Accessibility for Users with Disabilities

Should we design user interfaces that are accessible to users with disabilities?

First, let’s define some important terms. What is a disability? A disability is a functional limitation in vision, hearing, movement, manipulation (for example, fine movements to use a mouse), speech, or interpretation of information (for example, dyslexia and other cognitive impairments). A functional limitation means the person cannot perform common, everyday tasks such as reading a newspaper or lifting something that weighs 10 pounds (Kraus, Stoddard, & Gilmartin, 1996).

Why should we worry about people with disabilities?

Here are a few statistics.

– Over 500 million people in the world have a disability (United Nations, 2002)
– 20% of Americans (54 million people) have a disability (McNeil, 1997).

So, a lot of people have disabilities. And a lot of those people cannot use computers because of their disabilities. People with blindness cannot see the graphics in graphical user interfaces or use a mouse to click on icons and buttons. People with muscular dystrophy may have challenges using a keyboard or carefully moving a mouse.

And you know who these people are? They are you and me.

Although many people are born with disabilities, a lot of us acquire disabilities as we age. For example, most people who go blind as a result of macular degeneration are over the age of 55 (American Macular Degeneration Foundation, n.d.). Other people get disabilities from a wide variety of diseases and injuries, including automobile accidents.

With apologies to Walt Kelly, we have met the disabled and they are us.

People who have disabilities CAN use computers.

If we perform accessible design and coding, and users operate commercially-available tools such as screen readers, people who cannot see can use a computer. People who cannot use a keyboard or a mouse can use a computer.

So, we can make our applications accessible to people with disabilities. We have to create and follow design and coding guidelines (for example, for Web: W3C, 1999; for Java: Najjar, 2005). We have to buy popular assistive technologies (such as the JAWS screen reader from Freedom Scientific, Dragon Naturally Speaking Professional from Nuance) to help with design and unit testing. We have to iteratively evaluate the accessibility of the application using representative users with disabilities.

And there are incentives to make our applications accessible. People with disabilities have equal or higher job performance ratings, higher retention rates, lower absenteeism, and represent $1 trillion in annual aggregate consumer spending (National Organization on Disability, 2001).

Accessibility awareness is increasing. The United States government requires that the applications they buy be accessible (General Services Administration, n.d.). Other countries, states, and provinces are also embracing accessibility (W3C, n.d.).

So, should we design user interfaces that are accessible to users with disabilities? We can. We should. And we must.

– American Macular Degeneration Foundation (n.d.). What is macular degeneration?
– Freedom Scientific (n.d.). JAWS for Windows
– General Services Administration (n.d.). Section 508 standards
– Kraus, L., Stoddard, S., & Gilmartin, D. (1996). Chartbook on disability in the United States, 1996. An InfoUse Report. Washington, DC: U.S. National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research
– McNeil, J. M. (1997, August). Current population reports: Americans with disabilities: 1994-95. Census Bureau (P70-61)
– Najjar, L. J. (2005). Accessible Java application user interface design guidelines. In HCI International 2005 Proceedings. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
– National Organization on Disability (1999, June 28). The top 10 reasons to hire people with disabilities.
– Nuance (n.d.). Dragon Naturally Speaking Professional
– United Nations (2002). The UN and persons with disabilities: United Nations commitment to advancement of the status of persons with disabilities [On-line]. Available:
– W3C (n.d.). Policies relating to Web accessibility
– W3C (1999, May 5). Web content accessibility guidelines 1.0

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