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Accessible technology is better when it’s built by those who rely on it

Unless you’re blind or know someone who is, you might not know that blind people use the same smartphones as sighted people. In fact, many blind people use touch-screen smartphones every day. The secret is that smartphones have a screen reader, a tool that allows blind people to use a mix of gestures and taps, along with vibrations or audio feedback, to use their apps.

Screen readers work on desktop computers as well as mobile devices. You can usually find the screen reader in settings under accessibility. On iPhones, the screen reader is VoiceOver. It provides a verbal description of what’s on the screen, including buttons to click and other actions available to the user. A well-designed website or app user interface makes the information on the website or app accessible to the screen reader, which makes it accessible to blind users. However, a badly designed website or application will be rendered invisible to a screen reader.

We are researchers who focuson technology design that is usable for people with all kinds of disabilities. We’ve found that more needs to be done to make technology accessible and inclusive, such as improving design tools so they are accessible to screen reader users.

It’s not just a matter of fairness and inclusion. Accessible technology is generally better for everyone. An app or website that causes problems for a screen reader is likely to be more difficult than an accessible app or website for anyone to use because it will take more time or effort.

Observing people is good; their participation is better

At first, user interface designers found that the best way to create accessible technology was to study how people with different disabilities used touch screens. For example, early researchers reported that blind users sometimes found locating small icons and specific numbers on the on-screen keypad difficult and time-consuming.

To solve this, accessibility researchers used the whole touch screen as an input and navigation control, similar to a game console controller. Instead of having to touch a particular part of the screen, users can tap anywhere in response to audio prompts. These insights would have been impossible to come by without including blind people in the evaluation and design of touch screens.

User interface design best practices have long included users in the design process. Including users with disabilities results in more accessible technology. Yet many technologies are still not accessible out of the box to users with disabilities.

One way to make apps and websites more accessible is to have people with disabilities designing the technologies. But the design process itself is not very accessible to those very people. Few tools in the user interface designer toolbox are themselves accessible. It’s a Catch-22.

Accessible tech requires accessible design tools

Little research has been conducted about how accessible the user interface design process is, including for blind people. Our recent research evaluated the accessibility of prototyping software, which allows user interface designers to create temporary mock-ups of user interface designs to show clients or to test with users. This software is instrumental to the field. Examples include Balsamiq, Adobe XD and UXPin.