction program to help facilitate communicating thoughts and ideas.
Microsoft’s Commitment to Accessibility "Our vision is to create innovative technology that is accessible to everyone and that adapts to each person's needs. Accessible technology eliminates barriers for people with disabilities and it enables individuals to take full advantage of their capabilities." -Bill Gates, Microsoft Corporation
Many companies offer hardware devices, accessories, aids, and software applications that fall under the umbrella of assistive technology. For an overview of assistive technology categories, see Descriptions of Assistive Technology Products at the end of this article.
Accessible technology can also be a feature built into a product that allows someone to adjust the settings to meet their needs. Examples of accessibility features include those that allow a user to increase font size, change font settings, or choose different colors for their computer screen display. Other examples are the option for users to receive announcements from their computer through sound notifications (a "ding" when new e-mail messages arrive), or visual notifications (a modal dialog flashes and beeps when the user tries to click away from it). So overall it is helpful to think of accessible technology as a range of solutions that makes computer use more comfortable for some people and possible for others.
As a developer, one of your main concerns is to ensure that you provide programmatic access to your application’s user interface elements. This enables the assistive technologies to get information about the UI elements and expose that information to the assistive technologies, which in turn relays the information to the user. For example, important information that an AT needs includes type, name, location, and current state of a UI element. They also need to know when changes in the UI occur. For information about how to provide programmatic access using Microsoft’s accessibility frameworks, Microsoft UI Automation and Microsoft Active Accessibility, see the Accessibility Developer Center on MSDN (http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/accessibility/default.aspx).
Programmatic access is just one of the key concepts of creating accessible applications. The following section presents additional concepts about accessible design.
Who Benefits from Accessible Technology?
Although most accessible technology was originally intended and designed for individuals with severe disabilities, accessible technology is widely used by computer users of all abilities today. Among adult computer users in the United States:
- 1 in 4 has a visual disability.
- 1 in 4 has a dexterity disability.
- 1 in 5 has a hearing disability.
Although many accessible technologies are designed to help people with disabilities optimize their abilities, research shows that the majority of all computer users can benefit from adjusting their display, mouse, keyboard, and sound settings. Users can find accessible technologies helpful when, for example, recovering from shoulder surgery. Another example is using a mobile device when driving a car or riding a bus, in which cases, voice recognition or output can be helpful. According to a two-part study commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Forrester Research (The Market for Accessible Technology-The Wide Range of Abilities and Its Impact on Computer Use: http://www.microsoft.com/enable/research/phase1.aspx and Accessible Technology in Computing-Examining Awareness, Use, and Future Potential: http://www.microsoft.com/enable/research/phase2.aspx), the majority of computer users can benefit from using accessible technology. Figure 1 shows that 57% (74.2 million) of computer users are likely or very likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology due to having mild or severe disabilities. Specifically:
Figure 1: This chart also shows the percentages of computer users who are likely or very likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology due to a range of mild to severe difficulties and impairments.
- 40% (51.6 million) of computer users are likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology due to mild difficulties/impairments.
- 17% (22.6 million) of computer users are very likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology due to severe difficulties/impairments.
What does that mean for you? That’s a lot of people who will depend on the accessibility of your application. Accessible technology has the potential to improve computer use for a wider audience because it makes computers easier to use. A key component of encouraging the use of accessible technology is to make it easier to find and highlight the functionality and benefits rather than the impairments they seek to ameliorate.
To get a more personal view of how accessible technology helps people, here is a look at some profiles of computer users today. The following profiles describe how people with common types of disabilities might use accessible technology to help them in their job and everyday life. Each profile is followed by design and development considerations for creating accessible applications.
By: Jennifer Linn
Jenny is a writer in the Windows Experience group and has been working with Accessibility for 8 years. Currently her main focus is on the MSDN Accessibility Developers Center (http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/accessibility/default.aspx) and internal accessibility guidelines for product groups. In her spare time, she enjoys walking homeless dogs at the Seattle Humane Society (http://www.seattlehumane.org) and reading about history.
By: Annuska Perkins
Annuska Perkins has called Microsoft home since 1998. She began as a program manager for MSN Sidewalk.com, an online city guide. Afterwards, she joined the Accessibility group, where her role evolved from program manager, product planner, to User Experience expert. Check out her blog and projects on the MSDN Accessibility site: http://msdn.microsoft.com/accessibility.
57% of computer users are likely or very likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology.44% of computer users use some form of accessible technology.Users seek solutions to make their computers easier to use, not for solutions based on their health or disability.Making accessibility options easier to discover and use will result in computers that are easier to use, more convenient, and more comfortable for computer users.