Why Accommodating Others is Your Best Investment

This entry is part 13 of 17 in the series Tutorials

It’s April First, but this is no April Fool’s post.

Introduction

It’s Tutorial Tuesday, but this week I’d like to step back for a moment and talk more broadly about why accessibility is important. Many of the tutorials I’ve written up to this point have provided steps to help make documents more accessible, and there are many good reasons for that.

But before I get into the details, I wanted to share a link to this great podcast I listened to recently. The episode is about accessibility in web design, but there are a lot (and I mean a lot) of great takeaways that apply to all electronic media, and even a few points that extend into everyday life in general.

It’s a little over an hour long, but if you have the time I’d suggest checking out Episode #64 of The Web Ahead, which you can access at http://5by5.tv/webahead/64.

I’ll paraphrase a few of the interesting quotes below fothose of you who don’t have the time to give it a listen.

Why Accessibility is Important

One of the quotes I pulled from the episode is “Do it because it’s the right thing to do.” That’s certainly true, but it doesn’t pain the whole picture.

Accessibility is something we often think of as something that special interest groups do to help other special interest groups. It’s the Americans With Disabilities Act (or insert your own country’s disability laws here). Wheel chair ramps for people with mobility issues, closed captioned videos for the deaf, Braille for the blind, etc.

People who aren’t classified as “disabled” by the mainstream definition of the term often don’t consider it necessary to even think about, let alone account for, people with disabilities. I fully understand why it’s not even on some peoples’ radar; if it’s not something you interact with daily, it’s hard to care. Someone doesn’t have to meet a clinical definition of being “disabled” just to benefit from accessibility best practices though, and that’s why you should care. Accessibility is about more than just the disabled people, it’s about everyone, everywhe,re ever.

Accessibility Includes Everyone

Though a relatively small percentage of the total population are considered “severely or permanently disabled,” a much larger percentage of people have temporary or minor impairments. One person may be myopic and require reading glasses, while another may have a broken arm that makes it difficult to hold a book or mouse for a few weeks. We accommodate people with poor vision by giving them glasses, and in many cases that improves their sight to normal functioning levels (at or near 20/20). But what of the person whose arm is in a cast? They’ll heal over time, but in the interim they need a little bit more help to do certain things.

I recently got to speak with the fine folks from the Play On Target podcast, and we had a great discussion surrounding the need of everyday people to be able to easily access text. Though none of the four hosts are blind, several of them wear glasses. When I brought up the topic of parchment backgrounds in gaming PDFs, many of them chimed in to say that even they sometimes have difficulties with them. Black text on a tan background may look great to a designer, but oftentimes the target audience has trouble reading it — even when the target audience is just your typical non-disabled gamer.

On a similar note, many RPG books and board game manuals use small fonts to conserve space. The Pathfinder Role-playing Game, one of the most popular RPGs on the market, uses 8 to 8.5 point font. It conserves page count, and that’s important for a company with large print runs, but there are a lot of people out there who struggle to read that small text. And many of those people are just your typical role-player who has been in the hobby for 30 years and whose vision is degenerating with age.

Clearly, it’s not just the blind and visually impaired who would benefit from larger text, or at least the ability to increase font sizes in digital documents or turn off colored backgrounds.

Going back to our example of the person with the broken arm, let’s consider for a moment how that impacts their ability to read a book. Just the act of holding a game book becomes challenging, so perhaps they turn to digital media for a while. They can operate a computer or tablet one-handed, albeit with a bit of difficulty, and that allows them to read on screen for a while.

Eventually, holding the tablet or using the computer one-handed gets tiresome. They could put down the book / device, but what if they’re really engaged? If you’re a game designer, would you want an interested person to stop reading your material just because they grew frustrated or tired of the way they had to make accommodations?

If your digital books are properly formatted, a world of options opens up to that person. They can use text-to-speech tools — which come standard in in many mobile and desktop operating systems and are available in a variety of standalone apps — to simply sit back and listen to the book being read to them. They can put down the devices they’re holding or stop fiddling with their keyboard and continue to enjoy your book. They don’t have to wait until their arm is out of a cast to get back to reading. And perhaps they’ve taken to reading more because their arm is broken and they’re having difficulty doing other things they enjoy, like playing video games or golfing.

What? I’m sure someone out there is both a gamer and a golfer. It could happen.

Now consider people with cerebral palsy or paralysis. They benefit from the same ability to read documents without having to hold them in their hands. If your book is accessible to the person with the broken arm, it’s accessible to these people too.

Even People with Disabilities Have Credit Cards

To paraphrase something said on The Web Ahead podcast, “People with disabilities still have credit cards. Why would you set up a wall between your product and a paying customer?”

It isn’t difficult to meet the guidelines for most accessibility issues, especially when we’re talking about digital products. We don’t need to build special wheelchair ramps or bathroom stalls, we just need to include ALT tags in our web page images or layers in our PDFs. We need to look at how people interact with a document, rather than just how the document looks.

If it’s so simple, then why wouldn’t you design for the best possible access? The short answer is probably that you don’t know better or you don’t know how. Hopefully with a bit more education, those won’t be concerns anymore.

I recently purchased a PDF of a relatively high-profile game that did very well on Kickstarter. I was really looking forward to the game, because from the sound of it, it was going to be right up my alley. Unfortunately, the PDF was completely inaccessible. It’s a gorgeous book, but it’s untagged, unlayered, and and not designed in such away as to allow for good text flow. My screen reader couldn’t even parse half of the text on many of the pages.

Had I known that, I never would have spent my money on the book to begin with. I contacted the publisher about the issues and, though they didn’t offer anything by way of a refund, they did admit that it was their first product and a learning experience. They weren’t aware of the concerns that face people who don’t read 100% by sight, and they assured me that they would try to improve future products.

That’s all well and good, but if future products are supplements for a book I can’t read to begin with, I’m not going to be spending my money on them.

This story isn’t to to bash anyone or any company (which is why I intentionally left out the name of the product), but it’s to illustrate that people with disabilities have buying power, just like everyone else. “Vote with your dollar” is an old adage, and it applies here too.

Final Thoughts

It’s time to get off the soap box. Before I do though, I’d like to leave you with two more paraphrased quotes from The Web Ahead:

“Accessibility is where technology meets empathy.”

“Once you make it easier for a specific group … it becomes easier for everyone to use.”

Designing for accessibility is the right thing to do because it shows compassion. It’s the right thing to do because it opens up your products to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to use them. But of equal importance is that designing for accessibility makes your products available to everyone. Even people who aren’t disabled can benefit in some way from clean, adaptable designs.

Games for absolutely everyone. Shouldn’t that be something we’re all about?

I promise next week I’ll be back with some more hands-on tutorials.

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About Jacob Wood

Jacob founded Accessible Games because he wants to spread the joy of gaming to everyone, including people with disabilities. He is visually impaired and knows what it's like to need to adapt, and he brings two decades of gaming experience to the table.
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