“Consider everyone’s journey” – Using and understanding assistive digital technologies

Author wearing vision impairment glasses
June 2, 2017 1:33 pm

“Consider everyone’s journey” – Using and understanding assistive digital technologies

On Wednesday 24th May 2017, it was great to see the digital community come together to learn and be inspired by this year’s Camp Digital event in Manchester. Many great talks were given on topics of usability, design and accessibility, but the one session that stood out for me was the workshop I took part in, given by Molly Watt and Chris Bush, about using and understanding assistive technologies.

Chris Bush kicked the workshop off by giving us an insight into the vast number of people that suffer from a long-term illness or disability, equating to around 15% of the UK’s population. With this striking figure in mind, the question ‘Why design for inclusion?’ was proposed. To help us understand why, Chris introduced Molly Watt, who began by sharing her story on why she is so passionate about this subject.

Molly has Ushers syndrome. She was born profoundly deaf and at the age of 12 her sight started deteriorating rapidly so by 14 she had just 5% of vision in one eye. The combination of disabilities is known as ‘deafblindness’. She highlighted the fact that being born with a disability and acquiring one later on is very different, and so when onset of disability happens is determinant of how people use assistive tech and which assistive tech they choose.

Chris went on to explain how disabilities- whether they are cognitive, physical, visual or auditory – are more prevalent than we think and can also be temporary and situational. We will have all experienced this and used tech to help us overcome it. For example, turning up the volume on the TV when the washing machine is spinning means we are using this tool to better hear what we are watching. Similarly, when the sun is shining on our phone creating a reflection, we may need to zoom into some text or an image to enable us to see the content clearer, meaning we are using the pinch zoom functionality to see better. We can see at some point in our lives we have all experienced inclusive services, maybe even without realising it. Despite this common need, many websites do not enable functionalities such as dynamic text sizing, and iPhone users who choose ‘Large text’ find this is not compatible on many apps.

Next, it was over to us to get hands-on! Molly outlined how we can use assistive tools on our smartphones, such as VoiceOver on the iPhone, and gave a demonstration on the brief commands we could use with some accessibility shortcuts. We were also given vision impairment glasses to wear and the chance to try mobility gloves, to understand the struggle that other users have when using their devices. It soon became clear after exploring a couple of different websites, that many do not cater for those who use assistive tech, which creates challenges to work around these.

Article author wearing vision impairment glasses and holding her iPhone

Using VoiceOver on my iPhone while wearing vision impairment glasses that allow only 5% of vision in each eye

In the second part of the session, Hannah from the Sigma accessibility team, walked us through a demo using a NVDA screen reader, to navigate through the BBC website. The demo highlighted the importance of what needs to be considered by designers and developers, in order for the screen reader to work efficiently. For example, checking links make sense out of context and appear in a logical order. It was then our turn to experience this assistive tech, navigating through sections of the BBC website. It was great to get a hands-on experience, to gain insight into a screen reader on a desktop device, compared to VoiceOver on the iPhone. I found it more difficult to navigate through using the NVDA screen reader, as there are many commands on the keyboard that are necessary to navigate through a website successfully.

Article author and colleague looking at a PC while Chris uses the computer mouse

Chris Bush showing myself and Katharine how an NVDA screen reader works

Take away

From the workshop, I’ve learned that when designing for inclusion, we should think beyond screen readers. The assistive tech someone chooses, and how they use it is unique to their disability and preferences, meaning that services should be designed to cover a range of assistive tech to allow for inclusion, and not just one category of assistive tech. Chris and Molly packed a lot into the workshop and have inspired me to further explore how different assistive tech works, and understand how services can be optimised to enable all users to have the same experience online. I look forward to what Camp Digital 2018 brings!

Link to the slides from the workshop by Molly Watt and Chris Bush