Daniel recently requested help because he was having problems using our site and one of our apps. The support team helped as much as possible, but there were some unresolved issues. Fortunately Daniel, a professional advocate for the blind, asked if anyone from TED's Tech Team would speak with him directly. Our Community Support Manager referred him my way.
I assembled a small group including our lead front-end engineer, Joe Bartlett, and our mobile app product manager, Will True. Daniel was gracious enough to meet with us in person for about an hour; the insights we gained from that discussion were invaluable.
During our time together, Daniel showed us how he uses our site and our app, and we were able to observe the issues he was having. These were things we never would have uncovered if we hadn't witnessed them firsthand; while we do our best to test with a wide variety of users, I can honestly say we haven't tested with the blind — and now we will.
We also chatted with Daniel about how he and other blind people use websites and apps, what works and what doesn't, and which technologies — e.g., JAWS, NVDA, Windows Eyes — are popular, and why.
Moreover, we got a much bigger lesson, one that is invaluable for anyone who offers digital content or transactions: we got to see just how difficult it is for a non-sighted person to do the most basic things with apps and websites, let alone with the devices that run them. I wish we'd recorded the meeting so everyone on our Tech Team could see just what it's like for this subset of our users. Talk about empathy building.
Our team is committed to making all our digital products as accessible as possible, but the truth is that we're a small team in a non-profit working on a ton of projects. Add to that the fact that accessibility standards and technologies are still nascent and evolving, and it can be easy to start to think of full accessibility a luxury, something to think about after addressing the needs of the largest swaths of our audience.
But that's not really what accessibility is about: accessibility is about meeting the needs of all users, not just the majority. It means making things work no matter who's using our products. It means dedicating resources and time to what might — might — amount to a very small subset of our audience. It means considering accessibility from the start of the project cycle, not the end. And, frankly, it simply isn't always possible, at least at first. Nonetheless, accessibility has to be more than a goal we aspire to; it has to be baked into everything we do.
Members of our engineering and product teams make it a priority to follow the latest standards, support accessibility and security, and generally make things as simple and usable as possible. That doesn't mean, however, that we don't have more work to do, as our meeting with Daniel proved.
It's estimated that one-fifth of all Americans have some form of disability. This means that people with disabilities, if considered as a group, are the single largest minority group in the country. As digital media continues its evolution toward being a life staple rather than a luxury, ignoring those with special needs is perilous at best, discriminatory at worst.
At our next Tech Team Summit in May, I plan to make accessibility a topic of discussion. I'll report back afterward.
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