by Catherine McMahon
"Human variability is immense. We see & hear in varying degrees, our limbs are of different legnths & stregnths, our minds process information differently, we communicate using different methods & speeds" - Kim E. Nielsen, A Disability History of the United States
Too often designers, design thinkers, or manufacturers, draw back when they hear the word "access" or "accessibility;" these terms conjure
images of medicinal looking prosthetics, technical "specialized" devices, or endless pages of documents teeming with rules and regulations.
The perception is that unless you are an advocate for disbility working in this space will be constrained, too specialized, or prescriptive.
In reality the opposite is true, individuals who experience functional limitations across a wide and diverse range can a source of deep insight into the emotions, usability factors, and attitudes that give form to all services and products. Rather than isolating people into rigid categories, difference can be understood as existing along a continuum of change and accessible products work well for everyone. Today essential paradigms are shifting - crowds of people are now seen as possessing their own collective "intelligence," boundaries between the human and machine are being blurred by things like artificial hearts or external "memories," and enhancements from running shoes to Viagra are creating a new types of "super beings" - in short, the basic definition of the human is being transformed. If ability can be seen as modifiable, augmented, or unique in these cases, why limit imagination with static notions of what a person can or cannot do? In other words, the diversity of human experience should not be seen as a burden in the design process but rather as an opportunity.
First steps begin with examining the definitions that underpin the issue. Last year (following on the heels of the UN's 2008 ratification of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) the World Health Organization published the first World Report on Disability. Universal access to places, services, and technologies has now been solidified as a basic human right and the WHO offered a transformed model of disability in their report. Therein the authors argue that human functioning exists across a wide spectrum of difference and that "disability is a matter of more or less, not yes or no." In addition to this they introduce the notion that while in some instances disability can still be cast as a condition of the body, it is more often true that a person is "disabled" by societal attitudes to difference or barriers encountered in the environment. From this perspective we can see that concepts of disability can extend to all people, who at one time or another find themselves limited by a particular context or situation-unable to speak because of a cold, aging and forgetting things that were once familiar, coping with a broken arm, or limited to hands-free, eyes-free modes due to driving a car, etc. This also not meant to minimize the very real and tangible issues related to barriers to access and discrimination experienced by individuals in society-the population at large will not suddenly begin to identify as disabled in the traditional sense-but it is meant to acknowledge the instabilities that impact all people to some degree in their lives. In this sense it becomes clearer to see how users experiencing functional limitations can offer knowledge of problems or expertise about solutions that can have a multiplicity of applications.
Another perspective to take into consideration is change occurring in the technological landscape. Our individuality and attitudes towards personalization are being redefined in light of new technologies; we are now described as the sum of our social relationships, our Klout scores, our IP coordinates, or the keystrokes that bring us tailored ad content, etc. In interfaces multi-modality is also on the rise, as voice, touch, and vision become intertwined sites for design and manipulation. New tech paradigms seek to reconcile an idea of the individual as a disembodied collection of disparate data points with the physical and environmental reality that characterizes hands-on participation in the digital world. Designers and technologists are looking for ways not only to make tech more empathetic and likable, but also to make experiences that are truly relevant, personal, natural, and integrated with both the body and the fluctuations of everyday life.
Bringing together trends in digital technology with a reconfigured definition of (dis)ability will not produce a silver bullet for either realm, but a mutual change in perspective has the potential to open many new avenues for research and design. Ultimately a process that adopts a more inclusive approach will result in products that are more likely to be resilient in the face of change.What follows are a few conceptual frames we have considered here at The MEME that can help to focus design thinking and clarify opportunity. In some ways these are standard points of departure for positioning functional limitation and disability relative to other issues present in the design process, yet we have reenvisioned them as sites of opportunity and ways that an inclusive approach will catalyze innovation and advanced design.
Here the role of design is responding to a barrier associated with a limitation in sensory, physical, or cognitive function. Many times this results in a specialized device or assistive tech (i.e. a pair of glasses). Here personalization is tied up with the identity of the individual user. Preferences and wants-beyond purely pragmatic "needs"-can also guide thinking in this area. For example, expressing ourselves through language is often highly personal and idiosyncratic, yet lets us communicate widely-and for those who use American sign language communications can be difficult with those who don't know ASL. New prototypes have been surfacing on the web for multi-sensor gloves that translate ASL into text, a new take on speech recognition. This would allow someone who is Deaf or has limited-hearing to use ASL in new contexts if they choose, either by letting their devices vocalize for them or to call someone who does not speak ASL without need for a human translator. A problem like translating hand gestures into digital signals generates deep vertical knowledge of an issue that has the ability (and tendency) to spread horizontally to other realms. This tech could have broad implications-ASL is already codified as a complete gestural language—using it digitally could engender new ways for anyone to communicate with and control their personal devices in the future.
The word "universal" carries the implication of making something that applies in all cases and contexts. A goal of universality can seem elusive, bogged down by too many requests, needs, and a diversity of difference. Yet a considered approach can create robust frameworks that include alternatives while shaping an overall user experience that is accessible to a wide range of people. This is less an emphasis on the personal but rather about ensuring no one is excluded from or singled out in an experience. Take voting booths, in order to ensure a society's core democratic values, the mechanisms for placing votes must work to accommodate all individuals with equality in order to ensure an end goal of placing a ballot independently and privately. The Trace Center developed a universal interface, EZ access, that can be added to a number of public kiosks improving accessibility with a key features like a help button or back button that lets one easily undo mistakes. Universal access should always be taken into account, but is key in public projects and those that address entire populations, such as healthcare, education, banking, retail, online services, tech platforms, work environments, transportation, etc...
Taking differences in functionality can be a starting point for understanding choice and alternatives, emerging behaviors, and unique solutions / experiences. Personalization in this case comes from the desire to create a new perspective and unintended outcomes can be productive and valuable in ways that were not envisioned by the framing of one's initial question. Lisa Bufano, a dancer and performance artist (see above), illustrates this approach in her artwork -by augmenting her body through various prosthetics she is able to shape an entirely new performative experience for her audience. Her figure becomes a site of transformation and design. These enhancements are most easily understood when made visible in a physical way, yet opportunity exists for immersion in cognitive or sensory difference, especially in modes that have resonance in the digital realm. Looking at extremes or alternatives to expected ways of doing things, and avoiding the tendency to always look to the "average guy" for his input, can allow for a paradigm shift in thinking that has the ability to leapfrog existing problematics and generate new ideas.