Conference PaperPDF Available

If You Don't Build It, They Won't Come: HCI has an Inaccessibility Problem

Authors:

Abstract

Accessibility is a core component of good interaction design. However, we have not yet reached a point in the field of HCI where we can say that this is standard practice. In this provocation, we challenge the HCI community to reconcile accessibility as an additional, ad-hoc specialization and instead to reflect on how our practices and tools may perpetuate design that excludes users. To what degree is our toolset and knowledge structured in such a way to advance accessible design? In what ways are our skills perpetuating the opposite? How do we ensure accessibility is a fundamental consideration in technology design?
If You Don't Build It, They Won't Come:
HCI has an Inaccessibility Problem
Garreth W. Tigwell
garreth.w.tigwell@rit.edu
School of Information, Rochester Institute of Technology
Kristen Shinohara
kristen.shinohara@rit.edu
School of Information, Rochester Institute of Technology
Michael McQuaid
mjmics@rit.edu
School of Information, Rochester Institute of Technology
Key Words: Accessibility; Design; Education; Guidelines; Tools
Abstract
Accessibility is a core component of good interaction design. However, we have not yet reached
a point in the field of HCI where we can say that this is standard practice. In this provocation, we
challenge the HCI community to reconcile accessibility as an additional, ad-hoc specialization
and instead to reflect on how our practices and tools may perpetuate design that excludes
users. To what degree is our toolset and knowledge structured in such a way to advance
accessible design? In what ways are our skills perpetuating the opposite? How do we ensure
accessibility is a fundamental consideration in technology design?
Proceedings of the 2021 Annual Conference of the Human Computer Interaction Consortium (HCIC)
Introduction
Oftentimes, interaction design approaches in the HCI tradition relegate accessibility as an ad-
hoc consideration, to be evaluated after initial design and prototyping iterations. However, we
posit that accessibility is a core component of design, and is fundamental to good usability.
Furthermore, the expression of accessibility as a fringe topic persists within industry often in the
form of attitudes that it is someone else’s problem or the notion that disabled people are the
users and not the designers. Therefore, including accessibility in early stage design practices is
key to producing a good user experience. It is clear that HCI communities are not doing enough
to promote accessibility as a core skill set in HCI. Considering that humans have varying
abilities underscores the crucial role of a designer to ensure that accessibility is at the forefront
of their work [13].
In this provocation, we focus on how knowledge, skills, guidelines, and design tools both
facilitate and impede accessible design. We identify current challenges in these areas and
question why we don't include accessibility as an integral part of good design.
Accessibility Knowledge and Skill in HCI
Accessibility is the design of technologies so as to be usable by people with disabilities. Human-
Computer Interaction is fundamentally concerned with how people perceive and use technology.
Encapsulated in the basic premise of HCI is that there are many reasons for the abilities of
people using technology to vary. For example, impairments can be congenital, acquired, or
situational, and a person may even experience a combination of these. Thus, accessibility is
inherently a part of how humans interact with technology, and so, all potential end users benefit
from accessible technology. Yet, despite this truism, many key HCI (e.g., UI/UX) skills do not
incorporate accessibility as fundamental to the profession.
Delaying accessibility to after-the-fact usability tasks insufficiently addresses access issues, and
sustains practices that continuously leave accessibility as a lagging usability factor. For
example, enterprise relies more and more on big data to inform design decisions [2], but the use
of big data to inform design decisions may further marginalize disabled groups [12]. Meanwhile,
current design education fails to account for accessibility [8]. Whatever effort is maintained to
address such outcomes, stakeholders with disabilities will remain one step behind.
We can further illustrate these concerns toward industry trends and the lasting impact of lack of
accessibility in design education by focusing on emoji. The underlying features of emoji are
defined by the Unicode Consortium, while operating system designers get to control emoji’s
visual design. Emoji are inaccessible to screen readers and people with vision impairments [11].
There are many reasons for emoji inaccessibility, but two worth highlighting are 1) the process
by which new emoji are defined is controlled by a committee lacking transparency and
representation, which has resulted in confusing and offensive screen reader descriptors for
some emoji, and 2) emoji are often rendered as small icons, which becomes problematic when
Proceedings of the 2021 Annual Conference of the Human Computer Interaction Consortium (HCIC)
it seems that designers are using subtle differences in color and other small visual markers to
distinguish between emoji without taking into account color blind and low vision users.
Indeed, accessibility is often considered an important ad-hoc component for “good design,” but
chapters, courses, and articles that cover accessibility situate the topic outside of the “core”
elements of HCI and interaction design. Pigeon-holing the teaching of accessibility into
specialized courses could be a problem. When accessibility is only taught in elective courses
where it is the focus, students do not opt for these courses because they are not seen as central
to design education [1, 9]. An effective approach is to weave accessibility throughout an entire
degree [7].
The pandemic has taught us that many avenues of accessibility support are possible that were
previously not available [4, 5]. Could it be that there were simply not enough people clamoring
for accessibility before the pandemic? Once the entire world needs it, it turns out to be possible
to do a lot of things previously claimed to be onerous or even impossible.
Guidelines and Design Tools
Accessibility laws ensure conformance in design, yet inaccessible designs persist.
Notwithstanding the legality of nonconformance, inaccessibility has a close relationship with bad
usability [3], and is just plain bad practice, for who will admit it is a good idea to exclude users
with disabilities? Although much of HCI research and practice emphasizes the need for
specialist attention to accessibility, these issues emphasize pervasive problems. Designers
need to know how to meet accessibility requirements, it is essential that accessibility is included
as a main HCI skill. Not only must we teach designers about accessibility from the beginning,
we need guidelines and design tools that reflect these values in support of such design work.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) introduced the first version of the Web Content
Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in 1999 (https://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT/).
WCAG 1.0 offered a detailed documentation of recommendations for making a website
accessible. Since its introduction, WCAG has gone through several iterations, for example,
expanding guidance for new content, which only became possible with evolving web
technologies, and supporting mobile app design. However, even though WCAG is an invaluable
resource, there have been concerns about the extent to which it supports designers in creating
accessible content. WCAG is of significant length and written in a language that designers find
difficult to understand [10]. Furthermore, WCAG is also not a globally available resource
because it has not been translated into all languages.
Laws and guidelines drive technology that is compliance-oriented, rather than technology
designed to overcome root causes of accessibility problems. However, as we point out the
guidelines are not sufficient in providing clear direction for designers. Therefore, we call on HCI
to critically assess accessibility guidelines, as well as other relevant resources, to ensure the
needs of designers are met.
Proceedings of the 2021 Annual Conference of the Human Computer Interaction Consortium (HCIC)
Furthermore, we reflect on the role of design tools to perpetuate norms that exclude people with
disabilities. Optimistically, design tools are potential vehicles to both educate designers about,
and incorporate, accessibility guidelines to reduce the need for designers to break out of their
workflow and consult WCAG’s overwhelming documentation. However, design tools often do
not focus on features to help designers make choices to incorporate accessibility. Additionally,
design tools themselves are not accessible [6], inherently implying that designers are not people
with disabilities.
How Do We Move Forward?
We posit that design approaches that exclude accessibility produce inaccessible design. And,
that inaccessible design tools begets inaccessible design outcomes. In this provocation, we
challenge the HCI community to reconcile accessibility as an additional, ad-hoc specialization
and instead to reflect on how our practices and tools may perpetuate design that excludes
users. To what degree is our toolset and knowledge structured in such a way to advance
accessible design? In what ways are our skills perpetuating the opposite? How do we ensure
accessibility is a fundamental consideration in technology design?
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Proceedings of the 2021 Annual Conference of the Human Computer Interaction Consortium (HCIC)
... Historically, progress toward a digital society has not been equitable. Technology evolves rapidly, but the focus on accessibility often lags behind within the broader context of advancing humancomputer interaction [96], which exacerbates the exclusion of people with disabilities [56]. A further limiting factor is society's misperceptions of assistive technology [84]. ...
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Teaching accessibility and design-for-all in the information and communication technology curriculum: Three case studies of universities in the United States
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Paul Bohman. 2012. Teaching accessibility and design-for-all in the information and communication technology curriculum: Three case studies of universities in the United States, England, and Austria. Utah State University, Logan, UT, thesis.
Fraught With Issues': Faulty Software Snarls Vaccine Sign-Ups
  • Kellen Browning
Kellen Browning. 2021. 'Fraught With Issues': Faulty Software Snarls Vaccine Sign-Ups. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/12/technology/fraught-with-issues-faulty-software-snarlsvaccine-sign-ups.html Accessed: 2021-03-12.
Why coronavirus may make the world more accessible
  • Matthew Keegan
Matthew Keegan. 2020. Why coronavirus may make the world more accessible. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200513-why-the-coronavirus-can-make-the-worldmore-accessible Accessed: 2021-03-12.
Accessibility of High-Fidelity Prototyping Tools
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  • W Garreth
  • Kristen Tigwell
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Junchen Li, Garreth W. Tigwell, Kristen Shinohara. Accessibility of High-Fidelity Prototyping Tools. In CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '21), May 8-13, 2021, Yokohama, Japan. ACM, New Y ork, NY, USA, 13 pages. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/3411764.3445520
Weaving Accessibility Through an Undergraduate Degree
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  • Mandar Tigwell
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Rachel Menzies, Garreth W. Tigwell, Mandar Tamhane, and Annalu Waller. 2019. Weaving Accessibility Through an Undergraduate Degree. In The 21st International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility (ASSETS '19). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 526-529. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/3308561.3354611
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Emoji Accessibility for Visually Impaired People
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Garreth W. Tigwell, Benjamin M. Gorman, and Rachel Menzies. 2020. Emoji Accessibility for Visually Impaired People. In Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '20). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 1-14. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/3313831.3376267