[Athen] Accessibility versus affordance - Unasking The right Questions

Ron Stewart ron at ahead.org
Thu Jul 2 06:08:51 PDT 2009

Interesting read


Unasking The right Questions - By Bill Thompson.
Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

Accessibility has always been an issue for information and communications
technologies, but for most
of the 60 or so years we've had stored-program digital computers, it was a
secondary consideration.
Getting physical access to early computers like EDSAC and ATLAS involved
being in the right room in
the right city at the right time, whether or not you were a wheelchair user
or had poor vision.

When the number of people with easy and affordable access to the new
technologies of desktop
computers, network access and online publishing tools was relatively small,
accessibility for those
who needed special provision could be handled using one-off solutions, often
built by those
concerned since they were technical themselves.
Over the years this has led us to design systems for the majority and then
adapt them to work for
those who are somehow different, and we keep thinking about 'accessibility'
and 'usability' as
separate, almost orthogonal aspects of design. Unfortunately, this remains
the dominant model, and
it has now become a barrier to future progress because it encourages
designers to think about
creating tools and services for the 'normal' population before considering
We need to change this approach, and to move away from solving the 'problem'
of accessibility to a
view of design in which it stops meriting separate consideration.
We need to stop giving designers the opportunity to talk about
'accessibility', and instead collapse
the distinction that is causing us so much trouble.
Instead of thinking about 'access' at one end and 'usability' at another, we
should attempt to
recast our debate in terms of what technology does for all of us, not just
those whose have 'special'
After all, technology is there to mediate between us and the world, and all
technology is about
changing, enhancing or correcting our bare capabilities to allow new things
to be possible,
transforming the otherwise inaccessible and unperceivable into sense data,
or subjecting the
physical world to the influence of enhanced motor skills.
How many of you can see the moons of Jupiter with your naked eye, or run at
The additive power of technology is as true of the telescope and the car as
it is of the internet.
Technologies sit between us and the world and allow us to perceive it more
intimately, measure it
more precisely, influence it with greater precision and scope, and reach out
to others without
concern for distance or - in many cases - language.
They do that for us all, irrespective of our capabilities. But different
technologies offer
different affordances, depending on where we encounter them and - most
importantly - our own
capabilities. We can only use a telescope to see the craters of the moon if
we have adequate vision,
though of course interpreting the data from a radio telescope does not
necessarily require this.
We have too often been content to build technologies which only serve to
enhance the capabilities of
the 'modally-abled', those whose physical and cognitive abilities cluster
around the modal value for
modern humans. We clearly disregard those whose abilities are much lower
than the norm, but also
tend to forget those who may be better - they tend to cope, of course, and
do not usually ask for
special attention.
So how should we frame our debate if we move beyond what I think is a
dangerous attempt to retain
the distinction between 'usability' and 'accessibility'?

I think it is time to explore the idea of 'affordance', as it could offer us
a way forward.

Bill Gaver, Professor of Design at Goldsmiths College, has an interesting
take on this. In a 1996
paper, he wrote: "Affordances go beyond value-free physical descriptions of
the environment by
expressing environmental attributes relative to humans. For example, the
physical measure of height,
which has no inherent meaning, can be recast in terms of the affordance of
accessibility, which
does. Because accessibility emerges from the relation between elevation and
people's physical
characteristics, it is an objective fact about a situation."
The idea of accessibility - here used to mean whether a shelf or window can
be reached - as
something which emerges from a relationship between a technology and a user
is one we might build on
in our attempt to reconcile the usability-driven design approach and our
concern over whether people
can use specific technologies.
The key is the interaction between the technology and what it offers and the
ability of the user
actually to make use of that offer, as it allows us to sketch out a model of
augmented capability
that covers all of us, not just those who might be classified as 'disabled'
in some way.
If we start to frame the issues facing users whose capabilities deviate from
the norm in terms of
affordances rather than simply of accessibility, this might free us from the
'modal totalitarianism'
that infects so much design, whether in products like screens and keyboards
or on-screen in
websites, widgets and services.
Affordances matter equally to the 'abled' as to the 'disabled', and so the
same design methods can
be used, and outcomes can be evaluated in a much broader way. This allows us
to start to move away
from the current model, in which we have 'assistive' technologies to
overcome 'deficits' that make
some users 'abnormal', to one in which we all have skills and abilities that
vary along a large
number of axes.
This is going to be very important in the near future, as those of us who
first encountered digital
technologies when we were young and able-bodied, begin to age. I wear
glasses to read from the
screen, and I know that my high-frequency hearing has been damaged by years
of gigs and loud music
in headphones.
I can feel my cognitive abilities going, and can see a world where I will
be, as Shakespeare might
have put it, sans eyes, sans teeth, sans keyboard, and in the near future I
will need assistive
technologies even more.
If we think differently about design and consider issues of accessibility in
terms of affordances,
then we may move closer to another goal - that of exposing and understanding
the impacts of the
negative 'externalities' of unusable sites and services.
To an economist, externalities are effects on parties that are not directly
involved in a
transaction, such as the impact of a polluting factory on the health of
non-employees in the
surrounding area. The costs of the transaction do not therefore reflect its
full costs or benefits,
once these externalities are taken into account. Externalities can be
positive, such as the network
effect that comes from more and more people using an online service, or
By and large, businesses will try to bring more of the positive
externalities in-house - we might
see battles over copyright as an attempt by rights-holders to internalise
all the benefits of
creative reuse - but keep negative externalities away, and off their balance
A more integrated approach to design, however, one that classes all users as
equal and equally
deserving of service, could make it harder for those who disregard the needs
of the non-modal
population to treat the costs as an externality to be met by extra funding,
charitable engagement or
personal expenditure on assistive technology. And by bringing the costs back
to those who have given
us this world of dysfunctional technology, we might persuade even the
accountants and management
consultants who have for so long disregarded the needs of anyone outside the
mainstream, that there
are sound financial reasons for becoming more inclusive.
We would not even need to tax them to achieve this (though this would be one
approach): we could
nudge them to do the right thing by offering benefits and tax breaks for
those whose choices are
more in line with this point of view, perhaps limiting access to government
support services,
guaranteed bank loans and the other benefits that businesses are currently
calling for, to those who
will offer tools, sites and services that can be used by all taxpayers and
not just those with 20/20
vision and high levels of manual dexterity.
The transition from the current approach, which we could call modal
oligarchy, to one of design for
all, will not be easy. Those of us within one standard deviation of the mean
may worry that elegant
tools and desirable products that 'just work' will no longer be available,
that innovation will be
limited and that we will have to work harder to get what we want from
But no user interface is intuitive, no keyboard obvious, no website
'natural'. Just as learning
language rewires the human brain, so learning how to use network computers
requires us to link old
skills in new ways. We've taken the easy path so far, but I would speculate
that interfaces designed
for all will not only be more usable by mainstream adopters, they will be
more powerful.
And they will unleash a wave of creativity not only from those of us who are
already well served but
from the millions upon millions who are currently excluded.
If we believe in the transforming power of these new technologies, if we
want the network revolution
to succeed, and if we desire the best and brightest to join us in this brave
new world, then we need
to ensure that the barriers to access are removed at all levels. That means
campaigning to bring
down all of the digital divides, not just the one between rich and poor but
between the majority of
users for whom most technology is designed and those of us whose
capabilities lie more than one
standard deviation from the mode.
The conversations taking place at this conference, e-Access '09, are part of
that process, but I
think it is time to push for something more. I think that this should be the
last e-access
conference. Next year I hope to see you all here for e-affordance 2010.


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