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From KUOW 949 Seattle, I’m Jeannie Yandel.
If you’ve ever used a large-handled can opener or a door with a lever instead of a knob, you’ve benefited from universal design. Universal Design is a relatively new approach to creating products and buildings. The goal is to make everything usable and effective for everyone. That means people who have disabilities… and people who don’t.
Wendy Chisholm is a computer programmer and developer. She’s also co-author of the book “Universal Design for Web Applications”. I met Wendy at her home office in Seattle’s north Ballard neighborhood.
And she explained why she’s working to make the Internet universally accessible.
Wendy Chisholm first started thinking about universal design when she was in college. She was studying computer programming. And one of her professors asked her to tutor a blind student in a statistics class.
Wendy: I couldn’t figure out how to teach him about scatterplots and bar graphs and those things, so I just got really creative. I started using legos to teach about bar graphs, and pins to make holes in the scatterplots and make raised line drawings. I thought, there must be an easier way to do these things. There must be some way to use computers to help him instead of me making rough tools.
Jeannie: Were you able to help him?
Wendy: To some extent.I think.I did an ok job but…
Jeannie: What does that mean, you did an OK job?
Wendy: He got a C in the class, but I don’t think he went on to be a statistics master. He passed the class, and I think that’s what he probably wanted to do. But, you know, we could have done so much more.
Although Wendy didn’t help the blind student as much as she wanted to, the experience got her thinking about what computers could do for people with disabilities. It was right in line with why she got into programming in the first place.
Wendy: I knew going into computer science I wanted to somehow merge the computer interface, or just make computers more useable. I was always interested in people and I wanted somehow to combine them. But I wasn’t sure how to do that. The program I was in was very much about the computer science aspect, the computing and algorithims. And I went on to become a programmer. It’s when I was a programmer at the University of Chicago, and I read an article about Dr. Gregg Vanderheiden at the University of Wisconsin. And his project, his purpose, was to make technology accessible to people with disabilities. And I got very excited about that. I got into his program, and the rest was history.
At the University of Wisconsin Wendy started focusing on the Internet. She learned it was initially really exciting for people with disabilities.
Wendy: So take the example of someone who is blind and wants to read a newspaper. Before the web, you would have to wait for the news to be brailled. I don’t know how long that would take, but when it arrived, it weighs a lot. Braille is heavy and big. Or you would have to wait for someone who’d read the paper on the radio, my grandparents would do that, or you’d get a cassette of someone reading it. You wouldn’t get it as it happened. There was a delay. And suddenly, you could just get it at the same time as everyone else. If you think about someone with a physical disability – that person may not be able to hold the paper or turn pages. Interacting with the paper through the computer meant no more turning pages. You could just navigate through it as you needed. So it brought about independent, and an experience that was more immediate, and it was much more similar to what other people were experiencing. So it was very liberating and empowering.
People with reading disabilities or sight deficiencies could use a screen reader to surf the web. A synthesized voice read the text on a web page aloud. This was great in the early 90’s, when the Internet was mainly text. But by 1995, when Wendy was at the University of Wisconsin, images were becoming a bigger part of the Internet experience. It was a big step forward for the web. But images weren’t always created so screen readers could describe them.
So it was a big step backwards for people with disabilities.
Wendy and her colleagues started establishing guidelines for accessible web design. And she turned one of her mentors, a man named Neal Ewers. He’s blind. And he helped Wendy understand what being blind was like.
Wendy: He’d have me walk down the hallway and listen to where the doors were, I’d close my eyes and I’d get a sense of the echo that we’d create with our footsteps when we approached a door or hallway. He’d give me his cane and I’d use it to walk home. It was a mile walk home, and I’d take off my glasses, and I see OK without my glasses, but it was a very different experience. Having that cane let other people know I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. And it gave me a sense that it was OK to explore what it was like to not really see what I was used to seeing. And we spent a lot of time playing with web pages and adding different features to web pages and seeing what screen readers would do with them, just getting a sense of what he needed to use his websites. And a lot of times I’d turn off my monitor and just use the screen reader to see how confusing it would be or what kind of landmarks someone would need.
Based on those experiences, Wendy and others wrote new universal accessibility guidelines for web developers. The guidelines said web developers needed to provide equivalent alternatives to sound-based content and image-based content. They explained developers would benefit from making their content available to a much wider audience. In 1999, the World Wide Web Consortium adopted the guidelines as an international standard for web site design. The US, the European Union, Japan, and South Korea were just a few of the countries that adoped the guidelines as well.
So that should be the end of the story, right?
Then the web was universally accessible for everyone.
Except that now, in 2009, this how someone with a sight impairment experiences an important local website.
Wendy: Let me pull this up here. One of my favorite examples is, here in Seattle, the Metro bus line. And this is a schedule for bus route 48, which I take all the time to go to work.
Wendy turns on her screen reader as she navigates to the 48 schedule page on the Metro site.
[We hear sound of the screen reader reading the top of the route schedule.]
Wendy: Ideally, this would be marked up as a table and I could also have a bunch of other commands I could use to navigate through the columns and the rows and all of that. Unfortunately it’s not marked as a table. It’s just marked as text. So there’s no function, no framework for me to navigate.
[We hear robotic screen reader voice reading across each line of text on the Metro 48 schedule page on the website]
Wendy: So what it’s done…there are 1, 2, 3. there’s 10 columns. And it’s just reading the very first line of each of those. So it’s reading.
Jeannie: It’s reading in reading in rows instead of columns.
Wendy: Right, yeah. It’s reading across all this.
Jeannie: How do you catch a bus like that?!
Wendy: [laughs]You don’t, I don’t think. Luckily the Metro site provides several other ways, like the Trip Planner, to get the information. But if you just want to look at a timetable, with a screen reader there’s no way to do it. If I go down a couple more lines…
[ screen reader voice reading across, listing times the 48 arrives ]
Wendy: So again, you know the bus is coming at those times, but you don’t know where it will be stopping [laughs].
Jeannie: I take the bus everywhere! This would drive me crazy!
Wendy: Yeah. And luckily, there are a variety of other apps to get this information. But, yeah. It’s really amazing that this is not set up better so it’s more accessible. We were writing the book, and this was one of the first examples we found, so this is a bad example we use in the book. So I started looking. You know, Chicago, Paris, New York. Anywhere I thought would have a public bus system website. And I didn’t find one that was really accessible. So it’s not just a Seattle problem, unfortunately.
And it’s not just a transit website problem.
YouTube doesn’t ensure all of its images have captioning for people with hearing impairments.
CNN’s videos don’t always have captioning either.
The Web accessibility guidelines Wendy and others wrote back in the 90’s could help.if everyone followed them.
But one of the Internet’s greatest strengths is one of the biggest obstacles for universal accessibility.
It’s completely decentralized.
More people are producing content for the web than ever before.
And many of them never consider whether their content is universally accessible.
So what will it take to provide equal web access for everyone?
Wendy: Well, I think there are three things that have to happen. One is, I talked a little bit about how tech needs accessibility built in. You don’t need to think about accessibility, it’s just accessible by default. Or at least, as accessible as can be.
The second is a cultural shift. You know, so many of people think people with disabilities don’t shop, don’t work, aren’t capable of so many things that they’re capable of. They’re people. They have ideas, and wishes, and experiences, just like everyone else. That’s been one of the most shocking things to me in this work…how many people don’t believe that. But it’s a cultural thing. And it’s just like the civil rights movement or the women’s rights movement. There is a disability rights movement around the world. And that hopefully will help bring about the same rights of experience, of equality for people with disabilities as it has for women and for everyone.
And finally the third thing would be that people with disabilities need to be included in the creation of all this as we move forward. So as technology is being developed, as new ideas are coming to the web, if more of those ideas are being created by or with people with disabilities, accessibility will just be at the table. People with disabilities need to be at the table, they need to be part of the conversations. And that’ll really be a huge change. And that’s part of the equality issue is as well.
Actually, one of my favorite quotes is it’s not the wheelchair that makes a building inaccessible, it’s the stairs. And it’s so true. If things were just designed differently, there wouldn’t really be the same sense of disability that there is now. It’d be about people having different needs. That was a huge piece for me. And that’s why I am so passionate about this work. Web design is so easy to change. The web itself is so malleable and flexible. If people just did a few things, it would really be more useable. And our society would be so much richer for that experience of having more contact and more communication with more people.
Jeannie: Well Wendy, what’s in it for people without disabilities to be part of this movement that you’re talking about?
Wendy: Honestly, I think it’s world peace! [laughs] I really do. I have another mentor. His name is William Loughborough. He has this thing: “everyone, everywhere, always connected”. If more people were more connected, there’d be less war. There’d be more equality of people. We’d all have richer experiences knowing more diverse people. I think it’d benefit all of us to have a wide variety of perspectives to pull from in creating the world we want to create. I know it sounds cheesy, but I honestly believe it leads to world peace. [laughs]
Jeannie: That’s kind of a far-off goal, world peace.
Wendy: Yes, it is.
Jeannie: So what’s in it for people without disabilities to join this cause now?
Wendy: Well, it’ll make it easier for all of us to use the web. Especially now that everyone’s got their iPhone or their Google phone, you know their Android phone, so this will help those things. If you have a website, it’ll be easier to be found, because all the information screen readers use is the same information search engines use. So if you consider Google a blind and deaf user, and all this information and structure you provide will make your site more usable. One of the cool things YouTube is doing is promoting the use of captions to search both for video and search within video. So you can go to a specific scene in a video just by having the captions associated with the time codes.
Throughout history, technologies that have been developed for people with disabilities and by people with disabilities have changed our world. The modem, speech synthesis. One of my favorite new examples is the way you can pinch and zoom on the iPhone, that [screen magnification] was developed for people with low vision who had difficulties reading text. So all of these technologies are going to help us. And we don’t even understand yet how applying those technologies in a mainstream venue will benefit us. But it will benefit all of us.
Wendy Chisholm is a developer and computer programmer. She also co-authored the book Universal Design for Web Applications. She told me why she’s working to make the web accessible to everyone. You can learn more at KUOW dot org. Search for web or universal design.
From KUOW 949 Seattle, I’m Jeannie Yandel.